Japanese traditional culture, so peculiar to the country and so carefully handed down from generation to generation, remains so much part of a contemporary Japanese life that its appearance on film is not surprising. What is surprising is that so few directors interest themselves in its delineation. This, of course, might be explained as merely the faithful reflection of contemporary Japanese life itself, that this tradition is now much a less strong force in the lives of the Japanese.
The tradition is the culture of beliefs and ways of thinking and ways of doing that has been preserved over many generations and which at last become representative. Japanese traditional culture, therefore, not only contains the geisha and the tea ceremony but also arranged marriage; not only the haiku but also the family system, that cornerstone upon which Japanese civilization rests. Also, some distinction must be drawn between that traditional culture which remains a part of living Japan and that which is merely peripheral to it. In the movies the latter is represented by the sword fights and samurai's. These are no more relevant to contemporary Japanese life than is the Robin Hood story to the English, or the acting of John Wayne to the American. Japanese tradition is seen mainly in the films of Yasijuro Ozu, and -- in a different way -- in those of the Kenjo Mizoguchi.
The Real Japanese Flavor
The Japanese -- film critic and audiences alike -- think Ozu the most Japanese of all directors. This does not mean he is their favorite or the best; it means that he is regarded as a kind of spokesman. The man who has the real Japanese flavor. This "Japanese flavor" has a much more definite than, say, "American way" or "the French Touch" if only because Japan is so intensely conscious of its own "Japaneseness." Modern civilization is only one hundred years old and is a veneer over a civilization which has endured for two millennia.
This has created the familiar contrasts of the country, has given the Japanese his often near-schizoid intensity, and has made him extremely conscious of his differences. These, after a certain time, he tends to guard. Over this, more universal pattern is visible: When young, the Japanese is often more radically individualistic; older, he becomes more conservative, his very real individuality merges with the style of his people. The career of Ozu follow these patterns, and in turn these patterns are celebrated in the Ozu film.
Its tension is obtained by the confrontation of various individuals who are in different sections of the pattern: by confronting, for example, a father who has "returned" with a daughter who is on her "way out." And there is never any doubt on which side Ozu finds himself. It is for this reason that many of the young dislike his work, calling him old-fashioned and reactionary. And so he would appear, since he continually celebrates those very qualities against which young Japan is constantly in revolt: the traditional virtues of Japan.
Though everyday Japan is not a country noted for its restraint, simplicity, and near Buddhist serenity , these qualities remain ideals, or virtues, and Ozu's insistence upon them and the public feeling for or against them make them more than empty hypotheses. Take, for the example the quality of restraint. In a strictly technical sense, Ozu's later films are probably the most restrained ever made, the most limited, controlled, and restricted. He uses, for example, only one kind of shot. It is always a shot taken from the level of a seated in traditional fashion on tatami. Whether indoors or out, the Ozu camera is always about three feet from floor level, and the camera never moves. There are no pan shots and, except in the rarest of instances, no dolly shots.
It puts the world at a distance and leaves the spectator uninvolved, a recorder of impressions which he may register but which do not personally involve him. Most Ozu films begin with a short sequence which illustrates this. The opening shots of 'Late Spring' (Banshun, 1949) contain a scene inside a temple. Nothing happens. No one is visible. The shadows of the bamboos movie against the shoji; the tea kettle is boiling, the steam escaping. It is a scene of utter calm. There is no subject, no theme, unless it is the gratefulness of silence and repose. The quality having been established, one of the characters enters and the story begins.
Empty rooms, uninhabited landscapes, objects (rocks, trees), textures play a large part in Ozu's world, and the extreme simplicity of this view is matched by a like simplicity of construction once the film has begun.
The Monotony of Life
Often Ozu will again and again use precisely the same camera set up to preface a sequence in series. In Early Spring (Soshun, 1956) scene after scene begins with early morning in the suburbs. Each of these morning scenes begins with a shot from outside the house: the morning express train in the distance, the neighbor's wife emptying her garbage. The same footage is not used but the shots are so similar that the effect is the same. Ozu wanted to capture the monotony of life in the city and admirably succeeded.
This concern for brevity and economy, this inclination for the ultimate in limitation, is naturally reflected in Ozu's choice of story material. Except for his early films his subject is always the same: it is the Japanese family. His later films are about nothing else.
Ozu's Japanese Family
In all of these the whole world exists in one family. The ends of the earth are no more distant than the outside of the house. The people are members of a family rather than members of a society, though the family may be unacknowledged as in Floating Weeds (Ukigusa, 1959); may be a kind of family substitute , the small group in a large company, as in Early Summer; may be in disruption, as in Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953) and The End of Summer (1961); or may be nearly extinct, as in Late Spring, Tokyo Twilight (1957), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962).
As a creator of the Japanese home drama at its best, he is much more interested in character and incident than in action or plot, and has once said: "Pictures with obvious plots bore me. Naturally, a film must have some kind of structure, or else it is not a film, but I feel that is not good if it has too much drama." Thus, in Late Spring, the interest is in the relations between a father and daughter; in Late Autumn, between a mother and daughter; and in both their varying reactions to the coming marriage of the younger. In Tokyo Story, Ozu examines the relations among three generations. With little or no interest in plot movement, Ozu concerns himself with character development, and all of his better films represent a leisurely disclosure of character, the likes of which is rare in the films of any director.
Memorable and Magnificent Sequences
Ozu's attitude towards films have always been that of a perfectionist, and in everything that he does in films the parts fit so perfectly. His pictures are so subtle -- in this sense, the precise opposite of Kurosawa's -- that one never thinks to praise the skill with which his effects are achieved. Some of Ozu's most memorable effects are those most apparently simple. In Late Spring there is a remarkable sequence, where the father and daughter, watch a Noh performance. They do not move; neither does the camera. The sequence is intensely affecting, simply because of the carefully contrived context surrounding it.
In Floating Weeds there is a magnificent sequence, where Nakamura has just discovered the machinations of Machiko Kyo. It is raining hard and they are opposite sides of a narrow street, shouting at each other. The camera does not move but the characters, facing each other and accompanied by the incessant noise of the rain, range back and forth across the screen. The physical division of the street and the rain, their impotent fury, and Ozu's determination to let his camera play no part, all conspire to create the power of this savage little sequence.
The end effect of an Ozu film -- and one of the reasons that he is thought of as a spokesman for the Japanese tradition -- is a kind of resigned sadness, a calm and knowing serenity which persists despite the uncertainty of life and things in this world. It implies that the world will go on and that mutability, change of all things, also yield their elegiac satisfactions. One lives with and not against time, as with environment.
Late Spring's Poignant Ending Sequence:
The Japaneseness of Ozu's approach, the emphasis upon effect rather than cause, emotion rather than intellect, is what -- coupled with his ability to metamorphose Japanese aesthetics into terms and images visible on film -- makes him the most Japanese of all directors.
Yasujiro Ozu - Wikipedia
Ozu - Senses of Cinema
Yasujiro Ozu by Michael Grost
Ozu: The Master of Time - British Film Institute