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Peter T Chattaway

yasujiro ozu (tokyo story, etc.)

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Tomorrow, the Pacific Cinematheque starts hosting this retrospective on Ozu, and I'm wondering if anyone here can recommend specific films that must be seen above all others. I'm looking to prioritize, is the thing. Alas, even though Tokyo Story is showing this weekend, I have birthday parties to attend on all three evenings! Curses!

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Doug C. will certainly weigh in here... I can only say that I've seen two Ozu films, Tokyo Story and Good Morning, and I highly recommend them both.

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I hope to catch at least one of the films in this retropective when it comes to D.C.

I've seen only Floating Weeds from Ozu. It made a big impression at the time, but I can't remember anything about the story. Sumptuous colors, though. Really beautiful.

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Tonight's birthday party was cancelled, so I got to see Tokyo Story after all. Very interesting, though perhaps unsurprisingly it is not immediately apparent to me what makes THIS one of the five best films of all time (as per that Sight & Sound poll).

I noticed right from the start that the camera stayed low to the ground and many scenes ended with people leaving rooms, and the camera lingering on the emptiness of those rooms. I also noticed that we frequently see people either from behind (why their backs and not their faces?), or frequently in an almost-perfect profile as they look off to the side at something off-screen. As my roommate put it, there is something "claustrophobic" about this film, and it is striking that, while the characters look Out There, we do not; we only look at them as they look.

I also found myself thinking back to the discussion we had on the old board regarding the difference between right-to-left and left-to-right movements and compositions in visual art -- and then I found myself realizing that this film's visuals probably had an entirely opposite effect on me compared to what they were supposed to have, because they were created in a culture where people read right-to-left. Many of the profile shots show people looking to the left ... and how different would these shots have been, for me, if the people depicted in them had been looking to the right instead? Perhaps, in addition to subtitling these films, we should reverse their images as well?

Some wonderful characterizations. The scene where the grandmother takes her grandson out to play, and she watches him and speculates that he might become a doctor but she might not live to see the day, is especially striking -- especially the way the grandson remains completely oblivious to his grandmother, the way each character is shot separately (thus emphasizing their mutual isolation) and the film cuts back and forth between them, and the fact that this is a rare "outdoors" moment in the film. Also, what a strange note to end on, the neighbours smiling and nodding purely out of customary and habitual politeness, even when they are talking to someone about his/her impending loneliness after the death of a spouse; and then that cut to the close-up on the lonely person's face after the customarily polite neighbour goes on her way. Wow. In a culture as emotionally repressed as this, a few subtle gestures speak volumes.

I continue to be amazed by the humour I find in "old" "foreign" "classics". I like how the grandfather tries to dismiss his grandsons' rudeness by saying boys need to be lively, and then all of a sudden some object or other is thrown into the room by one of the boys. I also like how the old couple plans to get up early in the morning for a romantic walk by the beach while staying at the spa, but then they are kept up all night by the partying newlyweds. And yet, given the very different cultural dispositions of 1950s Japan and 21st-century Canada, I wondered how much of this I was SUPPOSED to find funny. Did Ozu WANT us to laugh?

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I noticed right from the start that the camera stayed low to the ground

I read in Ebert's Great Movies column that this was supposed to give the impression of one sitting in traditional Japanese style, on the ground, there by adding to the traditional Japanese feel.

Man, I wish an Ozu retrospective would come to Saskatoon. :cry:

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Tonight's birthday party was cancelled, so I got to see Tokyo Story after all.

I was there, didn't see you.

The film didn't have the impact on me that IKIRU did, but I do find myself mulling it, admiring it. Thinking about my life, my parents. A film that leads to contemplation.

What was that line? "Life is disappointing." Sigh.

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Ron wrote:

: I was there, didn't see you.

"Tonight" in my case meant last night, the 23rd. Seems you saw this film tonight, the 24th.

: The film didn't have the impact on me that IKIRU did, but I do find

: myself mulling it, admiring it.

Same here. I could easily picture going back to it again in a year or two -- I imagine some themes'n'things will especially stand out now that I know how the story ends (quite some foreshadowing there, eh? what with the references to so-and-so's weight, and the scene where so-and-so wonders how much of the grandchildren's lives so-and-so will live to see).

