Arts & Events

Film Review: The Gently Unfolding Dramas of Yasujiro Ozu

By Justin DeFreitas
Monday August 23, 2010 - 08:08:00 PM

Almost from the beginning of the medium, filmmakers were eager to transcend the limits of traditional theater by putting the camera in motion, by sending it racing, swooping and soaring; by using a variety of lenses to shape the image, to magnify, distort and exaggerate; and by using the editing process to suggest, startle and surprise. And while some of the most exciting filmmakers over the past century have been those who found ways to employ these devices with flash and panache, one of the greatest directors the medium has ever produced was one who limited himself to the simplest and most austere techniques.  

Yasujiro Ozu used his camera simply to observe his characters, to linger on their faces, their homes, their possessions—to look into the souls of everyday people under everyday circumstances. He was both a naturalist and a rigorous formalist, a director who sought to capture life as it is lived, but within a framework of rigidly defined restrictions. He limited the camera’s range of motion and the angles from which it could gaze; he limited his editing to simple, direct cuts—few dissolves or fades; and dialogue was conveyed in simple master shots followed by alternating close-ups. This artistic code focused greater attention on content over form, allowing character to reveal itself, allowing dialogue to breathe, and allowing revelatory spaces to open up between words and gestures and characters. Thus relationships and motivations and plot points would gradually take shape before the viewer’s eyes.  

Criterion has just released two rarely seen examples of Ozu’s mid-career work, The Only Son (1936) and There Was a Father (1942). The two films have many parallels, both tracking the relationship between a son and a single parent who must make great sacrifices for him.  

In The Only Son, a mother lives a life of toil in order to send her son to college and eventually Tokyo, where she hopes he will rise in the world. When she is finally able to visit him, she is surprised to find that not only has he a wife and child, but a rather lowly job as a night school teacher. And the school teacher who had served as his mentor has fared no better in the big city; he runs a shabby restaurant, serving pork cutlets in a poor part of town. Mother and son spend several days together, for the most part avoiding the issues at hand. But there are two conversations in which these issues finally come to the service, and Ozu's muted approach captures the spoken and unspoken emotions that permeate the dialogue — disappointment, pride, shame, regret, love, resignation, dignity and acceptance. 

There Was a Father stars Ozu stalwart Chishu Ryu as a man who seeks the best for his son, only to find that his decisions lead to their continual separation. This was a wartime film, and themes of duty and sacrifice were considered patriotic, lending the movie a political subtext, a rarity in Ozu's work. Far from the American form of propaganda film, in which virtuous leading men with broad shoulders committed acts of heroism on the front line while their pinup-worthy wives kept the home fires burning, Japanese propaganda featured a more quiet form of sacrifice, of fortitude and dutiful dedication to the nation's interests. There Was a Father shows that that dedication even trumps the father-son relationship, as Ryu consistently steers his son in directions that will make him most useful to Japan, even though it drives the two of them apart.  

Ozu's work is almost literary, owing more to the novel than to film; his means of expression are subtle and powerful. His method for conveying the growing gap between father and son is to show the two fishing side by side. The camera watches from behind as the pair cast their lines over and over again in perfect unison. When the boy finally stops, the meaning and impact of the gesture is startling and poignant; there is no need to show tears or an exchange of words or glances.  

Though he is often regarded as the most Japanese of Japanese directors, whose cinema captured unique and specific aspects of that nation’s life and culture, Ozu’s work easily transcends international boundaries, delving into character, relationships and commonplace issues to find the universal. His favored subjects include families and the relationships between generations; the aging process; city life versus rural life; and all the values that complement and conflict with one another in the ensuing drama: pragmatism and idealism, love and kindness, justice and forgiveness.  

“Rather than tell a superficial story,” Ozu said, “I wanted to go deeper, to show ... the ever-changing uncertainties of life. So instead of constantly pushing dramatic action to the fore, I left empty spaces, so viewers could have a pleasant aftertaste to savor.”  

Ozu's calm, gently unfolding dramas give us time to not only get to know his characters, but also deeply care about them — to enjoy their humor, to admire their strength and to forgive their transgressions — so that, when a film ends, there is often a feeling of regret that these characters are gone from our lives. “Every time I watch an Ozu film,” says actor Eijiro Tong, “I start to feel very sentimental as the end of the film nears. As I think back over the story, it’s like a flood of old memories washing over me, one after another.”  

This is the essential sadness and loneliness that resides at the core of Ozu’s work — the awareness of the inevitability of change, and that beginnings are followed all too soon by endings.  


The Only Son (1936) and There Was a Father (1942): Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu. 83 minutes; 87 minutes. Two-disc set includes essays by critic and historian Tony Rayns, an appreciation of Chishu Ryu by film scholar Donald Ritchie, comments by Ryu on Ozu, and video interviews with film scholars Tadao Sato, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.