Yasujiro Ozu is known for his profound examinations of family, generational gaps, and the schism between tradition and modernity. He began his career by making short comedy films for the Shochiku Film Company, and subsequently segued to his signature dramatic features. From his titles (such as Early Summer, Late Spring, and The End of Summer) to his imagery (such as trains and clouds), Ozu examined the transitory nature of the human condition (youth to adulthood, life to death, etc).
Watching an Ozu film is a delicate experience because he doesn’t follow “traditional” cinematic techniques. His camera usually hovers low and barely moves, he disobeys the 180-degree rule, he avoids transitions, and he places the viewer in awkward places during character conversations. These techniques not only helped define Ozu’s style, but they also made his characters and films memorable.
He created splendid studies of fragility, the human condition, the tension between the past and the present, and the lasting effect of human relationships. Like any great filmmaker, Ozu’s films require undivided attention and multiple viewings, both of which will help the viewers embrace the beautiful depths of Ozu’s graceful simplicity.
1. I Was Born, But…. (1932)
Mr. Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito) moves into a new neighborhood with his wife (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) and their two sons, Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and Keiji (Tomio Aoki). While Yoshi makes a fool of himself at work (in order to please his boss), his sons endure an onslaught of bullying from the neighborhood children. The boys soon discover their father’s humiliating work antics, and the familial relationships are pushed to their limit.
Ozu takes his viewers on a journey through the perspective of his younger characters. As the children’s reverence for their heroic father soon begins to fade, Ozu is there to capture every delicate moment. “You tell us to be somebody,” the children tell their father, “but you are nobody.” I Was Born, But…is one of Ozu’s earliest and most rewarding experiences. It is a film about abandoning childhood idealism and moving into the risky terrain of adulthood.
2. The Only Son (1936)
“Tragedy in life starts with the bond of parent and child.”
Shinshu, 1923. The widowed O-Tsune (Choko Iida) works at a silk factory, earning money in order to support her only son, Ryosuke (Masao Hayama). She makes the difficult decision to send Ryosuke to Tokyo, where she believes he will have the best opportunities. 13 years later, O-Tsune visits Ryosuke (now played by Shinichi Himori), only to discover that he is a geometry teacher at a night school. The two weep. Where did the mother go wrong?
The character’s emotions and Ozu’s distinct visuals combined to speak volumes to the audience. There is just as much poetry in the characters’ silent goodbyes as there is serenity in their familial conversations. Ozu’s first sound feature continued to examine the bonds between parents and children, reminding us of the sacrifices that parents make in order to provide their children with a better future.
3. Late Spring (1949)
Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is ready to be married, but she is far too busy taking care of her widowed father, professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu). Fearing that his daughter will be left alone after his death, Shukichi reluctantly agrees to find a husband for Noriko. When Noriko refuses to marry, Shukichi lies to her by saying that he plans to remarry.
Noriko dates – and eventually agrees to marry – a man whom her aunt says resembles Gary Cooper (“around the mouth, but not the top part”), but before the wedding, the father and daughter plan to vacation in Kyoto.
Ozu paints a striking portrait of the bond between a father and daughter who refuse to let one another go. They go along with plans, not because they want to, but because they want to please one another. Neither is truly happy, but they make sacrifices for the sake of one another. It is also a film about squandered time.
In one scene, Noriko turns to her father while they are packing for their vacation and says, “Why didn’t we do this more often?” Immediately, you feel a spike go through your heart. Late Spring is one of Ozu’s most compelling films because he paints a range of human emotions like an artist paints on a canvas. He captures the truth about life, showing a daughter moving on even though it pains her to leave her father behind.
4. Early Summer (1951)
Noriko (the wonderful Setsuko Hara) lives with her parents, Shukichi (Ichiro Sugai) and Shige (Chieko Higashiyama), her older brother, Koichi (Chishu Ryu), and his family. Noriko’s parents pressure her to marry Mr. Manabe, but she falls in love with Kenkichi Yabe (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi), a friend of her dead brother. When Noriko agrees to marry Yabe, her family must deal with their daughter’s unexpected decision.
Early Summer explores the liberation of Japanese women from the conservative traditions of their parents. Ozu’s timeless story examines three generations who struggle to find a common ground. It is a film that not only speaks to Ozu’s contemporaneous audiences, but to future generations as well. The simple moments are what define the film, creating another heartfelt masterpiece about family, marriage, and generational gaps.
5. The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)
Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) is bored with her childless marriage to Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi). She escapes her dull life by going to the hot springs. A series of unexpected events unfold and test the Satakes’ relationship, but the two come together over a simple midnight snack of rice with green tea.
The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice breathes life (ironically) into a dying marriage. This may not be one of Ozu’s most revered works, but it is certainly one of his most visually stunning films.
The film not only examines an atypical subject for Ozu (the middle class), but it often reminds its viewers of the friction between tradition and modernity (evidenced by the opening scene of two women in a car, one wearing a modern dress and one wearing a kimono). It is a tragic story about two characters from different walks of life who are trying to save the remains of their marriage.