director Yasujirō Ozu
viewed: 07/19/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
Yasujirō Ozu, cited in the introduction to his 1931 silent film Tokyo Chorus, shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, as “the most Japanese of Japanese directors” is certainly among the most important of Japanese film directors. Though I’m quite familiar with Ozu and his style, I really don’t sit in a place to offer any insight or expertise. I’ve only seen a couple of his films. I’ve only written about one other, Early Spring (1956), which means that I’ve only seen one other of his films in the last decade. And I’m no expert on Japanese cinema, though I’ve seen a fair amount of Japanese films.
Ozu’s style, what he is most known for, is a combination of visual style, narrative style, and narrative focus. His interest was in contemporary Japanese family stories, melodramas soft on drama, quiet yet exemplary. He’s also noted for his indoor camera style, shooting from a perspective close to the floor in a Japanese house in which most people would have sat on tatamis.
Interestingly, Tokyo Chorus is considered the first of “mature” style. Tokyo Chorus is Ozu’s 22nd film. His first was made in 1927. That’s a lot of films. It’s interesting because the film is a mixture of comedy and drama. Apparently, a number of his earlier films were largely comedic, which isn’t really what one thinks of when one thinks of Ozu.
Tokyo Chorus begins with a comic scene in which a class of Japanese teenagers are lining up to be inspected by their teacher. They are disorderly, sassy, and various shades of silly. The primary character, Shinji Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), is followed in later years, a young father with a small family and a job in a Tokyo insurance office. When he stands up to his boss for firing an older employee, he winds up unemployed himself, and is faced with the hardships of unemployment, a period akin to the American Great Depression, in which glimpses of poverty in the big city are captured. He ultimately has to sacrifice his honor to do work considered degrading (not really that bad, one would think).
The story is a snapshot of Japanese culture in this transitional time. Ozu handles the family in subtle shifts of emotions, through the changes that they have to accept to stay afloat and honorable.
It’s a remarkable film, though in some ways unremarkable. That has been my personal feeling toward Ozu. I’ve liked and appreciated his work, but it hasn’t drawn me. Obviously, for all the films I’ve seen in the last decade, that this is only the second of his films is telling in that regard. It’s hard to describe the film’s strengths and charms, though they are evident throughout. I guess that I feel that Ozu requires a bit more from an audience, to understand Japanese culture of the time to appreciate nuance and subtlety. I hope I’m not utterly discrediting myself in saying this. Especially since I actually enjoyed the film quite well.