Seasonal Affective Order

Oak Street's Yasujiro Ozu retrospective salutes a filmmaker for any climate

Within the body of writing about Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, who died in 1963 at the age of 60, you can read critics arguing for his social traditionalism, critics proclaiming his radical homosexuality, critics favorably citing his formal minimalism, critics appreciating his complex and playful abundance, critics discovering his "universal" themes of loss and transience, and critics naming him the "most Japanese of Japanese directors." Some applaud rich characterization, others, empty shorts on the line. A few decide that everybody else is half right. It's enough to make this critic wonder what we're doing here in the dark.

Part of the problem is that Ozu made more than 50 films, starting in the 1920s. During his career, sound and color transformed cinema. Halfway through his working life, a war transformed his country. His early movies were comedies, his later movies something else, though comedy is certainly a thread. Ozu retrospectives in the West, including Oak Street's "Ozu: Minimal Means" (Sundays through February 20), have concentrated on the filmmaker's postwar output: family and community micro-dramas in which the children act up, the young marry, the middle-aged work and worry, and the old drink and smoke (if male) or talk (if female) and in either case grow lonely. Even within that narrowed scope of work are variations of tone and emphasis--significant enough, it seems, to leave viewers pointing in opposite directions.

Take, for instance, the next two movies to screen at Oak Street: Late Spring (this Sunday, January 23) from 1949 and Early Summer (January 30) from 1951. In both, Setsuko Hara plays a twentysomething woman named Noriko who is reluctant to marry. The wry Chishu Ryu appears as her loving widowed father in Late Spring and as her cranky brother in Early Summer. Both households exude an atmosphere of lively affection. Late Spring feels suffocating to me, like fated tragedy. Early Summer feels round and full, with an irrepressible spirit. But another viewer might see danger where I see freedom, and comfort where I find claustrophobia. In Late Spring, the father speaks movingly about happiness coming not from love, but from the "effort" of marriage. In Early Summer, Noriko delivers a convincing argument in favor of female empowerment and choice. I'm not sure we're supposed to "believe" either view--let alone assign it to Ozu. He seems to me more ethnographer than moralist.

To my mind, the tonal difference between these two movies less concerns the manner of their eventual marriages--one is arranged, the other chosen--than the social sea change experienced by Japan (and Ozu) in the postwar years. One of the few interesting aspects of Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile is its portrayal of the pressures brought to bear on an American female independence that had been forged during WWII. Ozu's films from 1948 chart a similar process, though one also marked by the fact that Japan was on the losing side of the war.

With A Hen in the Wind, the wife's decisions during her soldier husband's absence are a terrible obstacle for them to overcome. In Late Spring, the daughter's willfulness--earned during forced wartime labor and food scavenging--goes head to head with the father's traditionalism (he tricks her into marriage). By Early Summer, women's independence--economic and otherwise--has become accepted enough that Noriko and her would-be mother-in-law are allowed to decide her fate.

Equinox Flower (1958) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962), screening in February, re-envision the two early-'50s films with cold clarity. The former film remakes Early Summer with bitter, more regretful parents: Here, it is the father who is tricked into consent. The latter, Ozu's final, masterful movie, drains the blood from Late Spring, showing widowed father (Ryu again--Ozu lovingly recycled his actors) and unmarried daughter (Shima Iwashita) bowing to peer pressure--not out of loving sacrifice, but weary submission. The final scene with the daughter opens with her wedding bonnet stiff at the side of the frame; the daughter has become as rigid and doll-like as her attire.

Is this a thematic arc born of a gay man cynical and angry about the pressure to marry? Or of a conventional man upset about his society's faltering traditions? Yes--to some. What I see are portraits of a society over time: first pulling together out of necessity; next feeling a new idealism in forward movement; and then, as in Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) and the two later films, collapsing into self-interest and the empty enactment of tradition. It doesn't seem coincidental that Equinox Flower breaks from the comfortable middle-class scenarios of the "season" movies to spend time with a grumpy peon.

 

But what of Ozu the artist? How can I possibly claim that one of the most distinctive formalists of cinema is an ethnographer, a witness to his shape-shifting culture? Ozu is on record as saying, from his deathbed, "Cinema is drama, not accident." There's certainly nothing accidental about his meticulous storyboards. And any casual film student could identify a late Ozu shot in a finger snap: the stationary camera, aimed from below waist level; the rectangular framing of doors and walls; the looming outdoor monuments of hills, sea, sky, buildings, statues. Ozu deliberately joined those still shots with simple, straight cuts, often leaving the dramatic parts of his narrative within the gaps. Mike Nichols drew praise for the way his Closer skips across time, observing relationships only in their beginnings and endings; Ozu did the same thing 40 years ago, except that his emphasis (less sensational) is on fracturing middles.

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