Nationality: Japanese. Born: Tokyo, 12 December 1903. Education: the Uji-Yamada (now Ise) Middle School, Matsuzaka, graduated 1921. Career: Teacher, 1922–23; after introduction from uncle, began as assistant cameraman at Shochiku Motion Picture Co., 1923; assistant director, 1926; directed first film, 1927; military service in China, 1937–39; made propaganda films in Singapore, 1943; interned for six months as British POW, 1945. Died: In Kamakura, 12 December 1963.
Films as Director:
Zange no yaiba ( The Sword of Penitence )
Wakodo no yume ( The Dreams of Youth ) (+ sc); Nyobo funshitsu ( Wife Lost ); Kabocha ( Pumpkin ); Hikkoshi fufu ( A Couple on the Move ); Nikutai bi ( Body Beautiful )(+ co-sc)
Takara no yama ( Treasure Mountain ) (+ story); Wakaki hi ( Days of Youth ) (+ co-sc); Wasei kenka tomodachi ( Fighting Friends, Japanese Style ); Daigaku wa deta keredo ( I Graduated, But . . . ); Kaisha-in seikatsu ( The Life of an Office Worker ); Tokkan kozo ( A Straightforward Boy )(+ co-story)
Kekkon-gaku nyumon ( An Introduction to Marriage ); Hogaraka ni ayume ( Walk Cheerfully ); Rakudai wa shita keredo ( I Flunked, But . . . ) (+ story); Sono yo no tsuma ( That Night's Wife ); Erogami no onryo ( The Revengeful Spirit of Eros ); Ashi ni sawatta koun ( Lost Luck ); Ojosan ( Young Miss )
Shukujo to hige ( The Lady and the Beard ); Bijin aishu ( Beauty's Sorrows ); Tokyo no gassho ( Tokyo Chorus )
Haru wa gofujin kara ( Spring Comes from the Ladies ) (+ story); Umarete wa mita keredo ( I Was Born, But . . . ) (+ story); Seishun no yume ima izuko ( Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? ); Mata au hi made ( Until the Day We Meet Again )
Tokyo no onna ( A Tokyo Woman ) (+ story); Hijosen no onna ( Dragnet Girl ) (+ story); Dekigokoro ( Passing Fancy )(+ story)
Haha o kowazu-ya ( A Mother Should Be Loved ); Ukigusa monogatari ( A Story of Floating Weeds )
Hakoiri musume ( An Innocent Maid ); Tokyo no yado
Daigaku yoi toko ( College Is a Nice Place ) (+ story); Hitori musuko ( The Only Son ) (+ story)
Shukujo wa nani o wasuretaka ( What Did the Lady Forget? )(+ co-story)
Toda-ke no kyodai ( The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family ) (+ co-sc)
Chichi ariki ( There Was a Father ) (+ co-sc)
Nagaya no shinshi roku ( The Record of a Tenement Gentleman ) (+ co-sc)
Kaze no naka no mendori ( A Hen in the Wind ) (+ co-sc)
Banshun ( Late Spring ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Munekata shimai ( The Munekata Sisters ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Bakushu ( Early Summer ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Ochazuke no aji ( The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Tokyo monogatari ( Tokyo Story ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Soshun ( Early Spring ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Tokyo boshoku ( Twilight in Tokyo ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Higanbana ( Equinox Flower ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Ohayo (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda); Ukigusa ( Floating Weeds )(+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Akibiyori ( Late Autumn ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Kohayagawa-ke no aki ( The End of Summer ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
Samma no aji ( An Autumn Afternoon ) (+ co-sc with Kogo Noda)
On OZU: books—
Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry , New York, 1960.
Richie, Donald, Five Pictures of Yasujiro Ozu , Tokyo, 1962.
Richie, Donald, Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character , New York, 1971.
Sato, Tadao, Ozu Yasujiro no Geijutsu [The Art of Yasujiro Ozu], Tokyo, 1971.
Satomi, Jun, and others, editors, Ozu Yasujiro—Hito to Shigoto [Yasujiro Ozu: The Man and His Work], Tokyo, 1972.
