film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Rapid Fire Reviews #5 Yasujirō Ozu’s Master Period

This edition of the “Rapid Fire Reviews” will be slightly different this time around. Each film is written by longtime collaborators Kogo Noda and Ozu himself, and directed by Ozu. I’ve also removed the “recommendations” this time because I wholeheartedly give my recommendation to all of these films. Not everyone will enjoy or embrace these films, and I get that, but still, if I can convince even one person to look into these films and this director, I’d consider it a success. In the last edition of Rapid Fire Reviews I incorrectly noted that all six of these films were in color, but I was mistaken, the first two films, “Early Spring” and “Tokyo Twilight” are in black and white. Hopefully that won’t discourage anyone from checking these films out!

This series of films mostly focus on the divide between parents and their children. In the 1950’s Japan was experiencing a transformative evolution within their society and culture. After World War Two there was a slow drip of Western influence, consumerism was beginning to take hold, and young adults were starting to want to make their own decisions in life and love. Independence and choosing to stand up for your own happiness in life are gigantic themes within these six films. A lot of the drama rests on women rejecting the notion of arranged marriages, older men realizing they must adapt and change their notions of tradition and authority, and the complications of loneliness. Above all else these stories inhabit an incredibly mature recognition of emotional honesty and allowing people the time to change and evolve their worldview.

Below I’ve linked the three other Ozu film reviews I’ve already written here on this blog. “Tokyo Story” was the beginning of Ozu’s late career revival, and what many would consider the “Master” period of his filmography that would culminate in his last film, “An Autumn Afternoon” which is a part of this edition of the “Rapid Fire Reviews”. If you want the full picture of Ozu’s evolution on the themes of generational conflict I highly suggest checking out the three films linked below as well, they’re each an integral part of that process. I’ve also put a link to a video essay on youtube that expertly discusses Ozu’s filmography in a nuanced and well thought out structure. If nothing else, this may help you to decide whether or not Ozu is for you.

*Also, there will be spoilers, and I won’t be naming all of the actors and character names. Not out of a lack of respect, but because Ozu used so many of the same actors in widely different roles in his films with recurring themes and reused sets- it can get a bit confusing at times. However, since all of the films deal with some sort of familial drama I’ll indicate characters by their role in the family. By all means, please research these actors if you watch these films and enjoy their performances. My favorite character actor that Ozu often utilizes, to perfection, is Chishu Ryu. His gentle humility and earnestness is pure cinema.

Early Spring (1956)

This is the longest film of the bunch running at about two hours and twenty minutes. It’s also the film that has the least influence from the older generation out of this assortment. We follow a couple that’s a few years into their marriage with some growing concerns. The focus of this film is split between Ozu’s depiction of the disillusionment of white collar work and infidelity within marriage. Initially, we’re only given hints of the husband’s possible affair from multiple points of view. We get subtle suspicions from the wife, who’s informed by her older neighbor of a past affair that her husband had engaged in and gives her advice to stamp that out, and quick. We also get a lot of gossip from the husband’s coworkers who notice that he and a younger woman nicknamed “Goldfish” (due to her huge eyes) have been spending a lot of time together recently. After we’re finally given evidence of the two actively engaging in said affair the focus shifts to the husband’s friends and coworkers banding together to confront “Goldfish” about the affair. What stood out to me in this film was the encouraging sense of community, the warm visuals of friends sitting in large groups smoking, playing mah-jong, and singing together. It really balanced the darker elements of the story, especially when the source of the couple’s emotional distance is revealed. There’s also a few camera movements, which, for Ozu, felt revolutionary.

