The Ghost of Yasujiro Ozu

22 01 2010

'Tokyo Story'

This morning started like any other. I got up early, had some breakfast, bought a newspaper and took the bus to work. It was only halfway through the journey, as the driver slowed for some traffic lights and smoke began pouring from under the bonnet, that my fellow passengers and I realised that something was very wrong. A man with a grudge, we later discovered, had planted a bomb on the bus that was primed to explode if the speedometer dropped below 50 miles per hour. 

Well, I got to work in the end, but not before deploying all of my innate cunning, stamina and knowledge of video editing technique to thwart the wily madman’s plan.

Upon arrival, I marched into my boss’s office and punched myself repeatedly in the face, pausing only to whimper “Why? Why?” for the benefit of Sandra the cleaner and Tom from Accounts, who stood outside blowing bubbles into their coffee. I didn’t quite manage to secure the severance package that I was after, but I did get a new stapler and an extra half-day of flexi-leave. So, mission accomplished I’d say.

Of course, that’s all a big fat lie. The sad truth is that today, as usual, nothing particularly exciting happened to me. Time that I could have spent saving the world or having a wry on-off relationship with Rene Russo was instead passed staring out of a window, cooking dinner, making faces at my whippet and chatting to the lady in the newsagent’s about the weather.

Most people’s lives are made up of moments like these, but seldom do we see them portrayed on the big screen. Since its earliest days, the assumption has been that cinema is about an escape from everyday reality, that audiences pay to see stories about lives more glamorous and dangerous than their own. And so the films of Yasujiro Ozu, who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the British Film Institute, have always gone decidedly against the grain.

Ozu was interested above all in exactly the kind of small, fleeting, seemingly-insignificant moments that most film-makers ignore. His films are, almost exclusively, restrained family dramas in which, on the surface at least, nothing much seems to happen.  In Tokyo Story (1953), for example, an elderly couple visit their grown-up children in the capital city. Realising that their children have little time in their busy lives, they start to make the journey home, before one of them dies. In An Autumn Afternoon (1962), a widower arranges the marriage of his daughter and realises that he will spend the rest of his life alone. Hardly the kind of pitches that would nowadays have Harvey Weinstein reaching for his chequebook.

And yet, consistently, Ozu is rated as one of the greatest film directors who ever lived, and Tokyo Story as one of cinema’s most profound and moving works. So what is it that makes Ozu so great?

Well firstly there’s the way that he manages to be both very Japanese and universal at the same time. Japanese because, in inviting us to contemplate the passage of time with a clear mind, he taps into a whole vein of bittersweet Oriental tradition, from the haiku to the cherry-blossom festival to Buddhist notions about the impermanence of all things. Universal because the characters in his quiet, deeply moving stories will be recognised and understood by almost anybody who has ever eaten a meal or shared or joke or watched the sun rise, no matter what their own background or culture.    

'The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice'

Ozu believed that we could learn a lot from just watching people go about their lives. In The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), for example, a husband and wife who have been growing apart for years make up over an improvised midnight supper. Hardly a significant word is spoken, and neither of them attempts to embrace or – God forbid! – kiss the other. And yet, in five minutes, Ozu tells us more about men and women and marriage than many film-makers manage in a lifetime.

Famously, the director almost always put his camera in the same place: on the floor, just below the level of a seated person, looking up. Pans are absent from his films, tracking shots rare and, in a break with cinematic convention, characters in conversation often look directly into the camera. Between scenes, Ozu shows us images from everyday life: rooftops, a passing train, a tree blowing in the wind.

You might imagine that such a rigid approach would risk allowing the audience to become alienated from a film’s characters, but with Ozu this never seems to happen. If our view of people becomes more objective, then that’s only so that we can see that everyone has their reasons, and that very few set out to deliberately damage or hurt others.

In this regard Tokyo Story makes much more sense to me in my thirties than it did in my twenties. The behaviour of the elderly couple’s children may seem selfish but, Ozu tells us, in the grand scheme of things no-one is really to blame for the gaps that grow up between the generations. Life’s just like that.  “Isn’t life disappointing?” asks more than one character on more than one occasion. And, in a sense, they’re right.

Yasujiro Ozu

Ozu at work

Ozu died, unmarried, at the age of 60 in 1963. Carved on his gravestone is only one word: the Chinese character for ‘nothingness’ or ‘no meaning’. And yet, whatever Ozu’s views on posterity, the influence of his work continues to grow. Recent years have seen both one outright Ozu tribute, in the shape of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumière, and dozens of small indie films that, if only by osmosis, have picked up and run with the studied calm of the Japanese master (Old Joy, 35 Shots of Rum, Mid-August Lunch).

It is, of course, possible to overstate Ozu’s influence. James Cameron is unlikely to follow up Avatar with an elegiac study of old age, after all. Jason Statham is unlikely to give up jumping out of cars and shooting people to appear in a quiet film about marital dysfunction. But still, whenever the cinema is quiet and calm rather than loud and brash, whenever a character pauses to watch the world go by or struggles to avoid a difficult conversation at a family dinner table, then standing behind the camera, just for a moment, is the ghost of Yasujiro Ozu.

The Ozu Season runs at the BFI Southbank, London until 27th February.

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