Chishu Ryu Setsuko Hara and Yumeji Tsukioka in Late Spring 1949

Chishū Ryū, Hara Setsuko and Tsukioka Yumeji in ‘Late Spring’ (1949)

Ozu Yasujirō life and films

Chishu Ryu Setsuko Hara and Yumeji Tsukioka in Late Spring 1949

Chishū Ryū, Hara Setsuko and Tsukioka Yumeji in ‘Late Spring’ (1949)

Ozu Yasujirō is often described today as among the world’s greatest filmmakers, but his films were rarely seen outside Japan until the last third of the 20th century. During his lifetime, even his own studio worried that what they called distinctively 'Japanese' elements of his approach to film might be a barrier to foreign audiences, and it is perhaps this perception that led to an initial slow response elsewhere. His approach has been described as minimalist, his style rooted in Japanese aesthetics, and his subject matter is often based on the fine detail of Japanese middle-class home and family life.

Beneath the muted surface, there’s a pathos and humour that both contemporary and later audiences have admired. Many of his films deal with the changing nature of family relations due to the pressures and compromises of the modern age. And it is perhaps these themes that mean, in fact, his films still carry interest for audiences today.

Ozu’s style

A first encounter with an Ozu film can initially be an unnerving, and certainly unusual, experience due to his signature style. It’s an approach that gives his films an air of formalism, making their humour and humanism less immediately obvious. While his early silent melodramas and comedies bear the influence of Hollywood, his characteristic post-war films saw him pursuing an increasingly abstract style all of his own making, which rejected fades, dissolves, camera movements and other devices that make the artifice of cinema prominent.

Ozu uses static low-angle shots, which lead to a flattened perspective, with features like sliding doors or objects such as vases and teapots serving as orienting points within the overall picture, just as much as the human characters. This means too that no particular character’s gaze or vantage point is privileged. Characters are framed in stiff semi-profile, often appearing to peer enigmatically into the distance beyond the camera. Despite sometimes being described as slow, Ozu’s dramatic sequences are briskly edited and the dialogue is sharp and poignant. Individual scenes are interspersed with cutaway shots to everyday items or anonymous landscapes without people. These, known as ‘pillow shots’, do not serve an obvious narrative purpose other than marking the passing of time or the transition to a new location and have generated much discussion as to their significance over the years.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Ozu’s most celebrated title regularly tops international critics’ lists. Its script, co-written with Ozu’s long-term screenwriting partner Noda Kōgo, is episodic, whimsical and deceptively simple, meaning viewers can be surprised by its unexpected emotional power. An old couple make their first trip to the capital from their seaside town to visit their children and their families, only to be met with indifference, as they are pushed off to make their own entertainment by their offspring, who are too busy with their own lives and work to entertain them. Ozu later said of his film: “Through the growth of both parents and children, I described how the Japanese family system has begun to come apart.” And while the film’s title might suggest picture-postcard images, Ozu’s views of the city are primarily those of billowing smoke stacks, telegraph poles and washing lines.

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)

The difficulties of a marriage grown stale are the focus of this easy-going drama, whose title links the Japanese comfort food of ochazuke (a broth of green tea and boiled rice) to the simple, unassuming pleasures of home life. A middle-class childless couple find themselves drifting apart as the wife Taeko, finding her business executive husband Mokichi increasingly dull, prefers to spend time with her young niece, Setsuko, who is herself faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage. In turn, Mokichi finds solace away from an empty home, either at the office or drinking with work colleagues.

The meticulous visual composition of scenes within the film, with cage-like compositions of room interiors, and ubiquitous appearances of bottles and references to food, highlight the attention to the particular always present in Ozu films, giving audiences layers of detail to consider.

Late Spring (1949)

Late Spring provides one of the best introductions to Ozu, as a moving tale focusing on the unspoken bonds of affection and obligation shared by a doting widower and the dutiful daughter whom he tries to encourage to leave home to start a separate married life for herself.

The actress Hara Setsuko, who was to become a favourite of Ozu, appears in Late Spring in the role of Noriko. A very similar character – a modern and independent, yet polite and emotionally restrained young woman – reappears in the later films Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953), with a different name and situation, but each time played by Hara. Ryū Chishū, an Ozu regular who bore an uncanny resemblance to the director, also appears in all three films, which like much of Ozu’s work focus on the inevitable gulf that grows between individual family members as time progresses.

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

This, Ozu’s final film, is cheerful on the surface, but includes more disturbing undertones and elements that are not difficult to read as autobiographical. Here Ryū Chishū reprises his role as a widower who is treated like a child by his ungrateful offspring, and who, when he is not at the office, reacts accordingly, hanging out drinking with his old school chums and pining for the bar hostess who reminds him of his dead wife. The film was released at a time when a new wave of Japanese filmmakers were publicly calling Ozu’s work conservative and old-fashioned, but viewed in stylistic terms the film can be described as being as bold as the work of this younger generation.

Reaching a foreign audience

While immensely popular in his home country, only one of Ozu’s films was screened outside Japan during the director’s lifetime. Tokyo Story played at the first ever London Film Festival in 1957, where it was awarded the Sutherland Trophy. Ozu’s studio Shōchiku initially refused wider overseas retrospectives of his work until the Berlin Film Festival in the year of his death in 1963, claiming his films were too Japanese for foreign audiences to understand.

No substantial interviews with the director were published outside Japan within his lifetime, but a great deal of critical work from non-Japanese scholars has built up around his films, contributing to a reputation that can be intimidating to newcomers. Japan House London’s series of Ozu screenings running from February to May 2023 offer audiences a chance to experience the simplicity and confident singularity of Ozu’s films for themselves.

This story was written by Jasper Sharp, a writer and curator specializing in Japanese cinema and the co-editor of the website Midnight Eye.