Tokyo Twilight (1957)

Tonally, “Tokyo Twilight” is the darkest Ozu film I’ve seen yet. While most of Ozu’s films have an inherent sadness to them, the despondent nature of this film’s sorrow comes from a place of tragedy rather than melancholy or loneliness. Set in the dead of winter, the focus of the story falls on the shoulders of the adult daughters of the family. One is married with a young child, and the younger distraught with her current boyfriend. The older sister has returned home on a break from her marriage and isn’t particularly happy with her husband. While the younger sister searches mah-jong parlours for her boyfriend, she runs into the owner of one such establishment who seems to know some details about her family. This mysterious woman confounds the younger daughter by these details so much so that when she brings it up to her older sister, she pieces the facts together and realizes that the owner must be their Mother- long assumed gone forever. Thus the older sister goes to the parlour to confront the mother that abandoned them and pleads with her not to reveal who she is to the younger sister. Obviously, things don’t go as planned and after realizing that her boyfriend doesn’t actually love her- the younger daughter decides not to have her unborn child, gets an abortion, and drowns her sorrows in sake. Her boyfriend barges into the bar to talk with her and she angrily departs only to be hit by a train on the way out. After her death the older sister seeks out their mother and tells her of the news, and pointedly barbs that “it’s your fault”. The older sister returns home to tell her father that she will try to make their marriage work for her child, as she has seen what growing up with only one parent can do to a person as it happened to her sister. Their father agrees, citing that though he tried his best, a child needs the influence of both parents for a well rounded childhood.

Equinox Flower (1958)

The first film Ozu made in color, “Equinox Flower” is a huge departure from the last film’s darkness. Even though Ozu was pushed to make the change to color by the studio to better capture their newly acquired actor in Shin Saburi, the director fully embraced the change. Red tea kettles and bright orange sodas pop onscreen and pair with this film’s optimistic tone quite nicely. This film takes the focus back to the parents viewpoint as they begin to take the first steps in understanding and accepting their children’s independence. Saburi’s father figure is one of the more inconsistent leads in an Ozu film. He begins the film at a friend’s son’s wedding where he gives a short speech praising the opportunities that the youth have today, and chastising the old ways of the past. However he spends the rest of the film attempting to force the tradition of an arranged marriage, for pragmatic reasons, onto his oldest daughter. In fact later in the film when he’s challenged about his resistance to change, one of his daughter’s friends (who also has issues with her own mother constantly trying to pair her up with financially stable men) takes it upon herself to act out a test for him. She asks him for some advice on her situation, framing her family strife as a stand in for Saburi’s eldest daughter’s predicament, to which he advises that she do as she pleases and that she doesn’t need her mother’s approval. The friend then reveals the set-up to him by saying that his eldest daughter will be so happy to hear that he approves of her choice to marry for love and not in the traditional way. The father finds that while his casual acceptance of the principles he espoused at the beginning of the film aren’t necessarily in practice in his family life, but his peers, wife, and children all guide him in the right direction. Eventually he accepts this change and embraces his daughter’s choice which results in one of the more uplifting endings for Ozu.

Late Autumn (1960)

This film continues the themes that “Equinox Flower” began by evolving further in embracing the younger generation’s independence. This time around the primary lens of the film flips to a mother’s view on her children’s future rather than the father’s in the last film. The widowed mother goes back and forth on whether or not to remarry so as to relieve her daughter’s guilt over abandoning her. The source of conflict comes from the three wannabe matchmaker businessmen who inflict confusion and emotional pain on these two women through their bungling attempts at setting them each up with appropriate suitors. Which only further establishes the idea that the old ways are over. This film reuses a majority of the actors and sets from “Equinox Flower” so watching them back to back can be a bit disorientating, but the core of each film has enough substance and personality to stand out from each other. This is the first film where the younger generation not only stands up for their right to choose, but does so with a fierce confidence. This is expressed perfectly in one scene where the widowed mother’s daughter’s friend dresses down the three businessmen who admit to their fouling things up. The message of the film becomes clear near the end when the widowed mother chooses not to remarry. While the daughter feels sorrow for her mother, she expresses an earnest need to her daughter to choose happiness for herself in her own life. The mother admits that she will experience some loneliness without her around, but that this cannot be helped and that they must both lead their own lives for themselves. The importance of moving forward with life is paramount in this film.

