The one thing that critics spend their ink on when writing about Ozu is his style, particularly in relation to normal, Hollywood-type style. Ozu greatly admired American films (especially the early comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and Welles’ Citizen Kane), and in his early films he drew freely on Hollywood’s techniques and style. But in his later films, after World War II, he reacted strongly against Hollywood. He created what David Bordwell calls “a systematic alternative to Hollywood continuity cinema.”
Think of the Japanese art that you have seen, the extreme simplicity and economy, the empty spaces, the delicacy, the stylization (for example, of the woodblock prints that so contributed to the development of “modern art.”) Now how do you do that in cinema, a highly realistic art form in which the camera picks up everything in front of it? You do it by a very special style of story, of camera placement and movement, and of editing. Ozu’s unique and exotic filmmaking style creates in a very un-simple, un-economical medium, traditional Japanese values of simplicity and economy.
The script. During his later period, after World War II, the period of the films we regard as masterpieces, Ozu rejected plot and the story-driven movie. In Late Spring, for example, the story is minimal: the father pretends to marry in order to get his 27-year-old daughter to get married. That’s it. In Early Summer, the family agrees on a husband for their daughter, but she makes her own pick. In Tokyo Story, elderly parents visit their middle-aged children, and it goes badly. These films are minimalist. No car chases, no shoot-outs, no samurai swordplay.
What counts with Ozu is the telling, his very special later style. To achieve it, he created these post-World War II scripts with a favorite collaborator, Kogo Noda, and he worked out extremely detailed sketches and notes. He came to the set knowing exactly what he wanted, and he spelled it out to the actors and his long-time cinematographer, Yuharu Atsuta. He would position everyone, lock down the camera, and then shoot.
He also doles out information elusively. The characters mention in conversation events that have happened or will happen, but you don’t see the events themselves. We never see the men Noriko is to marry in Late Spring and Early Summer. These ellipses occur most markedly in Tokyo Story, where we do not see the parents visit their son in Osaka or the mother fall ill. In this way, Ozu requires us to involve ourselves in interpreting the action. He focuses attention on the way the characters deal with an event rather than the event itself. Again, he is resisting the plot-driven movie.
Shooting. Ozu’s highly idiosyncratic style captures all the critics’ attention. What we all notice first is the low camera angle. Ozu built special bases to hold his camera less than three feet above the floor (lower than the point of view of a person sitting on a tatami). We look upwards at the characters. Is he pushing us into an attitude of childlike wonder? Is he enabling us to see the whole room, ceiling and all? Or is he simply making us pay attention to feet and bodies? At any rate, we are not on the same level as the characters or above them as we would be in conventional Hollywood-style filming.
Usually, he did not move his camera during a scene. Once he got the position he wanted, he would lock down the camera, and no one was to touch it. In this static style, he was returning to the style of the earliest movies (especially in Japan) when actors acted a scene as if on a stage before a stationary camera in the role of audience. (In the West, we thought of cinema as an extension of photography. In Japan, people thought of cinema as an extension of drama.) Sometimes, when a character (or a train) is moving, Ozu will use a dolly shot (for example in the bicycle ride in Late Spring), but he would move the camera at the same speed as the characters so as to minimize the appearance of motion. But it is rare for Ozu to use a dolly shot or a pan or a series of montage shots.
He always used a 50 mm. lens. It is slightly more wide-angle than what most directors use. We never get the telephoto effects so useful in eliminating background for a close-up.
Japan’s weather tends to be wet like England’s, but (Hasumi Shigehiko points out), Ozu preferred dry sunlight conditions (as opposed to Mizoguchi’s fog or Kurosawa’s wind and rain); his sole purpose was to “approach the dazzle of midsummer sunlight.” (Or, I would add, stage lighting.) Often characters would comment on how fine the weather was. It is as though the characters are on a stage set for daylight; they are brightly, evenly lit. They are before us, and nothing is hidden. The weather stands out in Tokyo Story because the characters are constantly fanning themselves, a way of introducing a theme of time, biological time, like a heartbeat.
Ozu felt free to violate the “180-degree rule” for shooting two-person dialogue. Instead of assuming a line not to be crossed between two characters in dialogue, he photographed the speakers head-on. Similarly, he did not concern himself with matching sight lines in dialogue scenes. Both techniques focus us intensely on the humanity of the individual characters, and the mannerisms are slightly disorienting.
Most directors shooting a two-person conversation would have the characters face each other. Ozu mostly seats them side by side, in harmony rather than in confrontation. This way he also gets a compositional shape, two triangles side by side, a landscape composition like two adjacent mountains.
Critics speak of Ozu’s using 360° space instead of 180° space. That is, in successive shots involving two characters, he will show a character on the left of the film frame and, in the next shot, on the right. Ozu will have moved his camera to the opposite side of the room, using the whole room. A more conventional director would use only half, keeping a given character always in the same position in the film frame, left or right, staying on one side of that invisible line between the two characters. Ozu is giving us the space that we humans live in rather than a space defined by a camera.