Schrader, Paul, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer , Berkeley, California, 1972.
Burch, Noël, Theory of Film Practice , New York, 1973.
Tessier, Max, "Yasujiro Ozu," in Anthologie du cinéma , vol. 7, Paris, 1973.
Richie, Donald, Ozu , Berkeley, California, 1974.
Schrader, Leonard, and Haruji Nakamura, editors, Masters of Japanese Film , Tokyo, 1975.
Gillett, John, and David Wilson, Yasujiro Ozu: A Critical Anthology , London, 1976.
Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors , New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.
Burch, Noël, To the Distant Observer , Berkeley, 1979.
Tessier, Max, editor, Le Cinéma japonais au présent: 1959–79 , Paris, 1980.
Sato, Tadao, Currents in Japanese Cinema , Tokyo, 1982.
Bordwell, David, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema , Princeton, New Jersey, 1988.
Hasumi, Shigehiko, Kantoku Ozu Yasujiro , Tokyo, 1992.
Hamano, Yasuki cho, Ozu Yasujiro , Tokyo, 1993.
Ishizaka, Shozo, Ozu Yasujiro to Chigasakikan , Tokyo, 1995.
Yoshida, Yoshishige, Ozu Yasujiro no han eiga , Tokyo, 1998.
Skiki, Ichiro, Kurosawa Akira to Ozu Yasujiro , Tokyo, 2000.
On OZU: articles—
"Ozu Issues" of Kinema Jumpo (Tokyo), June 1958 and February 1964.
Ryu, Chishu, "Yasujiro Ozu," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1964.
Iwasaki, Akira, "Ozu," in Film (London), Summer 1965.
"Ozu Spectrum," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Summer 1970.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Ozu," in Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.
Zeaman, Marvin, "The Zen Artistry of Yasujiro Ozu: The Serene Poet of Japanese Cinema," in Film Journal (New York), Fall/Winter 1972.
Branigan, Edward, "The Space of Equinox Flower ," in Screen (London), Summer 1976.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell, "Space and Narrative in the Films of Ozu," in Screen (London), Summer 1976.
Thompson, Kristin, "Notes on the Spatial System of Ozu's Early Films," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 1, no. 4, 1977.
Bergala, Alain, "L'Homme qui se lève," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1980.
"Le Cinéma toujours recommencé de Yasujiro Ozu," special section, in Cinéma (Paris), January 1981.
Bock, Audie, "Ozu Reconsidered," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Fall 1983.
Berta, R., "A la recherche du regard," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1985.
Geist, Kathe, "Narrative Style in Ozu's Silent Films," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1986/87.
Lehman, P., "The Mysterious Orient, the Crystal Clear Orient . . . ," in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), Winter 1987.
* * *
Throughout his career, Yasujiro Ozu worked in the mainstream film industry. Obedient to his role, loyal to his studio (the mighty Shochiku), he often compared himself to the tofu salesman, offering nourishing but supremely ordinary wares. For some critics, his greatness stems from his resulting closeness to the everyday realities of Japanese life. Yet since his death another critical perspective has emerged. This modest conservative has come to be recognized as one of the most formally intriguing filmmakers in the world, a director who extended the genre he worked within and developed a rich and unique cinematic style.
Ozu started his career within a well-established genre system, and he quickly proved himself versatile, handling college comedies, wistful tales of office workers, even gangster films. By 1936, however, he had started to specialize. The "home drama," a Shochiku specialty, focused on the trials and joys of middle-class or working-class life—raising children, finding a job, marrying off sons and daughters, settling marital disputes, making grandparents comfortable. It was this genre in which Ozu created his most famous films and to which he is said to have paid tribute on his deathbed: "After all, Mr. President, the home drama."
Ozu enriched this genre in several ways. He strengthened the pathos of family crisis by suggesting that many of them arose from causes beyond the control of the individual. In the 1930s works, this often led to strong criticism of social forces like industrialization, bureaucratization, and Japanese "paternalistic" capitalism. In later films, causes of domestic strife tended to be assigned to a mystical super-nature. This "metaphysical" slant ennobled the characters' tribulations by placing even the most trivial action in a grand scheme. The melancholy resignation that is so pronounced in Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon constituted a recognition of a cycle of nature that society can never control.