The End of Summer (1961)

The lead actor from “Floating Weeds”, Ganjiro Nakamura, returns here as the patriarch of a family that owns a small, struggling, sake brewing business. Again, as in “Floating Weeds”, Nakamura’s father figure hides another mistress from his peers- though it is from his large family rather than an acting troupe for this film. The man-child’s selfish actions blended with two of his daughters being courted by the family with various suitors makes for a well rounded combination of comedy and tragedy. This tight knit family struggles to deal with their patriarch’s childish actions and how to handle their eventual transition to power in the sake business- contemplating selling out to larger corporations rather than trying to stay afloat by any means possible. Near the end of the second act, a surprise heart attack hits our patriarch which brings the family’s strife into starker and darker territory. Ironically, our lead bounces back from his death bed with renewed vigor to settle a few more things before his end, which pairs with Ozu’s own death only two years after this release. Humorously, at one point two side characters remark at how difficult it is to keep track of who’s who in the Kohayagawa family- and I could relate!

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

This is Ozu’s final film, and one that perfectly bookends his “Master period” that began with “Tokyo Story”. Returning as a lead character once again is Chishu Ryu as an aging widowed father who lives with his two youngest children. His daughter is of marrying age, but he’s in no rush to push her to get married and leave the household. His oldest son is married already and lives in an apartment nearby with his wife. Early in the film our patriarch throws a reunion party with his former schoolmates in honor of their aging professor, affectionately nicknamed “The Gourd”. The Gourd isn’t exactly living the healthiest life at this point. He’s a widower who lives with his adult daughter who never married out of the guilt of abandoning her father. Together they run a small, cheap, noodle shop in a dirty and industrial part of town. The Gourd is a drunk and he’s consumed by his failures in life and his part in ruining his daughter’s life as well. Chishu Ryu’s patriarch sees a possible path for his own life and family in the Gourd’s mistakes and he tries, vehemently, to amend these possible wrongs. Throughout the film we also see much more of a presence of consumerism in the characters lives. This thread began in “Good Morning”, but is expanded upon here in detail with characters obsessing over a Baseball team’s stats, watching TVs in bars, or coveting an expensive set of golf clubs. In the end our patriarch convinces his daughter to marry someone, anyone that she truly has an interest in, and not to worry about him or her younger teenage brother. The ending, while emotionally brutal, is a crucial element to the whole film. Acknowledging the pain of loss, and the loneliness of life can be difficult- but we must march ever onward, and do what is right.

NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:

Another divergence from the former format will happen as I’ll be doing a double feature review. Since Spike Lee recently released “Da 5 Bloods” on Netflix, I’ll be giving that a watch as well as his third film “Do The Right Thing”. Since I haven’t seen either film yet I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to watch and discuss both and the evolution of Spike Lee as a director in that time.

https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/04/17/old-school-review-tokyo-story-1953/

https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/31/old-school-review-good-morning-1959/

https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/21/old-school-review-floating-weeds-1959/

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Old School Review: “Good Morning” (1959)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu and directed by Ozu, “Good Morning” is a comedic drama following two young boys who wage a war of silence against their parents to persuade them to buy a Television set so they can watch Sumo wrestling. This is the most charming of Ozu’s films that I have seen thus far (three and counting), and still yet the film manages to insert powerful, but subtle, musings on the intricacies of communication and intent. The film is focused on a small Tokyo suburb of families living in close proximity with each other and it cleverly bounces between the language barriers and misunderstandings of a few groups of the residents. First, and most focused on, are the two brothers Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and Minoru (Sitara Koji). On their morning walks to school they and a few other boys from the neighborhood have perfected a game in which they press a finger against each other’s forehead to instigate a fart, which gives way to laughter and affirmation in the group. Funnily enough, one poor kid keeps failing this intestinal test and, well, he begins and ends the film with a walk of shame back to his parents to get a change of pants.

