Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu vs. Kenji Mizoguchi

Amongst the film writers that I most admire, speaking ill of Yasujiro Ozu is about like saying black and white films are no longer relevant. I’m given the impression that not loving Ozu means my taste hasn’t yet matured. In some ways this may be true.

Ozu international standing has only grown in the last few decades and he’s one of the most respected auteurs by both critics and directors (including many of my favorites of both). His unconventional, but highly-consistent, style has brought him to the attention of alternative film theorists and his deeply-felt, quiet humanism has earned him a great reputation even outside of film-nerd circles.

Despite all this, if I’m absolutely honest I have to admit that I don’t really connect with Ozu. When I first started watching his films I took them as gentle domestic dramas with a refreshing amount of genuine sincerity, but little lasting substance. As I began to appreciate his craft and study his career, I took more pleasure in examining his compositions (especially in his color films) and admiring his breaks with traditional editing methods. Still, my praise remained at the level of a decently charming romantic comedy, not a masterpiece by a timeless master. I have the nagging feeling that I’m missing the point.

I think part of the problem may be my disconnection from the 1930’s-1950’s middle-class Japanese setting that Ozu favors. As someone who was born in the midst of consumer culture, it’s tough for me to appreciate the clash of values and traditions during the transition period Ozu tends to feature. Typical of his generation, Ozu expresses skepticism for modern technology, rapid change and personal independence while whole-heartedly embracing family, community and the essential goodness of humanity. It probably makes me sound like a horrible person to say I’m pretty much the reverse: embracing the first group and regarding the latter with skepticism.

While I can recognize much of the humor and emotion (even the “uniquely Japanese” quality of mono no aware, the melancholic acceptance that all things are transient) in Ozu’s films, I find myself unable to connect with the naivety of his characters. Many of Ozu’s favorite roles, the demanding kids, the reticent grandparents, the self-sacrificing young adult on one hand and the selfish ones on the other, the sweet unmarried ingénue, the corporate climber, the sake-swigging old-timer, etc. all seem as stereotypical as American equivalents and I consider these cliches underserving of special treatment. For me, their impossible simplicity and minimal range make them difficult to accept as real regardless of whether it’s historical accurate. Their inability to express their desires, often times the only real crisis that provides the story arc, can be so frustrating for me to watch that I lack sympathy.

After trying to gain a better appreciation of his films, I’m now faced with the problem of Ozu Fatigue. Each additional film I watch by him seems more familiar, more tied to the same aesthetic choices and less shocking in its innovations. I find that the movies merge together in my mind, their stories and characters increasingly indistinguishable in retrospect. And all those season titles! “Early Spring,” “Early Summer,” “Late Summer,” “Early Autumn,” “Late Autumn,” “An Autumn Afternoon,” etc.

My enthusiasm for Kenji Mizoguchi, a contemporary of Ozu, somewhat contradicts my fear that I’m simply too far detached from the time period or the culture. Mizoguchi was also a technical virtuoso, particularly with regard to long takes and exquisite staging, though his style shows more flexibility and scope. A master of precise compositions in his own right, Mizoguchi tends to work with a more diverse set of tools and a freer camera. High angle shots and camera movement, almost never welcome in Ozu films, are staples of his work.

There isn’t any doubt that part of my preference comes from Mizoguchi’s more story-driven scripts, with involved plots and more shifts in setting. Mizoguchi’s films are often set in the past and cover long stretches of time. His characters evolve and take part in major journeys, scandals and tragedies, none of which tends to happen in Ozu’s work. Even Mizoguchi’s blighted wretches and doomed heroes seem more relatable to me than Ozu’s contented families. Even if I don’t agree with their pride, arrogance, stubbornness, self-pity or whatever, at least they grow, suffer, learn, and express multiple sides of their personalities.

I don’t think my emotional involvement in his films is much higher than in Ozu’s oeuvre, but Mizoguchi is less dependent on it. I’m still missing out on some of the pleasures of melodrama that both directors excel at, but I’m left more satisfied and enlightened by Mizoguchi. It may be that my personality is simply incompatible with Ozu’s, and that our relationship will always be just friends. However, I think there’s at least some chance that as I grow older, I’ll come to empathize with his humanism and reach that pseudo-spiritual relationship that can be glimpsed in the affection for Ozu shown by others.

9 comments:

Mad Dog said...

I've sort of been circling around Ozu for a while, waiting to see what your opinion was. I know that Tokyo Story is supposed to be THE Japanese movie, according to some people, but for whatever reason I've been apprehensive to dive head-first into catalog. So far, all I've seen is Good Morning, which I really liked for its light-hearted plot and glimpse into a time and culture I'm not privy to. Perhaps further exploration need not be necessary?

sort-of grown-up said...

The film people who talk about Ozu aren't just into him for the light-hearted plot. Brian is definitely on board for that part of it, I think he even says as much.

Walrus said...

I'm glad you like Good Morning, as it is actually one of my favorites by Ozu though it is supposed to be one of his minor efforts (it is actually a remake of his earlier I Was Born... But). I have a review of it I wrote for a class back when Criterion put it out, but I don't want to post it without redrafting and screenshots.