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I noticed right from the start that the camera stayed low to the ground

I read in Ebert's Great Movies column that this was supposed to give the impression of one sitting in traditional Japanese style, on the ground, there by adding to the traditional Japanese feel.

I love that book. His opening line on FLOATING WEEDS kept going through my mind as I anticipated seeing my first Ozu tonight: "Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu." Reading the article again tonight, I am struck by another line: "He is wise about the ways we balance our selfishness with the needs of others." That really strikes me about TOKYO STORY - its wisdom.

Paul Schrader writes (in the Ozu chapter of Transcendental Style In Film):

Ozu's camera is always at the level of a person seated in the traditional fashion on the
tatami
, about three feet above the ground. "This traditional view is the view in repose, commmanding a very limited field of vision. It is the attitude for watching, for listening, it is the position from which one sees the Noh, from which one partakes of the tea ceremony. It is the aesthetic attitude; it is the passive attitude." (Schrader's quote is from Donald Richie).

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Paul Schrader and Donald Richie wrote:

: Ozu's camera is always at the level of a person seated in the traditional

: fashion on the tatami, about three feet above the ground. "This

: traditional view is the view in repose, commmanding a very limited field

: of vision. It is the attitude for watching, for listening, it is the position

: from which one sees the Noh, from which one partakes of the tea

: ceremony. It is the aesthetic attitude; it is the passive attitude."

In keeping with my should-we-flip-the-image-around query, here's another thought about the importance of the visual FORM of this film. Would it be significantly different, watching this film on a TV (which, in many cases, is on an even level with the viewer's eye, or possibly even slightly below it), as opposed to watching it in a theatre (where the viewer, at least in the days before stadium-style seating, was always looking up)? Somehow I think it would be.

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Tokyo Story came out in 1953. The Only Son came out in 1936, and I caught it tonight, and I hate to say I'm already beginning to hope that Ozu isn't a one-trick pony -- yet again, it's a film about a parent who comes to Tokyo to visit her grown child and is disappointed by what she finds, while everyone smiles and smiles and smiles just because that's how you save face when things turn out bad; once again, we see people from behind an awful lot; and once again, there is even a scene in which a woman openly wonders what her grandson will become. Since this is only the second Ozu I've seen, I'll assume for now that the programmers just put these two films together because of their common themes.

SPOILER PARAGRAPH

At any rate, The Only Son, produced when Ozu was 33 (i.e. a few years older than the grown son -- and hey, that's my age!) is a bit more bitter, I think, than Tokyo Story, which he produced when he was 50 (i.e. the age of the disappointed parents), and I guess by then he had become more resigned to the way things are -- still, I wonder what it was that made him address this subject so soon in his younger years. The opening title declares "Life's tragedy begins with the bond(ing) between parent and child..." and the film then begins in 1923, as a teacher persuades a working-class woman to give up her son and send him to a high school far away; the film then jumps ahead to 1936, and the woman visits her 27-year-old son in Tokyo, only to find that he's a mere night-school math teacher, and oh, by the way Ma, I got married and had a son last year. The son spends all his savings trying to impress his mother (he even takes her to a German movie -- an interesting detail, in these years just prior to WW2 -- and proudly proclaims, "This is a talkie!"), but it doesn't work. His mother is let down; all her sacrifices -- and they are more than her son realized -- have been for nothing. And so she goes back to her home and lies to her co-worker that her son has become a "great man", and then she goes outside and sits down with a heavy, heavy heart. Sigh.

This film may have that extra bit of resonance for me right now because my sister recently announced her intention to go to grad school, which prompted my father (who, being British, has always been very class-conscious) to reply that our family was moving up the "food chain" (my great-great-grandfather probably didn't go to school, my great-grandfather probably went to primary school, my grandfather quit school at 14, my father got a B.A., now my sister is pursuing an M.A.). My father has always been disappointed that I never pursued grad studies and became a professor myself -- he resented my getting into journalism and film criticism for quite some time, only changing his tune when articles of mine began to appear in evangelical magazines that he liked -- but since he's always been a hard-to-please sort, I think I've tried to learn to write off his dissatisfaction as just one of his peculiarities. These films, though, are beginning to make this theme seem a lot more universal and inevitable. I bet if I saw one of these films right after, oh, Thirteen, I would never ever want to have children of my own.

