Yasujirō Ozu is timeless. In a world where cinema is dominated with fast paced films containing violence and murder, Ozu goes against that grain.
Once described as a “gentle rebel,” he believed the simplicity of everyday life had enough drama to engage us. The Japanese film director made 53 films from 1927-1962.
I watched a 1993 documentary short called Talking with Ozu, which stars a group of filmmakers from around the world, including Aki Kurasmaki, Claire Denis and Wim Wenders. They discussed personal tales and memories of the time they first saw one of Ozu’s films and the effect it had on them.
Aki Kaurismäki, a Finnish director, gives a very entertaining account as he wanders into an old factory, and addresses a photo of Ozu:
“I’m Aki Kaurismäki from Finland, I’ve made 11 lousy films and it’s all your fault! In 1976 in London my brother forced me to visit the London Film Institute where I saw Tokyo Story, after that I gave up my dream for literature.
“I grew up under the influence of American movies.
What I respect most is that Ozu never needed to use murder or violence to tell everything that’s essential about human life.
“I chose this old factory because I have a tendency to look to the past. I’m not a person who presses forward with confidence in the future and technology. I prefer to look back. I think Ozu was like that too during his time in Japan.”
Stanley Kwan, a director from Hong Kong, when reflecting on his first Ozu film, Tokyo Story, said it reminded him of an old Chinese proverb:
“The wind never lets trees rest calmly. Observe filial piety.”
Hou Hsiaio-Hsien, Taiwanese director:
“I think Ozu is like a mathematician. He knew the lives of Japanese people very well. Its as if he analyzed them in a detailed way, that’s why I call him a mathematician.”
Claire Denis, French director:
“I had heard a lot about Ozu from American and French friends and I have a bit of a distaste for worshiping any particular film director. I didn’t rush out to see Ozu’s films. Then a cinema in the Latin Quarter held a retrospective of Ozu’s films. By chance I wandered in and saw Autumn Afternoon. I know that the film had spoken to me and addressed me in a way that had nothing to do with being a film buff.”
Lindsay Anderson, British film and theater director:
“The first time I wrote about Ozu was 1957 I wrote a piece about Tokyo Story for Sight and Sound publication called “2 Inches Off the Ground.” I’ll explain that title—Alan Watts, an English writer, once said when DT Suzuki was once asked how it feels to have satori, the zen experience of awakening, he replied: ‘Just like an ordinary everyday experience, except about 2 inches off the ground.’
“So I called the piece I wrote “2 Inches Off the Ground” because that was the effect which Tokyo Story had on many people in the UK and now regarded all over the world as a masterpiece. Tokyo Story was made by someone who understood what life was like in a family or things that affect us all.
“It’s often thought that films get out-of-date or old-fashioned. I don’t really think they do, particularly films that are made in the classic and absolutely straight forward spirit of Mr. Ozu. He had a great understanding and that understanding is still present in his films and it’s an understanding of the life we all have to lead with an honesty that is constant and also a kind of irony that gives them the right kind of humor, without ever being sarcastic that’s why I think Ozu survives and his work survives as the work of one of the great directors of the cinema.”
Paul Schrader, U.S. screenwriter director:
“Besides affecting me a lot personally what Ozu did for me and a number of other filmmakers my age showed a way film could operate and affect you which was not the normal kinetic energetic way of cinema. It was a much quieter and more interesting way of cinema.”
Wim Wenders, German director, talks about how he visited Ozu’s grave in Japan:
“It is a grave of a filmmaker who for me, and I can only speak subjectively elevated film, the artform of the 20th century to it’s most beautiful form, one that cannot be imitated or repeated.”
Listening to these directors talk about their experiences with Ozu’s films reminded me of the first film I ever saw of his, Tokyo Story. The visual style really struck me. It seemed like such a simple story of basic truths. But something inside resonated and left me feeling slightly elevated for days, like in meditation. I formed a bond with his characters. The cinematography is one reason for this and it’s got a boat load of humanity in the storytelling.
The low camera angle (3 feet off the floor), gives us the feeling we are in the same room as Ozu’s characters sitting in that Japanese room. The characters address the camera directly, with an unusual eye-line, straight into the barrel of the camera, as if they are talking directly to us. There is hardly any camera movement. The pace is slow. Everything is carefully composed, centered and balanced.
Ozu sets out to show that in a fast-paced, modern world, one may forget about the beauty of simplicity. That really clicks with me. Some people find his films too simple, so it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
I find them simply incredible, how about you?