In general, where Hollywood makes you unaware of the camera (Bordwell’s “continuity cinema”), Ozu disorients you by breaking the customary rules. At the same time, his not moving the camera led to a kind of Buddhist effacing of the self of the director.
Editing. Ozu often did not cut from scene to scene in the ordinary way. He did not care about cutting on action. Characters walk into and out of spaces, while the camera lingers on the space either before or after they enter it. This is one of several ways in which Ozu rationed how much we see (like his omissive narration).
By refusing to use dissolves (after his early films), he forced himself to find ways to ease the viewer out of one scene and into another. Instead of a straightforward cut, he would put what are called “pillow shots” or “intermediate spaces” as transitions between scenes. These are “still life or neutral images in films that serve as visual and emotional resting points.” They tend to be subtle comments on the action. Sometimes they tell you a locale (Osaka castle or the famous Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto). In these post-World War II films, these shots tended to be images of nature (suggesting these films’ recurring theme of nature’s cycling and human generations’ passing) or traditional Japanese objects (relating to the films’ general mistrust of modernization). Conversely, they can be smokestacks or industrial construction, again suggesting a questionable progress.
Ozu’s editing accounts for much of his “Japanese-ness.” These pillow shots that we don’t expect to appear, do appear. His films give us seemingly unimportant details (a stone step, a vase, a loaf of bread, a long train ride into Tokyo that we don’t expect). Conversely, shots that we expect to appear, don’t. In Late Spring, Noriko and a friend go to an art show, but we never see it. Ozu sets up the possibility of a romance with her father’s research assistant, but cancels it. Most important, the whole film leads up to Noriko’s marriage, but we don’t see it or the man she marries (we are told just that he looks like Gary Cooper). In Early Summer, we never see the man Noriko’s family wants her to marry. We never see what goes on between Noriko and her chosen husband before she agrees to marry him. We don’t see that man’s being assigned to far-off Akita. In Tokyo Story, we do not see the parents visit their son in Osaka nor the mother fall ill.
Ozu’s style corresponds to the odd—to Western eyes—omissions and inclusions in Japanese painting. His style leads to a kind of misdirection and disorientation and therefore a “making new” (a “defamiliarization” in the term of the Russian formalist critics). This newness focuses the attention of both Japanese and Western viewers.
Sometimes critics speak of Ozu as a jokester who played tricks on his audience. There is a lot of similar misdirection in Japanese art. It is associated with zen Buddhism, the koans (riddles) that start the student off in the wrong direction. In Late Spring, for example, Ozu makes a joke of this when the professor’s crony, Onodera, gets his directions all mixed up. In Early Summer, the older boy expects train tracks, but gets—a loaf of bread. In Tokyo Story both the parents and their children expect the spa at Atami to be restful, but instead it’s partytime there.
There is debate about how much Ozu is influenced by traditional or zen Buddhism. It seems clear, however, that three Buddhist concepts permeate these later films.
Mu means empty space, the space between things, and often Ozu’s camera seems pointed toward nothing (to the extent that is possible with a camera that picks up whatever is in front of it). Mu, that one character, is all that is inscribed on Ozu’s tomb. Ma refers to a space that gets filled. Ozu often shoots an empty room and then a character comes into it or he lingers on a room that a character has just left. Ma spaces are spaces for action, the quiet kind of conversational action that constitutes an Ozu masterpiece.
Mono no aware. This is a concept pervasive in all Japanese art, and it is intensely important in Ozu’s. The phrase is usually translated, the sadness of things or the transience of things. Donald Richie, an expert on Ozu and Japanese film, explains the concept this way: “putting up with things and taking satisfaction in your putting up with things,” “to find a rightness in the way that things necessarily are.” The eighteenth-century Japanese literary theorist Motoori Norinaga suggested a larger concept: a deep sensitivity to the emotional dimensions of existence itself, human, animate, and inanimate .
Examples in Early Summer are: the father’s looking at clouds as he patiently waits for a train to pass or the final parting of the family, the photographs, the goodbyes, the slow acceptance. “We have been happy,” say father and mother. In Tokyo Story, the final dialogue between daughter Kyoko and daughter-in-law Noriko spells it out. “Isn’t life disappointing?,” asks Kyoko. “Yes, it is,” replies Noriko—with a wry smile. In Late Spring, the father’s and the daughter’s acceptance of the final marriage embody the idea. Tokyo Story complicates the idea: the father seems resigned to his lonely last years; the Tokyo children seem unaware of the fate we all face.
I have read critics who say of Ozu, “The style is the meaning.” I am not sure what this means. I do think, though, that his style beautifully suits his recurring themes: the conflict between traditional Japanese ways and mechanized modernity (those trains!); the pain of the passage from one generation to the next; and the transience of all things; an absence and loss at the heart of the human experience that we seek to counter with objects of humor and permanence and beauty (mono no aware). Beauty like the films of Yasujiro Ozu.