Hmmm. Hadn't meant to get into all that. Anyway, The Only Son was preceded by a ten-minute short called I Graduated But..., which is actually a montage of all the footage that remains from a silent feature film that Ozu made in 1929. (There was no music to go with the film, so watching it was a little odd -- every cough, every rattle of a popcorn bag, every person shifting in his or her seat was louder than usual here.) Hacked down to ten minutes, I Graduated But... is like a rather moralistic fable -- swallow your pride, oh over-educated and under-employed, and good things will come to you! Ironically, the film came out just before the Great Depression kicked off, after which it became REALLY difficult to get a job, and apparently the film's title became a popular catchprase in Japan. Oh, one other detail I rather liked was the Harold Lloyd movie poster the protagonist has in his apartment.

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Tokyo Story came out in 1953. The Only Son came out in 1936, and I caught it tonight, and I hate to say I'm already beginning to hope that Ozu isn't a one-trick pony --

This comes as a surprise after reading Schrader's book? It seems clear that Ozu wasn't after variety.

Page 18: Ozu's career was one of refinement: he constantly limited his technique, subject matter, and editorial comment....

Page 19: "In every film," Richie writes, "the whole world exists in one family..."

Page 20: Ozu's later cycle of family-office films (thirteen films from 1949 to 1962) features the estrangement of parents and children...."

Page 21: Ozu was notorious for filming the same situation over and over again...

Page 22: One must not, however, mistake Ozu's "predictability" for suprficiality or obviousness. It is not necessarily a virtue - or necessarily a fault - if a director uses the same techniques repeatedly in film after film. Predictability in Ozu's films does not stem from a lack of initiative or originality, as it does in the films of some directors, but rather from the primitive concept of ritual in which repetition is preferred to variety.

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If being a "one-trick pony" means having a distinctive and unique style capable of communicating complex subtleties of human interaction over the course of a large group of films, then saddle me up!

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Heh, no, I was thinking more of the fact that he seemed to be telling the same STORY over and over again.

And speaking of repeated story elements, last night I caught I Was Born But... (1932) and Good Morning (1959), and although these two films were made almost three decades apart, they both involve two bratty boys who 'go on strike' (a hunger strike in 1932, a vow of silence in 1959) because of their dissatisfaction with their parents.

I'm pretty sure I saw I Was Born But... in film class way back when, and I remember finding it tough to watch because there was no sound at all in the print that we saw -- not even a music track. Well, same here -- the version they screened last night was as silent as they get. But I got more involved in the story this time, and I was especially puzzled and intrigued by the game the kids played throughout the film, of making a person fall to the ground by pointing a finger at him, and then crossing themselves and holding out their hands to 'raise' the kid in question. One thing I am constantly noting in Ozu's films is the influence of western culture (Harold Lloyd posters, German films, English lessons, etc.), and here we see what appears to be a 'magic' trick borrowed from Christianity. Of course, we once again see parents wondering what will become of their children, and at one point the boys' mother says to one of them, "I'd worry if you didn't make something of yourself." I was also struck by the fact that here we have yet another Ozu film in which people watch films -- though in this case they are watching the boys' father's boss's home movies.

And speaking of western influences, the music in Good Morning is pretty darn symphonic and jazzy, and I think I spotted a Levi's red tag on the back of one kid's jeans. Plus -- oh glorious day -- the film is in colour! And what a beautiful colour print, too. (There are moments in Tokyo Story where Ozu is clearly trying to capture a beautiful image of nature or some such thing, and I kept thinking what a shame it was that the film existed only in scratchy black-and-white prints. If only he had had colour like THIS!) This film is basically all about housewives and children and the quest for domestic appliances like television sets and washing machines, and at times it made me think of Douglas Sirk, but without the melodramatic romance. It is also all about farting, and for the life of me, I can't remember if I have ever before seen people fart -- at all, never mind as frequently as this -- in a movie made before, oh, Blazing Saddles. I must say, all this talk of "transcendence" hadn't exactly prepared me for the flatulence. Alas, I was very tired last night, so I think I nodded off for about 5-10 minutes somewhere in the last half-hour, but I would gladly see this film again. (And thanks for your capsule review, SDG!)

