August 5-11, 2004
Tokyo Story/Early Summer/Floating Weeds and A Story of Floating Weeds ($39.95 DVD) Like Robert Bresson, whose films have also been slow coming to DVD, Yasujiro Ozu needs, to a certain extent, to be rescued from his admirers. It's common to praise Ozu, like Bresson, for his austerity and minimalism, and he's frequently labeled "the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers," as opposed to the supposedly more Westernized films of Akira Kurosawa. Such a claim ignores Kurosawa's communal storytelling, as well as the fact that the young Ozu preferred American films to Japanese ones, but it's a handy way of propping up cultural stereotypes while pretending to demolish them.
It's true that Ozu is a far less varied filmmaker than Kurosawa or, for that matter, than just about anyone. With titles like The End of Summer, Late Autumn, Early Spring and An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu's movies almost beg to be mistaken for one another, and plot summaries are little help: "a daughter's decision to marry throws her family into turmoil" could serve for any number of them. Ozu rarely varied camera placement from his low-angle "tatami-eye view" audio commentator Donald Richie says that Ozu's custom-made tripod had just two different heights and he soften reused actors (especially Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara) and even character names. Let's recap: no camera movement, no tricky plots, little variation in theme: Ready to hop on board?
It's easy, and tempting, to characterize Ozu's negative virtues, but it has the unfortunate effect of making him sound like an aesthetic refusenik, a naysaying stick-in-the-mud. But if Ozu was something of a social conservative, lamenting, if not outright condemning, the breakdown of the traditional family in post-WWII Japan, his style is as radical as it is restrained. He frequently elides major events in the narrative, leaving the audience to infer which characters are siblings and which in-laws, or that a long-awaited marriage has taken place offscreen. And his frequent changes in screen direction (known as "breaking the line") erase any tendency toward theatricality. It's hard to think of a filmmaker whose work at once eschews so many of the tools of cinema and is yet so cinematic.
December's centenary of Ozu's birth has occasioned a flood of DVD releases; four new Criterion discs join the previously available Good Morning, which has been feeling awfully lonely on the video-store shelf. (A six-pack of French releases and a handful of British discs promise more for the future.) The big-ticket item is Tokyo Story (1953), packaged with a reverential two-hour documentary on Ozu's life and films and 40 minutes of encomia from directors like Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, not to mention muscular commentary from Ozu scholar David Desser and an essay by film historian David Bordwell. (You'll have to look elsewhere for news that the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt kept a copy of the script on his music stand while making their latest album.) All this for a movie Ozu described as "one of my most melodramatic pictures," and whose posthumous elevation as the pinnacle of his oeuvre might well have puzzled him.
Tokyo Story is a melodrama less in terms of plot than of position: Families often fall apart in Ozu, but here he's fairly clear about the cause. When a country couple (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) pay a visit to their big-city kin, they're cruelly sidelined by their ungrateful offspring, particularly their sharper-than-a-serpent's-tooth daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura). If their childhood was less than idyllic dad was a sometime drunk, and overweight mom traumatically embarrassed Shige by splintering a chair in front of her friends it's clearly no excuse for shirking their filial duties, a burden which falls instead to their widowed sister-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Betrayals minor and major add up to this climactic exchange: "Isn't life disappointing?" "Yes, it is."
Not the cheeriest stuff, to be sure. But as Tokyo Story reminds us, life goes on. Over the characters' shoulders, we often see into an adjoining house, where daily life goes on oblivious to the drama we're privy to. Though he embraced color a few years before his death in 1963, Ozu never yielded to widescreen, which must have been in part because the 1:33 aspect ratio so neatly reproduced the interlocking boxes of Japanese homes. A typical composition, instantly recognizable as Ozu's, shows the cluttered interior of a middle-class home, rice-paper partitions forming a receding series of planes parallel to the camera. Partly, this served to denote depth, since Ozu, like Bresson, gravitated toward the 50 mm lens, which has a limited depth of field. But it also indicates his tendency to face his settings and subjects head-on, and the extent to which even the humblest home has secrets hidden from view.
The illusory protection of those semi-opaque walls is revealed most splendidly in Early Summer (1951), which also serves as the best introduction for Ozu first-timers. Unmarried Noriko (Hara) confides in her sister-in-law (Ryu) about the man her boss has suggested as a possible groom. After Noriko gets up, the solid-seeming wall behind them slides suddenly away, and Noriko's brother pokes his head through, nosing after information. Privacy is an illusion, as is the idea that an individual can act in a vacuum.
Befitting the film's title, the characters spend a lot of time fanning themselves as if they're about to overheat, and the film has something of the heat-haze languor of John Ford's My Darling Clementine. But hard as Early Summer works to prolong each moment, you know the end is coming, and this time ambivalently. If Noriko's decision to put her own happiness first inevitably means the splintering of her family, who cannot afford to all live in the same house without her contribution to the rent, her actions also return her parents to the countryside, where the view out their back door is not a wooden fence but an endlessly stretching plain, whose infinity is emphasized in the movie's wordless coda. If change is inevitably destructive, it is also to be welcomed, if only because there is no other option.
Speaking of change, the two-disc set of A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds offers a unique opportunity to trace the evolution of Ozu's style. Shot 25 years apart in 1934 and 1959, respectively the films tell the same story in surprisingly similar, yet crucially different ways. The basic outline is the same: a troupe of traveling actors visits a remote town, reuniting its leader with an old love and a son who thinks his father is long dead. Critical scenes, like the confrontation between the troupe leader and his current mistress, play out almost shot-for-shot the same. But while the plot demands a certain melodrama, including a few violent exchanges which seem almost alien to Ozu's measured style, the later film is far more leisurely, not always to its benefit. Ozu's precisely composed black-and-white shots rarely lapse into pictorialism, but his color compositions are so overtly beautiful they lose a certain dynamism; audio commentator Roger Ebert approvingly notes shot after shot you could frame and hang on your wall, but static prettiness often impedes the movie's forward progress. The movies are best taken together, which is just how they've been packaged.