How to Appreciate: Yasujiro Ozu (pt. 1)
Ozu’s modest stories about the seasonal rhythms of domestic life offer a perspective on human relationships that may strike many modern film-goers as quaint, distant dispatches from a polite but alien world. His famous sunken camera places us always at an intimate distance–not quite apart, yet not far removed from the action. Dramatic action itself is sometimes suspended or merely inferred in an Ozu story (such as the never-glimpsed Gary Cooper-lookalike in Late Spring) so that the impact of a thing often outweighs the thing itself. His extreme visual formalism at times approaches abstraction. Actors resemble figures on a plane. Line and space play leading roles. All so very strange…
Watching an Ozu film thus requires a different kind of mental attention than most people are used to giving. While most dramas require the suspension of disbelief, Ozu seems to aspire to nothing less than the suspension of expectation. The reward for this contemplative “relaxation” is no less than the divine promise of religion: to fill the fleeting human frame with the inspired essence of eternity.
1. The mundane is the message
In an Ozu film, people are forever exchanging pleasantries. He seems to focus on the very mundane chatter that most filmmakers would simply do away with. The plot of Good Morning (Ohayo!) even revolves around the social repercussions of just such a skipped-over greeting. For a fast-edit obsessed generation weaned on music videos, the amount of screen time devoted to the prosaic chit-chat of everyday social interaction may feel maddening. All those “Hello”s and “I’ve returned”s and “Thank you”s and “Forgive me”s, many of them delivered straight to the camera, as if the actors were directly addressing the audience–it’s like attending a mannered school of Ozu etiquette.
However, in an Ozu film, the simple act of two people greeting each other functions as pregnant punctuation to the narrative, never to be cut or glossed over. These moments prop up the action and give us easy entry and exit points, engendering the satisfaction of proper ends and proper beginnings, and allowing us to remark the scene’s true beats–the subtle nuances and emotional variations underlying such meetings, partings and idle chatter. Through repetition, Ozu draws us ever deeper into the everyday, allowing us to appreciate what is usually overlooked as commonplace and inconsequential until surface formality achieves the resonance of emotional revelation–like in this scene of two old friends reflecting about their children.
Over time, these ordinary exchanges build momentum, and through dozens of repeated bows and “thank you”s, the viewer sharpens her emotional discernment. Think of Setsuko Hara’s incessant smiling throughout Late Spring. At first, her expression has all the glimmering subtlety of a toothpaste model.
But soon we see subtle differences between her genuine jubilance with best friend Aya and her more perfunctory warmth with Hattori. Eventually, we can learn to decipher the subtle mix of wry emotions in this particular Mona Lisa smile:
Until finally we feel with full force the stinging poignancy and complex resonance in the expression before her wedding day, when she offers thanks and struggles to force a smile, though her heart is broken.
Through repetition, Ozu’s stories gently lead us to ask such simple but rarely explored questions as “How does a child properly thank one’s parents?” or “How can a friend or in-law be more filial and loving than your flesh-and-blood?” Can such profound and complex notions be expressed in words or a simple bow? In Ozu, the answer is “yes,” but this meaning arises, not through a single momentous gesture, but through a chorus of daily habits and a glimpse into the pathology of everyday consciousness.
In an Ozu film, the mundane IS the message and the message immerses us always deeper into the ordinariness of life, the present-ness of Now. Life is always right before us if we only have the hearts and minds to see.