At the Movies

Michael Wood

  • Yasujiro Ozu Season
    BFI Southbank, until 28 February 2010

Many film-makers create worlds we imagine we could inhabit, and some of them specialise in this effect, set up whole colonies of the imagination for us. We experience the eeriness of an empty street and we know we are in a Hitchcock movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example. Certain steep angles of vision make us think we must have stepped into Citizen Kane, and there are forms of panic we associate with locations from Dracula, or Goodfellas.

But we can’t inhabit the films of Yasujiro Ozu, and we can’t find his world in ours. This is not because the films don’t create worlds, or because we can’t understand or sympathise with what goes on in them. It is because Ozu so scrupulously and adamantly situates us as spectators, watchers on the edge of a world we can’t enter and can’t replicate. In this sense he takes us back to the effect of film that Virginia Woolf flagged when she said that in moving pictures ‘we see life as it is when we have no part in it,’ and the one Stanley Cavell evokes when he speaks of films as presenting a world that is complete without us, a world we seek both to deny and to welcome. We don’t want a world that is complete without us: that is why we place ourselves in the movies, borrow their stories and techniques and locations as the imagery of real life. We do want a world that’s complete without us: that’s why the films of Ozu can haunt us, as even those of Hitchcock can’t.

A complete retrospective of Ozu’s surviving films is running at the BFI. Ozu was born in 1903, started as a director with a series of silent films made between 1927 and 1936, made his first sound film in 1936 too, and shifted into colour as late as 1958. He died in 1963. He is famous for the abstemiousness of his style: no flashbacks, and as his career developed, no tracking shots, and not much camera movement of any kind. His images are often taken from very close to the floor, creating shots of persons who are already placed at a low angle to the world.

This camera often sits at the end of a corridor in a modern Japanese dwelling. We see into the room at the end, and we know there are rooms to the left and the right, because we catch sight of people entering and leaving them. But the geometry seems to be without depth, and quite often the corridor is empty: we are waiting for the inhabitants to show up. The same goes for the city of Tokyo, represented in several films by sheer façades of tall, many-windowed buildings. There must be spaces between them in the form of streets, but we can’t see the gaps, because of the camera’s head-on, non-perspectival look. The suburban railway station, a favourite location in these movies, feels like a space of extraordinary liberty by comparison. But it too is usually evoked in three static takes, each held for a long minute, and is usually empty, waiting for life. Every now and again there is a long shot of a hillside covered in trees, or of sand-dunes and the sea: small holidays for the eye, which correspond precisely to the breaks Ozu’s characters very occasionally allow themselves from their careers in extravagant modesty.

The films concentrate on families, and on relationships between generations. Whether a woman should marry – and when and whom – is one of the great questions in the society Ozu studies so patiently, and it becomes a political and moral question for him as well as a domestic and psychological one, since on this question – and on whether one can ask it or not – the very notions of human freedom and dignity depend. Happiness is not really an issue. Ozu’s characters talk about it quite a bit, but they don’t expect much of it, and they are always ready to give it up. They are so cheerful about what often looks like the desolation of their lives that they might almost become tiresome. Kurosawa, for example, said he didn’t like the ‘dignified severity’ of Ozu’s films. He was probably thinking of their austere, self-denying style; but the contents of the films are severely limited too.

The characters are not tiresome, though, because the internal spaces of their limited worlds are so vast, and so unforgettably delineated. Consider a famous scene from Early Summer (1951). An elderly couple sits in a park, watching children at play. They think of their own son, now married and a father, of their daughter, about to get married, and the father says this is perhaps the happiest time of their life. His wife is not sure. ‘Do you think so?’ she says. ‘We could be happier.’ The father doesn’t deny this, just says they mustn’t want too much. A moment later we get one of Ozu’s rare shots of something other than buildings and people: the open sky, thick clouds almost stationary. A balloon floats upwards, and we watch it for a moment. The next shot shows the couple again. The father, thinking of the balloon, says: ‘Some child must be crying.’ Now the sky fills the screen again, the balloon a small dot zig-zagging against the clouds. You would think it was an image of freedom if you hadn’t been reminded of the crying child.

It is an image of freedom. It’s just that freedom, in Ozu’s movies, whether it is the freedom of a balloon from tiny hands, or children from parents, or parents from children, always costs tears. The question is not whether this price must be paid but whether it is worth it and for whom. In what remains for me the most delicate and wrenching of these films, Late Spring (1949), a daughter doesn’t want to leave her widowed father because she feels he can’t manage on his own – and also because there is no one she wants to marry, and perhaps because she is afraid of marriage itself. The father doesn’t want his daughter to leave but feels she ought to – because of nagging conventions and because he sees himself as a progressive fellow – and so tells her he is planning to remarry, won’t need her as live-in housekeeper any more. The scene in which he lets her know is extraordinary. She is in agony at the thought of not being wanted – and of having to live a life on her own – and the father answers all her desperate questions about his plans with a series of tiny nods and a set of short noises that fall well short of being anything resembling a word. We might think he is being tough or indifferent; we learn only later that this whole scene is probably even rougher for him than it is for her. He has no intention of remarrying, he is just trying to free her against her will. Is it better for her to live with someone else than continue for ever as her father’s slave? Probably. But what if she becomes her husband’s slave instead, and the final result is that she and her father, who have been very happy together, are miserable apart? What are we to make of these pathologically nice people, admirable in their way but also infinitely depressing in their submission to destinies they have invented for themselves?

Ozu’s characters aren’t all so nice, though they are all just as quiet. In Tokyo Story, two parents visit their grown-up children in the big city, but are completely ignored and cut adrift. Again, there is the double perspective. The children have their lives to live, the parents are a nuisance; this neglect of the older generation is a scandal, possibly an evil. The parents console themselves with the pathetic thought that as children go, theirs aren’t so bad, but we are invited to take into account two other views: that of the unmarried daughter, who finds her siblings’ behaviour outrageous; and that of the daughter-in-law who says we all grow up to be ungrateful. We make what we can of this, and I used to think this movie was too conciliatory, too ready to put up with, even to proselytise for, the morally mediocre life, as if King Lear were to get used to the hospitality of Goneril and Regan. I think now the pain of the film is too intense for that. No one is just putting up with anything, everyone is putting a brave face on things, quite a different operation. The characters in Ozu’s movies all know they could have been happier. They accept what they’ve got but they never lose sight of what they might have had, and that is why we can only watch these films, not turn them into metaphors. To live in an Ozu movie would be to forget too much and remember too much all at once.