Goriot in Tokyo

Voices From the Japanese Cinema

by Joan Mellen
Liveright, 295 pp., $12.95

Ozu: His Life and Films

by Donald Richie
University of California Press, 275 pp., $14.50

The Japanese film, Donald Richie wrote a few years ago, offers “the most perfect reflection of a people in the history of world cinema.” That sounds right, and probably is right. Yet when we try to visualize that reflection, I think we are likely to conjure up an anthology of grunts and scowls and bloodshed: Toshiro Mifune’s impersonations of assorted samurai; the destroyed face of the old woman in Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba; the spectacular cruelty of Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell; hara-kirl everywhere. There is no reason to assume these manifestations are not representative, not “Japanese”—indeed Joan Mellen’s attractive book of interviews with various Japanese cinéastes, including Kurosawa, Shindo, Ichikawa, and Kobayashi, reminds us how very Japanese such things are.

Even a mellowed Kurosawa speaks of the “angers” which “seep through” into his films; and Masahiro Shinoda, the director of Assassination and Punishment Island (such mild titles), is quoted as saying, “Culture is nothing but the expression of violence.” Throughout Joan Mellen’s book, items like cannibalism, arson, and disfiguring disease are mentioned in passing, as everyday features of the world of these films. Even Japanese pornography, as far as I remember the few instances I’ve seen, seems to be mainly concerned with a suffocating social rage, rather than with sex.

This is not what Richie means when he speaks of the perfect reflection of a people; and it is not what he means when he tells us, in his new book, that Yasujiro Ozu, one of the greatest of all movie directors, who died in 1963 at the age of sixty, is the most Japanese of Japanese artists in the cinema. Nothing could be further from all that fury than the quiet decorum of Ozu’s films.

The answer to the riddle, to put it all too simply, is that Ozu, although a great lover of American films and a great admirer of Lubitsch and Welles especially, remains very close to Japanese culture, which is a restful affair, a region of gardens and silence, while other directors tend to insist on the things that elude or are strangled by that culture. There is no point in asking which of these responses is the more Japanese, since both are plainly responses to the same thing: to a universe of disguise and disappointment which, at some level of national awareness, is Japan. The difference between Ozu and Kurosawa, say, is a difference of strategy more than it is a difference of subject.

I should put this more strongly. If Ozu avoids the violence that seems endemic in Japanese movies since the war, it is not simply because he is a peace-loving man addicted to neo-realism. It is because he goes out of his way to avoid it. There is an almost aggressive lack of violence in his movies. Not only do his people not grunt and scowl and kill, they scarcely raise their voices, and they wear kind smiles under all sorts of trying circumstances. Ozu flirts with melodrama only in order…

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