A Mother Should Be Loved

A Mother Should Be Loved (Haha o Kawazuya)
1934, b/w, silent, 71 min.
With Den Ohinata, Hideo Mitsui, Mitsuko Yoshikawa

Often analyzed despite its missing first and final reels, A Mother Should Be Loved centers on the aftermath of the death of the patriarch of the Kajiwara clan. Eight years after the father’s passing, one of his sons discovers that he is actually the issue of his father’s first, long-dead wife and that his stepmother has been guarding the secret for many years. The ensuing turmoil reveals several other blots on the family’s supposedly “stainless” reputation. For Ozu, whose own father died during the production, the film’s theme of the decline of masculine authority may have had a deeply felt personal resonance.

Because of the missing reels at the beginning and the end, this was a viewing experience that felt rushed and incomplete. Some of the audience let out a gentle laugh at the final intertitle which summed up a large remainder of the plot in a pithy sentence or two.

I don't have good mental notes on this film. I was sick with a cold and tiring fast after watching Woman of Tokyo earlier in the night.

The most memorable image is that of the mother's face: she had a seemingly frozen expression, and only small parts of the face would change with the different emotions. It was almost like a death mask. Very spooky.

The film is also a good reminder of how dark Ozu's work could be in the early days. There's a lot of anger and hurt and bitterness that spills out into literally fist-throwing confrontations.

April 6, 2004 at 11:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Woman of Tokyo

Woman of Tokyo (Tokyo no onna)
1933, b/w, silent, 47 min.
With Yoshiko Okada, Ureo Egawa, Kinuyo Tanaka

One of the director’s most powerful films, Woman of Tokyo tells the story of a young woman who supports her student brother by working as a translator by day and a prostitute by night. Discovering the source of her illicit income, the brother is driven to a desperate act. Mizoguchi comes to mind often in the film, especially in the devastating sequence in which the prostitute confronts the brutal hypocrisy of her brother. Rediscovered in the early 1980s, Woman of Tokyo was acclaimed for its “a subtle riot of discordant formal devices. . . . and breathtaking wrench of perspective, from individual tragedy to matter-of-fact social breakdown.” Ozu never made another film quite like this one. Neither has anyone else.

An early silent work. A melodrama in distilled form. The plot is told mostly through the actors in a series of shot-reaction-shot sequences. The narration felt very straightforward; sometimes it felt clunky and obvious.

Early in the film, a portion of what appears to be an Ernst Lubitsch film is shown full-screen, intercut with shots of two characters who are watching the Hollywood flick in a theater. A case of media appropriation?

The Expressionist influences are visible in lighting and makeup. The change in the brother's face as he goes from gentle to angry is almost comical, as his brows and forehead suddenly turn dark and menacing. Oddly, the faces of the two women are untouched whether happy or sad. Maybe it's to showcase the physical registers of emotion as clearly as possible.

There are some nice cuts involving objects, from a street light to a lamp inside a room, or from a wall clock to an shop wall covered with clocks. The position and orientation of the objects create graphic match cuts.

Already in 1933, Ozu was choosing to linger on a mirror or a door for a moment or two after the human character had exited the frame. At times of heightened emotion or deep thought, the camera focuses on a household object in the foreground while the actors are blurred in the background. Maybe a modest, interior equivalent of the Mizoguchi long shot that Donald Richie wrote about? One difference with later Ozu films: the objects here feel more like mute witnesses, silently watching, rather than empty vessels or elements of release. I think it's the closer distance of the camera: it activates what it captures.

The last tracking shot along a deserted street closes the film on a socially conscious note. It seems to say, "this story could be happening anywhere in Tokyo." It eases the intensity of the preceding scenes of the women's sorrow. It also feels less personal.

April 6, 2004 at 10:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Late Spring

Late Spring (Banshun)
1949, b/w, 108 min.
With Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura

The first and finest telling of a story Ozu was to remake with variations many times, Late Spring focuses on the dilemma faced by a young woman (Hara) who lives with her widowed father. She refuses several marriage offers, preferring to keep her father company rather than assume the duties of a housewife and mother. Determined that she will wed, he lets her think that he plans to remarry. Hailed by Donald Richie as “one of the most perfect, the most complete, and most successful studies of character ever achieved in Japanese cinema,” Late Spring was also one of Ozu’s personal favorites.

The film opens with a tea ceremony. This analogy must have been made many times before, but it's an apt opening for an Ozu film. Both involve notions of repetition, patterning, refinement. Both exist formally in the meeting point of the designed and the natural.

The breakdown (too harsh a word for it) and presentation of the interior space is breathtaking.

There's a lovely scene where the father returns home from work, and goes through his routine of getting ready for dinner, with the help of his daughter. They go in and out of rooms, walking and turning, entering and exiting. Through the sequence of cuts, we see them move with perfect ease in a modest dance of domesticity.

The biking scene with the daughter and her male friend is minor but interesting: how do you make static a sequence full of motion? Through four or five cuts, with the camera tracking with the actors at three different distances, Ozu quiets the action and brings it into his system.

Some of the jump cuts were jarring, as if missing an establishing or transition shot. It reminded me that Ozu's editing feels very fluid and fat-free once you are immersed in it, despite its disparity with the now-familiar Hollywood editing, and certain jump cuts are equally noticeable when they disrupt the flow.