The mothers and wives of the suburb turn a simple misunderstanding into a series of gossip and rumors because their collective dues haven’t been paid accordingly. They all attest to have paid on time, surely, there was a simple issue along the way, but on the other hand the chairwoman, Mrs Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura) who collects the dues, has just bought a new washing machine. As the film progresses, Mrs Hayashi (Kuniko Miyake) the mother of Isamu and Minoru, wanted to solve the issue quickly- she seems to be easily put on edge by financial stress– but Mrs Haraguchi hears about the allegation of a new washing machine bought illegally with the dues and confronts Mrs Hayashi (who didn’t even start the rumor) to assure her that this did not happen. Ironically, later when Isamu and Minoru go on a strike of silence to get their parents to buy a TV, they apply this silence to all adults and Mrs Haraguchi assumes this slight was instigated by Mrs Hayashi for the misunderstanding, and quickly informs the other women that Mrs Hayashi holds grudges. This whole incident, by the way, is finally uncovered when Mrs Haraguchi discovers that the dues were given to her mother (Eiko Miyoshi), a comedic old woman who had simply forgotten about receiving them. The grandmother is often found praying, and blatantly complaining about her ingrate of a daughter- yet another Ozu familiarity in the comedy and tragedy of generational family affairs.

The fathers and husbands of the suburb also have their own issues with communication as well. The father of Isamu and Minoru (Chishū Ryū) must mediate and absolve his sons squabbling, after they loudly resist he bellows that “You talk too much for boys your age”. Minoru (the eldest) responds that adults are even worse because adults always engage in pointless niceties like “good morning”, “good evening” and refuse to say exactly what they mean. Which is how Isamu and Minoru come to their silent strike. Their father also has a scene with an older acquaintance in a bar who had found no solace in retirement, only the slow walk toward death. They try to communicate between one’s drunken rambling and the other’s botched attempt to cheer him up- but in doing so realizes his own encroaching retirement. It is this acquaintance, happier with a new job near the end of the film selling electronics, that Isamu and Minoru’s parents buy a TV from to celebrate his new job- to the joy of the silent little warriors.

Final Score: 2 brothers and a few rumors

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Old School Review: “Floating Weeds” (1959)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu and directed by Ozu, “Floating Weeds” is a remake of Ozu’s own black-and-white silent film “A Story of Floating Weeds” made in 1934. This film follows a traveling troupe of actors performing Kabuki theatre around the provinces (“floating weeds” is a Japanese term for itinerent actors). In the opening we’re introduced to the sleepy fishing village that will house the story to come as a few random dock workers muse about the heat of the day and the novelty of the incoming troupe. The troupe arrives by boat and parades into town handing out flyers and talking up the locals as they make their way towards their new temporary home while in town, the theatre. While there are some delightful and fun side stories with several members of the theatre crew, the plot’s main focus is on Komajuro Arashi (Ganjirô Nakamura) the leader of the operation, and lead actor. After settling in Komajuro heads off to a Saki bar run by Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura, his former mistress) to visit and go fishing with Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) their grown son who is unaware of his true father’s identity, knowing Komajuro only as “Uncle”.

As you might guess, it isn’t long until Sumiko learns of Komajuro’s ulterior motives in choosing this town for their next round of performances. Which doesn’t go well for Komajuro, as Sumiko’s the jealous type. After she discovers this affront and sees Oyoshi in attendance at one of their shows, she goes to Oyoshi’s Saki bar and aggressively confronts her when she catches Komajuro there playing Go with Kiyoshi one afternoon. Despite Komajuro’s shock and dismay at Sumiko’s transgression he bans her from the Saki bar and breaks it off with her in a powerful argument in the rain. Later on Sumiko offers one of the younger actresses some side money to go and seduce Kiyoshi at his job. While reluctant at first Kayo (Ayako Wakao) eventually accepts without knowing Sumiko’s reasoning for the request. Despite the origins of their relationship, Kiyoshi and Kayo end up falling in love. Shortly after this development Komajuro stumbles upon the two embracing in an alley and finds himself in a conundrum- how can he exercise his authority over Kiyoshi without revealing his true identity to him?

