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Silence is golden to Ozu

TOKYO, Japan--People ask me who my favorite directors are, and I mention Hitchcock, Scorsese, Fellini, Welles and Ozu. They nod, but there is a slight pause, and I know they are considering whether to ask me: "Ozu?"

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) is sometimes considered the most Japanese of all Japan's directors. So Japanese, in fact, that despite a Western boom in Japanese films starting with samurai dramas in the 1950s, his films were hardly seen outside Japan until after his death.

They quickly gained an audience. It is a paradox that what is most particular is sometimes most universal, so that by concentrating closely on the daily emotional details of Japanese middle-class family life, Ozu made films that have the power to move audiences everywhere. A year ago, for example, I showed his masterpiece "Tokyo Story" (1953) to my film class, and heard people crying in the darkness. No newer, more "modern" film, has had that effect in the class over the years.

Ozu began in silent films, and continued making them into the mid-1930s, five or six years after sound was available.

I saw two of his silent films here recently at the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, and two more in previews at Facets. What is astonishing is how quickly they move, how confident he is, how even in the early ones you can see him finding his subject. His stories rarely stray far from one family and one household, and after some early experiments in gangster drama, they usually involve ordinary middle-class issues such as family, job, school and marriage. Ozu was not alone among Japanese directors in making silent films for several years after talkies came in. The reason for that was the peculiarly Japanese institution of the "benshi," a performer who stood next to the screen and interpreted the action for the audience, playing all of the roles and supplying all of the dialog (sometimes improvising freely).

Famous benshis found their names in lights under the movie titles, and held such audience loyalty that the Japanese only reluctantly resigned themselves to hearing the actual actors speak. As a result, Ozu films like "Dragnet Girl" (1933), "A Mother Should be Loved" (1934) and "An Inn in Tokyo" (1935), all made years after Hollywood started to talk, provided a tantalizing glimpse of what movies might have looked like if they had survived longer in their silent form.

Here in Tokyo one day I had lunch at the Foreign Correspondent's Club with the man who single-handedly introduced Ozu to the west. His name is Donald Richie. He is an American from Lima, Ohio, who was stationed in Japan 47 years ago and never came home. He is perhaps the world's ranking expert on Japanese cinema, author of many books on the subject as well as perceptive books about modern Japan like The Inland Sea, Different People and A Lateral View.

"It was all very well for the films of a director like Kurosawa to be exported to the West," Richie recalls. "He was always considered sort of Westernized anyway. But I was told Ozu was 'too Japanese.' They felt Western audiences could never understand him."

Richie overcame objections in Tokyo and took a package of Ozu films on tour to key film festivals, where audiences found an undiscovered continent. Since then books by Richie and the Univ. of Wisconsin's David Bordwell have made the case that this shy, unassuming man with a visual style all his own is one of a small handful of the greatest directors of all time.

Ozu developed a visual style that was unlike anybody else's. Although in some of the silent films at Facets you can see that he obviously studied Hollywood directors, he had certain visual trademarks that were all his own. The veteran Japanese critic Tadeo Sato, whom I also met in Tokyo, identifies several of them:

* He uses low-angle shots, playing his camera about three feet above floor level, or at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat. This subtly tends to exalt his heroes, making ordinary people seem more important.

* His characters tend to face the same way, sitting or standing side by side. This reflects the Japanese avoidance of eye contact, but also suggests that they are trying to find a mutual course of action, instead of confronting one another.

* There is little movement in an Ozu scene, and certainly none for its own sake.

* He likes full-face shots of his speakers, as if they are addressing the audience.

* His shots tend to keep the same distance from characters within a scene. He avoids sudden closeups and seems to be regarding everything impartially.

Ozu's most endearing characteristic, for me, is what Sato calls his "pillow shots." The term comes from the "pillow words" used in Japanese poetry--words that may not advance or even refer to the subject, but are used for their own sake and beauty, as a sort of punctuation. In Ozu, a sequence will end and then, before the next begins, there will be a shot of a tree, or a cloud, or a smokestack, or a passing train, or a teapot, or a street corner. It is simply a way of looking away, and regaining composure before looking back again.

All of these characteristics can be seen, sometimes in the process of formation, in his early silent films. They represent a major restoration project by the Japan Foundation; some of Ozu's 54 films have been lost forever, but these represent the best surviving prints, and are notable for moving more quickly and having fewer printed titles than many American silent films of the same vintage.

Of those I've seen, the most "Ozu-like" is probably "Tokyo Chorus." It's about an office worker, shown as a cut-up at school, who continues to buck the establishment after he gets a job in an insurance company. In Japan, where loyalty to the company is so important, his individualism gets him fired, and then we see his domestic problems: A son who wants a bicycle, a wife whose kimono must be pawned to buy medicine. The hero's old school teacher has opened a restaurant, and offers him low-status work passing out advertising leaflets, and when the wife and children accidentally see him performing this humiliating task, there is a conflict between pride and financial desperation. In the way it takes small immediate family concerns and makes them into the stuff of tragedy, this movie points the way to many of Ozu's later films.

Some of Ozu's early work owes a debt to Hollywood melodrama and the emerging noir film. An example is "That Night's Wife," telling the story of a poor office worker who commits a robbery to buy medicine for his sick child. He is given a ride home in a "taxi" that is actually driven by a policeman, who follows him into the home to make an arrest. But the man's wife pulls a gun on the cop and forces him to wait during a long night during which the child will either live or die.

Ozu preferred to work with the same actors again and again, and both "Tokyo Chorus" and "That Night's Wife" star Tokihiko Okada and Emiko Yagumo as the husband and wife.

"Dragnet Girl" looks more like a Hollywood gangster movie than a film by Ozu, telling the story of a love triangle involving a young woman whose boyfriend is a would-be gangster. She wants him to go straight, but meanwhile he becomes infatuated with the sister of a new gang member. The film's ending would never have made it in Hollywood: The criminals decide to go straight. Some of the locations, including a boxing gym, seem quite odd in an Ozu film; he seems here more like a contract director than like the artist with personal concerns which he became.

Among Ozu's many talking films available on video are "Late Spring," "Early Autumn," "Tokyo Story," "Equinox Flower," "An Autumn Afternoon," and the incomparable "Floating Weeds."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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