Tokyo Story is definitely worth your time. Even if it isn't a homerun for you (as it wasn't for me) it is a very definitive work and no less accessible than Good Morning.

Though I don't see any transcendant meaning in Ozu's films (and maybe there isn't any, but then what am I missing?) I would never discourage anyone from investigating him and finding out for themselves. Much about his style, composition and historical moment are worthwhile for any viewer.

weepingsam said...

I don't want to sound too xkcd here, but... we all have our obsessions... I found, the more Ozu I saw, the more powerful the films became. They accumulate. The more familiar I got with the style, the more surprising and audacious it looks; the more of his stories I saw, the more complex they seem, individually, and as a body of work. The repetitions become rhythms - similar plots and constellations of characters, but approached differently. A marriage story might be told from the daughter's point of view - the father's, mother's - the daughter might resist, but give in, or resist and not give in; the daughter might choose a husband and the father resist; the tone can be comic, melancholic, heart-breaking. Usually, though, whatever tone or character or values dominate, the others get their say - everyone has reasons, maybe even good reasons.... I think his tough mindedness gets ignored sometimes - the more of his films I saw, the less they looked like stories of acceptance and the more they looked like stories about incompatible choices and the blind stupidity of tradition. Or maybe another way - the more of them I saw, and the more I watch them, the sharper the emotional pitch of the films seems. The comedy seems funnier; the melancholy turns into sadness; the disappointment looks more like anger.

Walrus said...

WeepingSam,

Thank you for providing exactly the type of passionate defense I was hoping to hear! I think your way of thinking about ozu is very enlightening, like seeing his work as one giant meta-movie with a handful of subplots that move through gradual variations. Perhaps approaching future films by him in this mindset might help me get into the rhythm. At the same time, I worry about projecting too much of myself onto his stories. For instance, the emotional transformations you describe and ozu's anti-tradition stance seem more like something you've brought to the film as a viewer than something that was necessarily intentionally constructed. Sometimes I like that level of flexibility in a film, but I continue to feel like I'm missing the hook.

Walrus said...

I guess one problem I have a lot of trouble getting over is changing my thinking to see repetition or self-simularity as beneficial (though I do love me some fractals). Let me put it like this: what is the advantage of an artist like On Kawara, who has been painting the current date in white text on a black background for more than 40 years over someone like Pablo Picasso who evolved through dozens of styles and hundreds of significant variations?

weepingsam said...

I suppose everyone projects their interests onto films - but they either fit or they don't, so... I think Ozu's strength (n terms of themes, stories, values etc. - there's also the whole formal side of things...) is that he gives all the relevant values weight. Society vs. individual, tradition vs. change, freedom vs. responsibility, or justice vs. responsibility - he doesn't let anyone off the hook. Whatever people do, they will run into something that causes problems. I suppose this generates the usual claims that Ozu's films are mostly about acceptance - but it seems just as reasonable (and seems more reasonable, the more of his films I see) to think it means he doesn't give people excuses. Whatever they do, there will be costs as well as benefits: so they are responsible to choose. There's also the fact that anything you do as an individual, you do as a member of a family, of society - and anything you do as a part of a group, you do as an individual. I think he presents this tension in a strong form, which makes an analysis of the relationship of individual and society complicated...

Walrus said...

WeepingSam,

Thanks again for another helpful insight! I think some of my frustration with Ozu is that I often feel his films present a "there's no wrong answer" approach to choice, where characters might stress over decisions for a long time, but quickly accept the outcome either way. I noted the consequences that Ozu showed, but considered these less important than the reasons leading up to the choice.

I think what you are saying (if I understand you right) is that his approach is closer to "there is no right answer" or, better still, "there is no answer that will make everyone happy." In this case consequences are just as important as motivations. In retrospect, I can see how this would make his films seem more nuanced, critical and incisive, qualities which I didn't usually assign him because his tone is deceptively low-key.

So, how about a list of your favorite Ozu films to help guide me?

weepingsam said...

His best known films are certainly worth it - Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story. The new set of silent films is also suberp - I Was Born, But... is as good as anything, Passing Fancy is almost as good, and Tokyo Chorus (which I was watching last week, and thinking about most while commenting here - a nice example of the complexity of motives and consequences in his films, the competing values they present, etc.) is very good.

Good Morning is first rate; so is An Autumn Afternoon (which I don't think is on DVD yet, though it's coming, I think)... There are a few very great films that aren't on DVD, from the mid-30s - The Only Son and An Inn in Tokyo; and a bunch of films I hope come out on DVD sometime because they open up the idea we can have about Ozu. More straight up comedies like The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (from the 50s) or What Did the Lady Forget? from the 30s; semi-noir films like hat Night's Wife; straight up melodramas like Women of Tokyo... he's pretty well represented on DVD (unlike Mizoguchi or Naruse), but still a lot of films worth seeing that aren't available, so you have to be in NY or Boston or Toronto or San Francisco to ever get a chance to see them. But theres no such thing as a bad Ozu film (as far as I'm concerned....)