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Heh, no, I was thinking more of the fact that he seemed to be telling the same STORY over and over again.

I hear you. I just think that's a criticism too often made by the uninitiated about one of my favorites-- Eric Rohmer-- and one of yours-- Woody Allen. We like that one movie they keep making!

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Heh, I was actually thinking of Eric Rohmer as I wrote that, actually. But I will concede you make a fine point about Woody Allen. smile.gif

BTW, SDG, I just noticed in your journal that you saw Tokyo Story just three days before I started this thread -- if it's still fresh on your mind, do you have any comments to make on that film, or on any of the comments that have been made on that film here?

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Whoa, has it really been a month since the last time I caught one of these films? Yikes. Anyway, the series has another three weeks to go, and now that I've hopefully got all the Passion hubbub out of my system, I'd like to catch a few more. Any recommendations?

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I don't see any mention in this thread -- maybe it's elsewhere -- but Wim Wenders made a documentary about Ozu, and it's screening March 28 at the Goethe Institute in D.C. Here's the institute's summary of Tokyo-Ga:

This third of Wim Wenders' film diaries traces the footsteps of the great Japanese director Yazujiro Ozu, the only filmmaker from whom Wenders once claimed he learned anything. In the film, Wenders wanders through Tokyo twenty years after Ozu's death, comparing life there now with what he knows of the city from Ozu's films. The differences are striking, yet Wenders manages to reflect on them and look for moments of truth amidst the noisy pachinko halls, neon lights, and other trappings that have all but obscured the transparent world that Ozu's films captured.

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Tokyo-Ga is a compelling little essay film, well worth seeing. It's part travelogue (Wenders actually randomly bumps into Herzog at a Tokyo tourist site) and part homage to Ozu and his culture and abiding themes. Did you see Wenders' comments on the Criterion Tokyo Story release?

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Did you see Wenders' comments on the Criterion Tokyo Story release?

I have not, but a friend of mine invited me -- twice -- to catch "Tokyo Story" on the big screen at AFI last Sunday. I couldn't make it. I've been pressing for his reaction since, but so far, nothing.

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Just a quick note to say that a search of my library system's online catalog for Ozu videos turned up zip on the movie front, but it did pull up a book -- "The Best American Movie Writing 1999," edited by Peter Bogdanovich -- that includes a Phillip Lopate Cineaste essay on Ozu, "The Subtly Observant Eye." It's a good primer on Ozu's films, if anyone's interested.

The same volume has plenty of other excellent film writing from Andrew Sarris, Martin Scorcese, Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Denby, among others.

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Wow.

My wife and I just watched Tokyo Story, and for the second time in a month I had that sensation that tells me I've just seen one that will be in my lifelong top twenty, maybe the top ten. (The other was Bresson's Balthazar.)

What a beautiful film. And I had to gasp when I came back to this thread and read the mention of the camera being placed at eye level if the viewer was kneeling in the houses, because that thought occurred to me while watching it. I wondered about it and then thought I was working to hard... reading too much into his intention. So what a surprise to realize that he DID intend that, and that it worked beautifully.

The film affected me much more than Ikiru did, which I watched recently. Technically, Ikiru is more complex and ambitious, but as far as storytelling goes, this one possessed a subtlety and weight that Ikiru lacked. (Ikiru's narration often seemed unnecessary, and Tokyo Story doesn't explain itself to us so much.)

I'm also interested in seeing if there are connections between Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu. There are some shots in this film that are strikingly reminiscent of the shots in Ordet in which we look up at the crest of that hill against the sky, and a figure moves across it. Here, bicyclists, children, and other move across the stark line of the hill against a sky in a similar fashion. Further, the subtle nods to progress in this film as a divisive, mechanical, ironbound, unnatural thing reminded me of Bresson's way of relating electricity and industrialism with evil. There are some downright ugly shots of metalwork in this film that make Tokyo seem like an unnatural and alienating place.

