Good Morning (1959)

Good Morning (1959) DVD cover

director Yasujirō Ozu
viewed: 03/11/2016

Yasujirō Ozu has been referred to as “the most Japanese of Japanese directors”.  Where I picked that up was, I think, from a supplemental booklet at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at some point.  And while I think I understand what that statement is meant to imply, I am forced to wonder at whether that is a Western perspective rather than a Japanese one.

The more of Ozu’s films I see, I still have yet to have fully developed a perspective other than some of the generalities shared by others.

Still, Ozu in color is something different.  Ohayo, or Good Morning, is the second of his color films, the second of six, which would turn out to be his last (he died in 1963 on his 60th birthday).  It’s a comedy and an ensemble drama, a portrait of families living in tight proximity in the transitional times of the late 1950’s, where tradition and technologies are mingling and changing the lives of the average person.

Light in tone, and as understated as ever, it’s a film in which not a whole lot happens.  The biggest dramas are over some misplaced club dues, a man whose potential hard times are improved by finding a new job, and boys who protest their family to buy a television set.  The protest is one of a vow of silence, which the boys undertake to the amusement of their family, but to the consternation of their neighbors.  It’s the simple inane niceties such as saying “good morning” that grease the wheel of social interaction and also threaten to break it down.

Masahiko Shimazu, who plays little Isamu, pretty much steals the show.  He’s pretty hilarious.

Ozu, all understatement and subtlety, is deceptively deep and contemplative.  Rich upon further consideration and study.  The most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers?  I don’t know if I can comment on that myself.

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Dragnet Girl (1933)

director Yasujirō Ozu
viewed: 06/01/2014 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

In Film Noir and its literary analogues, there is the “hard-boiled” tough-guy world.  In Yasujirō Ozu’s uncharacteristic genre gangster film, we might have a slightly more “soft-boiled” criminal underground.

Shown as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Ozu’s 1933 Dragnet Girl is a stylish oddity in the oeuvre of Japan’s venerated cinema master.  But this is the thing about early Ozu, particularly silent Ozu, his later post-war films for which he is so well known were yet to come.  Ozu himself and the whole Japanese film industry was very different, a different man and a different world.

Interestingly, from the few films that I’ve seen of pre-War Japanese cinema, it seems that genre was alive and well.  And in this case, it owed a lot to the popular American forms of the time.  Dragnet Girl in particular owed a lot to the gangster movies of Hollywood.

But this is no mere knock-off of a film.  There are aspect’s of Ozu’s later style that seem imminent, such as the low camera placement in scenes and the ultimate melodrama that drives the film.

It’s a story about a low level gangster and his moll, Joji Oka and Kinuyo Tanaka respectively.  It is the moll who is the title character, after all.  When a young wannabe tough guy tries to join his gang, the wannabe’s straight-laced sister tries to pull him back to the right side of the tracks.  Her quiet goodness and beauty influence both gangster and moll, throwing their sense of what they want in the world awry.

Ultimately, I call it soft-boiled because it’s more melodrama than gangster pic.  Which is not to discredit it at all.  In fact, the cinematography, framing, and camera work make this film constantly interesting, a fascinating construct largely outside of genre.  Though it’s also quite interesting on that genre front too.

Kinuyo Tanaka seems quite the interesting figure herself, compared by Eddie Muller to a Ida Lupino, she seems definitely worth investigating more.

Tokyo Chorus (1931)

Tokyo Chorus still (1931)

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.

Early Spring

Early Spring (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. Yasujiro Ozu
viewed: 11/18/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

When I saw that the Castro Theater was running a week’s worth of Yasujiro Ozu double features, I felt compelled to go see as many as I could. In the end, all I could muster from my time was one evening, and then in the end, I could only sit through one 2 1/2 hour feature. A second one would have been fun, but my leisure time and endurance ain’t what it used to be.

I have only seen one Ozu film, Tokyo Story (1953), and then only on television. His films are not widely available on DVD, and so, this was a good opportunity to catch up on seeing some films from one of the big names in cinema.

Ozu’s films, for those of you who do not know, tended to be family dramas. In this case, the story was about a young couple who had lost a child who were in a malaise in their marriage; the husband, an office worker in Tokyo, has an affair. His films have a slowish pace and do not tend to be overly dramatic. There has been no violent conflict to highlight either of the two Ozu films that I have seen, so I don’t know how this plays out in others of his films.

His critical eye was on Japanese society and the family, which in post-war Japan has interesting parallels the the melodramas of Hollywood, to some extent. The melodramas of such directors as Minnelli and Sirk, though really are much more lurid and overdone compared to the quiet pacing and unique perspective of Ozu’s camera.

Early Spring is elegant and simple in its presentation, but surprisingly good and engaging (I only say surprising in that describing Ozu’s films, they either sound so “quiet” or contemplative that they don’t sound all that exciting to see.) The film was excellent and made me wish very much that I had the time and ability to have sat through several more.