Voices From the Japanese Cinema
Ozu: His Life and Films
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 to let it go. In Tokyo Story (1953), an aging couple visit their married children in Tokyo. They are sent away by these children—no quarrels, no violence, perfect manners on all sides—and have nowhere to sleep. The mother goes to stay with a daughter-in-law in her one-room apartment—the implication being that real kindness comes from people not related to you by blood—and the father thinks he may be able to stay with an old friend. The couple look at the city and remark on its size. “If we got lost,” they say, “we might never see each other again.”
They separate, the father learns that he can’t stay with his friend. He goes out and gets drunk, and we are all set for some sort of calamity, all the clues have been laid. Ozu cuts to the house of the married daughter. There is someone at the door: the police. Catastrophe strikes. No. The door slides open. The police have simply brought the old man home, hopelessly drunk. The daughter puts him to bed, grumbling. The most subdued retelling of the stories of King Lear and Père Goriot has led to this ridiculous, safe, sad outcome.
In Late Spring (1949), Ozu’s delicacy takes the extreme form of never showing us the man the heroine is going to marry, even in a photograph. There is some talk of the lower half of his face looking something like Gary Cooper’s, but that is all. The movie is about the girl’s relation with her father, and that is the relation Ozu shows. This kind of restraint is Ozu’s signature. His camera “sits and watches,” as Richie very nicely puts it. Set at a low angle, it stares into houses in medium shot. Very rarely there are close-ups; occasionally there is a long shot of a landscape. There are no dissolves, no pans, not many tracking shots. Ozu simply cuts from shot to shot. Often the setting is empty for a moment—a house, an embankment near a railway. Then a human figure enters, as if on to a stage. Richie, who has an acute and scrupulous eye for such details, notes all this and registers one further abstemious touch: there are no flashbacks in Ozu’s movies, the time is always the present.
There is a sobriety here which is very Japanese, as Richie says—although no more Japanese, probably, than its lurid opposite. Richie tells the famous story of the aesthete Senno Rikyu, who destroyed a garden full of flowers because he had heard that people were coming to visit it. When the visitors arrived, there was one flower left, an epitome of solitary, perfect splendor. Richie goes on to compare Ozu’s ascetic methods to the “spiritual means that Jacques Maritain has called the moyens temporels pauvres,” and this is an interesting juxtaposition. But I think all this is slightly too aesthetic and too religious to do full justice to Ozu, whose restraint, it seems to me, represents an entirely secular morality. It bespeaks not only tolerance and patience and tact, as Richie says, but also a strange solidarity with the characters Ozu depicts in his films.
Ozu’s technical sobriety reflects the intellectual and moral poverty of his characters. He will not ask questions they can’t ask, will not ascend to perspectives unavailable to them. When he does shift his perspective, the visual effect is a metaphor for a changed state of his characters’ minds: in Tokyo Story there is an eloquent long shot of the old couple facing a vast sea, but this visual announcement of their loneliness corresponds to their new awareness of how alone they are—what we see is how they feel.
Ozu is an easy prey for a Marxist, since he commits the cardinal sin of treating society as if it were nature, of treating matters of money and marriage as if they were eternal, recurring facts like the weather and the seasons. Ozu’s titles alone tell a long tale of this kind: Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1950), Early Spring (1956), Late Autumn (1960), The End of Summer (1961), An Autumn Afternoon (1962). And it is true that the films are often irritating for just this reason. Late Spring shows a father nobly propelling his daughter into marriage, although he would like her to stay with him—it doesn’t ask why she has to get married to a man she obviously doesn’t love. The chief social question in the silent I Was Born, But… (1932) is whether a man has to grovel before his employer in order to get ahead, not whether getting ahead is a good idea.
Large quarrels often center on small material objects, as in Good Morning (1959), where two boys refuse to speak until their father buys them a television set. Life regularly fails to live up to expectations, but those expectations are often petty and haunted by thoughts of economic status. The old couple in Tokyo Story sit in their son’s house and say, “I thought they would be living in a better district than this.” The mother in The Only Son (1936), having made great sacrifices in order to educate her boy, visits him in Tokyo. He picks her up at the station and takes her to his unimposing house. When they get out of the taxi, they have to walk across a desolate, overgrown field, and their slow, hobbling walk across that field tells the whole story: a ghastly failure of upward mobility. In his later movies, Ozu is less concerned with money and material success (or rather failure), and more concerned with the quality of human affections. But again, the arena of those affections is a social order which goes unchallenged.
