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My brother and I had tickets to see Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 film Tokyo Story at the B.F.I. over the weekend. The screening was part of their retrospective of his work, which continues throughout January and February. Despite being hailed as a master filmmaker, as Ian Buruma points out, “many Japanese still think Ozu is too “Japanese” to be properly understood abroad.” There’s a belief that westerners cannot appreciate either his style or Japan’s culture.
He certainly has a unique personal style. When he is presenting an interior, the viewer is often low to the ground, at sitting height. His camera remains still and detached: there are no sweeping pans or extreme close-ups in Tokyo Story; his takes are long and sometimes linger for a few seconds after everyone has left a scene. Dialogue is predominantly shot in one of two ways: either as a two-shot, which includes both the speaker and the listener within one frame, or, breaking ‘the line’ of cross-cutting, as a series of exchanges in which the speakers look directly into the camera.
His main methods for shooting conversations reveal his aesthetic to be one of inclusion. His two-shots are either balanced, by placing one individual at frame left and one at frame right, or over-the-shoulder shots, in which the back of the listener’s head is visible as well as the speaker. By allowing his characters to look and talk into the camera, Ozu affords the viewer a more active role in the speaking process: we, in a way, are being spoken to, rather than just viewing and hearing, from the outside. In larger groups, the viewer remains an addressee instead of becoming merely one that overhears. Take, for example, a three-way conversation between the elderly Shukichi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu), his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) and their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), in which each person is positioned at the point of a triangle. The conventional way to shoot such an arrangement is to break the group down into its component dialogues and to film each of these pairs, obeying their respective cross-cutting lines. Ozu instead places his camera between the two listeners, say Shukichi and Tomi, allowing Noriko’s eyes to flick between camera left and camera right, depending upon who she is addressing. He maintains the group as a unified whole and also includes the viewer, for a time, in the gaze of the speaker.
Subverting, as his films do, the conventions of shooting dialogue that have been established in western cinema for some time, standing on ‘the line’ between characters that shouldn’t even be crossed, Ozu’s pictures may also jar with viewers that expect films to be driven by their narrative progression: he, instead, focuses on characters. His presentation of the everyday events that make up a normal life must quickly shed its Japanese clothing and strike a universal note, though, because most of us share lives closer to Shukichi than the samurai warlord in Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). Presumably Ozu is too “Japanese” for foreigners just as John Updike is too “American” in much of his work: they both focus on the quotidian, as Buruma says, “revealing beauty where we don’t usually look for it.” In Couples (1968), Updike presents the repetition of “long newspaper-coloured ice-cream evenings”; Tokyo Story revels in the drinking of green tea and alcohol. Both expose the processes of making do and getting by.
Ozu’s still and detached but subtly inclusive style of shooting is apt for his choice of subject matter because “[he] never sought to improve the world; he simply expressed life in Japan as he saw it.” Updike, too, intends only to document middle America because, as he knows, “life hates being analysed.” Both artists allow the world to stand and, in so doing, give it the chance to speak. The sadness of the situation in Tokyo Story, the reluctance of the children to spend time with their parents, despite a dying mother, reverberates in the moments when everyone has left and the camera presents an empty room. The viewer is allowed time to think and to hear what Updike calls the “monologue” of “the quivering rattle of the [basketball] rim”: standing as an icon for youthful ability and hope now passed, the noise of a missed shot is a specific example of the inevitability of loss and disappointment that accompany life.
Buruma tells us that the Japanese have “an aesthetic expression” for this melancholy: “mono no aware, the tears we shed over the transience of things” . He believes, while it is difficult to translate precisely into English, “it is something all of us can feel.” He is undoubtedly correct. What better way to describe the effect on the reader of the Old English poem The Ruin than to say it makes her find both beauty and sadness in such transience? Part of it is translated by S. J. Bradley as follows: “Wondrously ornate is the stone of this wall, shattered by fate; […] An earthly grasp holds the lordly builders, decayed and gone, the cruel grip of the ground, while a hundred generations of humanity have passed away.” There is a brief exchange between Noriko and Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), the youngest daughter of Shukichi and Tomi, in which the latter asks: “Isn’t life disappointing?”, to which Noriko replies: “Yes, it is.” Perhaps it is Noriko’s realisation that any life – even hers – is, in one sense, “[w]ondrously ornate”, as well as awaiting decay, that makes her smile before answering.