Komajuro had high hopes for his son, Kiyoshi had been saving for college and had plans to support his mother when he could. Before Komajuro can sort out the situation though, Kiyoshi and Kayo elope just as the theatre troupe had begun to fall apart. The financial manager absconded with their funds and several members considered leaving before they become too desperate. Dwindling crowds paired with mismanagement spelled the beginning of the end for the troupe. Eventually Kiyoshi and Kayo head back to town at Kayo’s pressuring- but Kiyoshi and Komajuro clash at the Saki bar when Oyoshi reveals Kiyoshi’s true parentage in an attempt to diffuse the scuffle. Kiyoshi discards Komajuro and leaves in a huff while Komajuro sits in amazement at the series of baffling failures set at his feet. He decides to move on after a cheerful long goodbye to the troupe, ironically riding out of town on a train with Sumiko tending to him- begrudgingly accepting his enemy’s re-established loyalty.

Ozu’s works, of the two I’ve seen so far, have this unique serenity to them. Maybe it’s the leisurely pace, the shots of gentle locations giving the world of his stories a sense of the oft quoted “lived-in” space, or simply that the content of his films are universal to the modern human experience. His films evoke a powerful catharsis felt just as strongly sixty years later. Obviously, not every film will work for every person, but I’m willing to bet that if you gave any of his films a chance you might find yourself quizzically enraptured not just by the drama of common themes across his filmography, but also by the meditative cinematography of his infamous “pillow shots” that melt in-between scenes asking you to pause and digest, relax and breathe. There is something powerful in his depiction of the joy, sadness, humor, and tragedy of everyday life that makes his characters seem familiar and his plots reminiscent of truth.

It wouldn’t be an Ozu film (as I’ve come to notice in my intense search for information on the filmmaker) without a particularly precise composition for every shot in his films. Ozu would typically put the composition of his frame above all else, ignoring the continuity of props and eye-lines for the purity of his images. Which is doubly true for his foray into color filmmaking near the end of his career. His warm pastel coloration for “Floating Weeds” adds another layer of texture to the small seaside village the story takes place in. Between the visible mugginess of the hot summer and the cleansing, humidifying, rain that comes at night and in-between heated arguments, there is a unifying sense of place not only with the “pillow shots” of nature and architecture but in all variables of the filmmaking process. Particularly pleasing was the soundtrack, evocative of popular video game scores (which were probably inspired by films such as this) like “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker” and “Animal Crossing”, it was perfectly set for a small seaside village in the heat of summer. I doubt there could have been a more perfect fit than what we got. The recurring theme gave way to the notion of music belonging to a particular place in its essence, these melodies molded to fit this time and this place. All of these things combine to craft a beautiful and atmospheric stage for Ozu’s story to play out, and it does so with a grace and humility like no other.

While maybe not quite as emotionally impactful as “Tokyo Story”, Ozu’s remake here is a more diverse picture in terms of emotional balance. This is purely my commentary and I can only speak to my experience with the film, but this film held a greater variety of emotional resonance. I was legitimately shocked when Sumiko directly confronted Oyoshi in her Saki bar. The following heated debate in the rain between Sumiko and Komajuro was incendiary and raw. The anger, regret, shock, and disgust thrown at each other was palpable and moving. While earlier, in less fierce scenes, I was tickled by the three bachelors of the troupe and their antics in trying to pair up with the women of the town. This film is a rarity among cinema, as was Ozu himself, and it’s worth your while to experience something new in the pantheon of film, even though this film is sixty years old- it’s still a charming story with universal and relatable characters and themes. Give it a shot!