Nevertheless, these are not, finally, conservative films. Proust thought that Balzac’s gift lay in part in his sharing the vices of the class he so excelled at describing, and Ozu’s gift lies in large part in his choosing to share the limitations of his characters. This means that his films really are limited, in the ways I have just listed, but it also confers on them a peculiar authority. I know no other director (or writer, for that matter) who speaks so convincingly for the middle and working classes, who espouses so completely, and so entirely without condescension, all their aspirations. What Ozu’s work adds up to is the cinematic equivalent of a great, unwritten nineteenth-century novel, the story of the poor young man who was not Rastignac or Julien Sorel, but someone far more ordinary; the story of the family which was not depraved as in Zola, dull as in Galsworthy, grand as in Thomas Mann, but simply there, a family like thousands of others.
I should say too that Ozu’s characters do not seem to me to be “noticeably content with their lives,” as Richie says they are. I know it’s rash to disagree with Richie on something as subtle as this, but to me Ozu’s characters seem to be adept at looking content with their lives because they don’t want to upset the people around them. Such an attitude is a long way from rebellion, to be sure, and to American eyes it may look like a miracle, if it doesn’t look like a gruesome piece of hypocrisy. But in the context of the films, it’s a form of courage, a way of hanging on without making a fuss. It is the precise ethical opposite of all the violence I mentioned earlier as taken for granted in Joan Mellen’s interviews.
It certainly is true, as Richie says, that “the underlying assumption of an Ozu film is that a person is always in control of himself”; but then this control is bought at a price, and the grace with which Ozu’s characters behave should not trick us into believing their behavior is easy. Obviously Richie doesn’t believe this, but I do think he wants to find in Ozu a wisdom, a broad acceptance of all things human, which for me diminishes the director rather than enlarges him.
Tokyo Story shows a pair of unkind, selfish children, too busy with their adult lives to pay any attention to their visiting parents. For most of the time the film maintains an exquisite balance between the sense that such things happen, that the children really do have lives of their own to lead, and the sense that horrible, irreparable evil is being done—all the worse for being so calmly and sensibly performed. The old couple are disappointed by their children, and console themselves, pathetically, with the thought that as children go, theirs aren’t too bad, really—better than average, probably.
This is a perfect Ozu moment: the consolation is an act of bravery on the old people’s part, a rescue of dignity from nowhere, and it is also a fierce comment on the going standards of affection of children for their parents. But then later in the movie, the younger daughter, who is still living with the old couple, is shocked by the heartlessness of her brother and sister, and everything we have seen in the movie so far puts us on her side. At this point the sympathetic sister-in-law, with the patent approval of Ozu, exonerates everyone, says we all grow up to be ungrateful, no one is better than anyone else, that’s the way things are.
Now this does seem to me very Japanese, in so far as a sentimental blurring of moral judgment is very Japanese, in my slender experience of Japan, but that is hardly a compliment. Richie, on the other hand, finds the scene between sister and sister-in-law “very beautiful and moving” because the two girls have reached an understanding of what life is like, and on the basis of this understanding they may “hope for contentment.” It seems to me that what the girls are doing here is excusing themselves in advance for their future lapses from kindness, and that in the process they are preparing themselves for a life of such moral torpor that grunts, scowls, and killing will seem like a much-needed tonic.
The End of Summer, on the other hand, which Richie finds “disturbing,” and a film without a “spiritual survivor,” seems to me full of promises for the characters’ future. In this movie, an old man has had a last fling and has died with his mistress, murmuring, “So this is the end”—in surprise, as if he had had such a good life that he couldn’t believe it would stop—and two young women decide not to sacrifice themselves to their family. They decide, that is, to do what they want, because they see their primary duty as a duty toward themselves.
Now this is not very Japanese. In Ozu’s Japanese context, it is nothing short of heroic, just as the old man’s goings on are heroic, in a comic key. These are strong women, something like the reverse of Clarissa Harlowe, not bullied by their relatives, but tempted by their loyalty to their own upbringing. That they should resist the temptation, that this eloquent and handsome movie should make its strongest and most personal statement by means of something not done, takes us back to Ozu’s restraint, which suggests finally not that we should accept the world as it is but that the world as it is is full of occasions for courage. Abstention, so often an easy way out, can also be very difficult, and what Ozu’s characters abstain from is anger. This doesn’t make them happy or wise, but it gives them the dignity of those who suffer disenchantment bravely.