The extended Noh scene is a treat.

Made 20 years after Days of Youth, this is one of the classics, and it has all the ingredients in terms of themes and forms. But I have a tough time with this film, which I had seen once before in San Francisco. The emotions are too high-pitched for me - too explicit, too forceful. When Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu face off, and she asks bitterly and repeatedly whether he plans to remarry, the directness of her emotional presentation makes me wince. It is too raw for me. When it comes to emotion in Ozu films (and maybe all films), I am biased towards restraint.

April 5, 2004 at 11:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Days of Youth

Days of Youth (Wakaki Hi)
1929, b/w, 60 min.
With Ichiro Yuki, Tatsuo Saito, Junko Matsui

Ozu’s earliest extant film reveals the director as a master of Hollywood-style filmmaking. (Donald Richie and David Bordwell have both pointed out that Days of Youth is indebted to the films of Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch.) Two friends at Waseda University, one a smart guy, the other a bumbler, fall in love with the same girl but postpone courting her until they are through “exam hell.” They later go on a ski holiday in Akakura and discover that she is about to enter into an arranged marriage with the leader of their ski club. Punctuated by great gags involving runaway skis, wet paint, hot chocolate, gloves, socks, and a handful of persimmons, Days of Youth offers our first glimpse of Ozu regular Chishu Ryu, who appeared in more than a dozen of Ozu’s finest films.

The film turns out to be closer to 100 minutes, rather than the 60 minutes stated in the catalog. It's also a silent film.

This is more like it. One of the joys of an auteurist retrospective such as this one is the discovery of works made before certain themes and styles had rooted themselves. You get a chance to see the director grow and flex his creative muscles, in genres that seem highly incongruous to latter-day fans like myself. So it is with Days of Youth, where Ozu whips up a Hollywood-inspired blend of slapstick, romance and buddy movie.

An immediate visual sign that this isn't your regular Ozu: the camera moves. It pans across the city in the opening, and the move is reflected in the closing when the pan occurs in the opposite direction.

At the same time, there are already visual motifs here that would surface repeatedly in later films, such as smokestacks. But they are different from future appearances in two ways. One, there is an accountable POV: a shot of smokestacks is always followed by a shot of someone looking at them through a window. Two, there is narrative motivation: the flowing shape of the smoke hints at the strength of the wind, and is used by the characters to guess the coming weather.

The two male leads are fantastic. I was trying to remember who they reminded me of, and I nailed it: Ichiro Yuki is Owen Wilson to Tatsuo Saito's Ben Stiller. Yuki's slick, what-me-worry? personality is nicely paired with Saito's earnest, bumbling self. (Saito has plenty of Harold Lloyd in him, too.) I related to Saito's character closely - I sure know that feeling, like I've been punched in the gut by a good friend over a girl.

Chishu Ryu was in this? I didn't recognize him. Sigh. He must have been one of the college buddies.

The second half of the film is set in the ski-sloped mountains, and the filmed snowscapes are dreamy. The expansive outdoor scenes make for high contrast against the carefully delineated interiors of Ozu's later works.

The back of Saito's ski jacket says: "SMACK FRONT ONLY" in English. Huh? Fun to see that mangled English was already in full usage in Japan circa 1929.

April 3, 2004 at 11:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Straightforward Boy

A Straightforward Boy (Tokkan Kozo)
1929, b/w, silent, 28 min.
With Tomio Aoki, Tatso Saito, Takeshi Sakamoto

Long thought lost, this delightful little film was written quickly over beers in a Ginza bar and shot in three days, which may account for its freewheeling nature. A hapless crook kidnaps a bespectacled tyke whose name, Tokkan Kozo, means “a boy who charges into you.” The brat turns out to have an insatiable appetite for candy and is more trouble than he is worth. The child star Tomio Aoki became so popular that he changed his name to Tokkan Kozo and appeared in several other Ozu films.

The film turns out to be closer to 15 minutes, rather than the 28 minutes stated in the catalog.

The restored print begins with an unintentionally funny intro intertitle which basically says, "the beginning, the end, and some of the middle portion of this movie has been lost." Erm... so... what was restored, exactly?

Much of the film is slapstick humor involving a classic Dennis the Menace character. I guess it could be called "delightful"; it's certainly "freewheeling". It's not bad for a laugh, but it's too short. I didn't catch anything that suggests what was to follow in the director's career. One for the completists.

April 3, 2004 at 10:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


Yasujiro Ozu is my favorite film director. In 2003, to mark the centennial of his birth, a retrospective of Ozu's films was compiled. The Harvard Film Archive is bringing the touring series to my neighborhood of Cambridge, MA, USA. During Yasujiro Ozu: A Centennial Celebration, 35 films will be screened between April 2 and May 11. For fans of Ozu and Japanese cinema, this is close to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: his early works are impossible to see outside Japan, and even his more famous films are seldom shown in theaters. I plan to watch as many of the films as I can.

I am starting this weblog to coincide with the arrival of the retrospective. I'll be adding one post per film I watch. I plan to begin each update with the HFA catalog description of the film, in order to save myself from writing plot summaries, and follow with my notes and thoughts about the film. I want this weblog to be a record of my monthlong immersion within Ozu's world in the spring of 2004.

April 1, 2004 at 11:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)