Final Score: 3 bachelors, 1 lead actor, and 2 mistresses

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Old School Review: “Tokyo Story” (1953)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, and directed by Ozu, “Tokyo Story” is seemingly a simple family drama about an older couple traveling to visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking such of an arthouse film, but you’d be wrong in this case. In essence that is the skeleton of the film, yes, but beneath the initial layer lies a story about family and how time can erode once strong connections. It is about how parents can lose their place in their family’s hierarchy. How work and modernization can manipulate and destroy family in subtle ways. Mostly though, it is about the bittersweet heartbreak of growing old and losing touch with those closest to you.

When Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), the grandfather, and Tomi (Chiyeko Higashiyama) the grandmother, arrive in Tokyo they’re welcomed by a busy family. They spend the first few days with their oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura) a doctor in a small local clinic. He is married to Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), and they have two sons. After meeting their grandchildren and hanging out about the house (Not many adults have the time away from work to take them sightseeing) they head to Koichi’s sister, Shige’s (Haruko Sugimura) home. Shige is also married and runs a beauty salon in the first floor of their abode. The family members mean well, and make several attempts to entertain their elders, sightseeing some and buying them treats (though Shige protests at her husband for buying such expensive cakes- they eat most of them before presenting the gift). At a lack of finding things for Shukichi and Tomi to do the married couples recruit Noriko (Setsuko Hara) their widowed daughter-in-law who hasn’t yet remarried since the war. Noriko is more than happy to help, even though she isn’t a blood relative and has the least stature among the adult children of Shukichi and Tomi.

They try not to burden any of the family while they are in Tokyo, but it becomes clear after some time that they are simply too busy to accommodate them. After a failed trip to a resort spa outside of Tokyo, paid for by Shige’s family, Shukichi and Tomi decide to head home. They linger about for a bit, trying not to offend anyone for having left the spa early, which isn’t why they came to Tokyo in the first place. After a night out with Shkichi’s old village friends now residing in Tokyo, and Tomi having a profound evening with Noriko- they depart for home. Shortly after having returned home, Tomi falls gravely ill and the children begin to make the journey home for their dying mother. It is a beautiful and tragic sequence of scenes for the last half hour of the film, Shukichi veiling his grief with blank expressions and the children all commingling their grief and true feelings about their parents- it’s a lot, and if you can make it through the end with dry eyes, I honestly don’t know what would move you to tears in cinema.

The story, however, is only one slice of what makes this film so memorable and potent. Yasujiro Ozu’s technique behind the camera accounts for much of the dreamlike quality of the film. His cinematography and framing choices seem unique in how he utilizes them. He doesn’t always adhere to the eyeline rule, characters can seem as if they aren’t looking at each other as they speak, but he cares not. His style doesn’t sacrifice spacial or auditory understanding in the least, it enhances it. Ozu often frames two people sitting side by side, facing away from the camera, which gives the audience an almost ghostly viewpoint of the dialogue. It’s in this pairing of those faraway, unconcerned, shots of conversation with his low angle mid-shots of the actors directly facing the camera that Ozu’s style emerges as one both heavily invested in what his characters have to say, but also of the world they inhabit. Many scenes are bookended with “pillow shots” (relating to a similar technique in Japanese poetry); beautiful compositions of elaborate cityscapes, simple architecture, trains chugging along, or boats cruising along the coast in the background that bind the characters to their place and time so beautifully.

Inherently relatable and elegantly true to life, “Tokyo Story” was a joy to discover. I cannot recommend it enough, I found it (as with most older films lately) on the Criterion Channel, and with it a new filmography to plumb. Test new waters, take a chance and maybe you’ll find a new favorite film or filmmaker, I know I have.

Final Score: 4 adult children, 2 grandchildren, and 1 heartbroken old man..

*To further inform you on the humble perfection of this film, I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film below:

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-tokyo-story-1953