Doug, maybe you can shed some light on this for me. Or maybe I should just go watch Disc 2 and see the tributes and the documentary. What other Ozu should I seek out?

I suddenly see Yi-Yi in a whole new light. If there aren't intentional references to this film in Yang's movie, then there are some spooky parallels going on. The multi-generational story, the way he films rooms with different generations walking in and out, carrying their own stories, the way the old look at the young, the way the young look at the old, the way parents consider what their children have grown up to be, the way a dying parent brings the children to see themselves as they truly are... Yang must have been paying tribute to Ozu with that film. So now I love Yi-Yi even more.

Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet

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Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: My wife and I just watched Tokyo Story, and for the second time in a

: month I had that sensation that tells me I've just seen one that will be in

: my lifelong top twenty, maybe the top ten.

Glad you liked it! I kinda regret not catching more of Ozu's films at the 'theque this year, but I'm sure glad I caught this one.

: I'm also interested in seeing if there are connections between Dreyer,

: Bresson, and Ozu.

You mean, apart from the fact that Paul Schrader lumped them all together in that book of his, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer? smile.gif

: Yang must have been paying tribute to Ozu with that film.

Certainly possible. Then again, it may be a cultural thing.

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Technically, Ikiru is on a higher level of filmmaking achievement . . .

Oh, that's debatable! (At least I would debate it.) wink.gif

I'm also interested in seeing if there are connections between Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu.

I like your idea about "progress" being a great difficulty for these filmmakers--I think they all recognized social and technological changes as having profound effects on humanity that weren't necessarily always positive.

All three filmmakers certainly value contemplation over manipulation in general terms. They aren't Hitchcock or Spielberg constraining the viewer and playing them like a piano, but allow room for distance, reflection, and interpretation.

The skyline is a recurring visual motif in Ozu's work, particularly with structures like clotheslines and smokestacks.

Like Rohmer or Woody Allen or a whole slew of other filmmakers, Ozu was often accused of remaking the same films, but that's only true if you impose a plot-centric view of his work, which would be a grievious mistake. Ozu made a lot of different films in a lot of different genres, and the similarity of his late films are fascinating variations on a theme. I'd definitely look for Late Spring and Early Summer, and Criterion will be releasing Floating Weeds (and his original A Story of Floating Weeds) later this month. His silent masterpiece, I Was Born But... is truly remarkable, and his loose remake, Good Morning (Ohayo), is also available as a Criterion DVD. SDG is particularly fond of it.

Edward Yang is a huge devotee of Ozu. (Do check out that second Tokyo Story disc!)

The multi-generational story, the way he films rooms with different generations walking in and out, carrying their own stories, the way the old look at the young, the way the young look at the old, the way parents consider what their children have grown up to be, the way a dying parent brings the children to see themselves as they truly are... Yang must have been paying tribute to Ozu with that film. So now I love Yi-Yi even more.

Great observations.

A particularly big influence on Tokyo Story was Leo McCarey's astonishing Make Way for Tomorrow, which is criminally unavailable on video. (Email me if you're interested.)

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Doug C wrote:

: I like your idea about "progress" being a great difficulty for these

: filmmakers--I think they all recognized social and technological changes

: as having profound effects on humanity that weren't necessarily always

: positive.

And yet they still made films ... wink.gif

: . . . Criterion will be releasing Floating Weeds (and his original A Story of

: Floating Weeds) later this month.

Yeah, I was particularly interested in these two but missed both of them when they came to the 'theque, so I've been looking forward to the Criterion DVD.

: His silent masterpiece, I Was Born But... is truly remarkable, and his

: loose remake, Good Morning (Ohayo), is also available as a Criterion

: DVD. SDG is particularly fond of it.

Yep, I saw that film on SDG's recommendation and commented on both of those films in this thread -- and I'm kinda surprised SDG hasn't chimed in yet since then!

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Ha--Russell, I went back and just read your Rohmer and Allen comment. Great minds and all that... wink.gif

(I'm also curious why SDG never contributed to the Bresson thread, seeing that he recently saw Diary and pronounced it one of the most "deeply Catholic" and spiritual films he'd ever seen.)

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