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Todd Alcott
19 August 2006 @ 04:53 am


A young woman takes care of her widowed father. Everyone thinks that the daughter should get married. But the daughter is happy just taking care of her father. That is, until the father announces that he intends to remarry and the daughter is forced to make a decision.

And that's it, that's the plot of Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring. Oh, there's a third-act "surprise," but plot isn't really the point of Ozu's films.

The polar opposite of Kurosawa's operatic dramas and the popular samurai epics of the time, Ozu's domestic dramas are minimalist, realist, quiet and reserved. In fact, they are in many ways about being reserved. Observational and behavioral in the extreme, they don't feel like any other Japanese movies I know of. Instead they remind me of Austen and Chekhov, Raymond Carver and Jim Jarmusch.

Like Jarmusch, Ozu's dramatic strategy sometimes takes a little getting used to. His films may appear to be "boring" for the first half-hour or so as you watch people in mid-20th-century Japan go about their daily lives, cooking and working and eating and gossiping. You're waiting for the movie to start. Then, as the first act edges into the second and patterns start to repeat themselves, you begin to realize that you weren't just watching random behavior, you were watching very specific, emblematic behavior, tiny little actions as simple as folding a napkin or raising a drinking glass that, if you had been paying attention, would have told you all you need to know about the characters you've been watching. Ozu's dramas are, in fact, about the way tiny little actions become habit, habit becomes identity, and identity is threatened by change. And as you start to become aware of the "plot," these tiny little actions start to take on more and more significance. So suddenly, the way someone walks or talks or eats a piece of cake becomes terribly important, as it may contain a vital clue to the character's inner life, and by the middle half-hour you're on tenterhooks trying to figure out if people are really saying what they mean, if they're hiding some terrible secret, if they're ever going to give their domineering parents what for, if they're ever going to be happy. Then, by the third act, the accumulated drama, during which no one ever speaks above a conversational tone, invariably becomes almost unbearably moving. Then, typically, a character must face some sort of universal human truth, like, say, everyone has to grow up, or everyone has to pursue their own happiness, or everyone has to die. "That's just the way human life is," a character will often sigh near the end of an Ozu picture. And those ideas aren't new or revelatory, but in the context of Ozu's pictures they take on the weight of heartbreaking profundity.

Ozu, in addition to being a hugely skilled dramatist, has an utterly unique shooting style as well. He has, essentially, one setup: the camera at the eye-level of a person sitting cross-legged on the floor. This setup remains essentially unchanged whether it's an interior, exterior, dialogue scene, action scene (well, "action" having a very tiny definition here -- a stack of magazines sliding off a chair constitutes an "action" beat in Late Spring), even establishing shots will be shot from the same angle. He also rarely moves the camera at all. I can't remember a single tilt, pan or dolly in one of his movies, or even a zoom. There are a total of four tracking shots in Late Spring, all of which are used for "walk and talk" scenes, and all keeping the "Ozu angle" intact, as though we are watching the shots from the POV of a man sitting in a Radio Flyer wagon being pulled by a slowly moving car. In addition, he will sometimes have entire dialogue scenes covered in POV shots, with characters delivering their lines directly to camera. It creates an almost unnerving intensity; as actors zero in on you, you want to look away from their gaze in embarrassment. Jonathan Demme used the same technique for an important scene in Silence of the Lambs.

Ozu also used the same actors throughout his entire career. The two leads here, Chisu Ryu and Setsuko Hara are in most of the Ozu pictures I've seen, and they never fail to astound.  They use an acting vocabulary so different from what I'm used to as an American that I can't even think of American equivalents to compare them to.  Ryu's permanent little twisted smile and Hara's ever-heartbreaking hope and despair get under your skin in ways that even great stars like Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai do not.  Those guys are movie stars, but Ryu and Hara seem like real people.

My love affair with Ozu began with Tokyo Story, which is him at his heaviest for him.  For lighter fare, there is the comedy Good Morning.  But my personal favorite is Floating Weeds, which is about a traveling actor who swing by a seaside town for the first time in fifteen years and finds that he long ago fathered a child by a woman he had slept with for a night.

One more thing I should say is that the Criterion Collection has changed my life.  I have something in my brain that does not allow me to pay proper attention to bad prints of old movies with corrupted soundtracks.  Classics like Dracula and His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night went unwatched by me because I couldn't watch the terrible murky prints they showed on television.  But give me a restored print and a fine, crackling soundtrack and I can watch just about anything, I don't know why but it really makes a difference to me.  So I owe my interest in Ozu, Kurosawa, Bergman, Renoir and countless other great directors to the work done by Criterion.

Oh, and the projector is fixed, obviously.  Hurray!