To some extent, the grandiose implications of this process are qualified by a homely virtue: comedy. Few Ozu films wholly lack humor, and many involve outrageous sight gags. As a genre, the home drama invited a light touch, but Ozu proved able to extend it into fresh regions. There is often an unabashed vulgarity, running to jokes about eating, bodily functions, and sex. Even the generally sombre Autumn Afternoon can spare time for a gag about an elderly man run ragged by the sexual demands of a young wife. Ohayo is based upon equating talk, especially polite vacuities, with farting. Ozu also risked breathtaking shifts in tone: in Passing Fancy , after a tearful scene at a boy's sickbed, the father pettishly says that he wishes his son had died. The boy responds that the father was looking forward to a good meal at the funeral.
Ozu developed many narrative tendencies of the home drama. He exploited the family-plus-friends-and-neighbors cast by creating strict parallels among characters. If family A has a son of a certain type, family B will have a daughter of that type, or a son of a different sort. The father may encounter a younger or older man, whom he sees as representing himself at another point in his life. The extended-family format allowed Ozu to create dizzying permutations of comparisons. The sense is again of a vast cycle of life in which an individual occupies many positions at different times.
Ozu had one of the most distinctive visual styles in the cinema. Although critics have commonly attributed this to the influence of other directors or to traditions of Japanese art, these are insufficient to account for the rigor and precision of Ozu's technique. No other Japanese director exhibits Ozu's particular style, and the connections to Japanese aesthetics are general and often tenuous. (Ozu once remarked: "Whenever Westerners don't understand something, they simply think it's Zen.") There is, however, substantial evidence that Ozu built his unique style out of deliberate imitation of and action against Western cinema (especially the work of Chaplin and Lubitsch).
Ozu limited his use of certain technical variables, such as camera movement and variety of camera position. This can seem a willful asceticism, but it is perhaps best considered a ground-clearing that let him concentrate on exploring minute stylistic possibilities. For instance, it is commonly claimed that every Ozu shot places the camera about three feet off the ground, but this is false. What Ozu keeps constant is the perceived ratio of camera height to the subject. This permits a narrow but nuanced range of camera positions, making every subject occupy the same sector of each shot. Similarly, most of Ozu's films employ camera movements, but these are also systematized to a rare degree. Far from being an ascetic director, Ozu was quite virtuosic, but within self-imposed limits. His style revealed vast possibilities within a narrow compass.
Ozu's compositions relied on the fixed camera-subject relation, adopting angles that stand at multiples of 45 degrees. He employed sharp perspectival depth; the view down a corridor or street is common. Ozu enjoyed playing with the positions of objects within the frame, often rearranging props from shot to shot for the sake of minute shifts. In the color films, a shot will be enhanced by a fleck of bright and deep color, often red; this accent will migrate around the film, returning as an abstract motif in scene after scene.
Ozu's use of editing was no less idiosyncratic. In opposition to the 180-degree space of Hollywood cinema, Ozu employed a 360-degree approach to filming a scene. This "circular" shooting space yields a series of what Western cinema would consider incorrect matches of action and eyelines. While such devices crop up in the work of other Japanese filmmakers, only Ozu used them so rigorously—to under-mine our understanding of the total space, to liken characters, and to create abstract graphic patterns. Ozu's shots of objects or empty locales extend the concept of the Western "cutaway": he used them not for narrative information but for symbolic purposes or for temporal prolongation. Since Ozu early abjured the use of fades and dissolves, cutaways often stand in for such punctuations. And because of the unusually precise compositions and cutting, Ozu was able to create a sheerly graphic play with the screen surface, "matching" contours and regions of one shot with those of the next.
Ozu's work remains significant not only for its extraordinary richness and emotional power, but also because it suggests the extent to which a filmmaker working in popular mass-production filmmaking can cultivate a highly individual approach to film form and style.