With his extremely modest and unassuming
movies, the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu paradoxically
created what are among the most profoundly poetic studies of
human relationships ever committed to celluloid.
In belated commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Ozu’s birth - he died of cancer in 1963, on his 60th birthday - BAMCinematek presents "Tokyo Stories: Yasujiro Ozu," a series of the master director’s signature films, from July 6-Aug. 24.
Ozu began his career in Japan’s silent era, and many of his earliest works have unfortunately been lost. The 36 surviving films were shown as a sidebar in last fall’s New York Film Festival, and the BAMCinematek program presents not quite half of those. These 17 films are from all phases of Ozu’s career - except the silent era - beginning with his first all-sound effort, "The Only Son," which he made in 1936, and ending with his last film, "An Autumn Afternoon," released right before his death.
It’s been said in film circles that Ozu was considered the "most Japanese" of that country’s most renowned directors because it was his films that most realistically displayed what it meant for ordinary people to live ordinary lives. In stark contrast to the other famous Japanese directors of the era, Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, Ozu was the only one who rarely strayed from creating small-scaled character studies.
Perhaps that was the main reason why it took Ozu and his films so long to become well known in America: distributors seemed quite reluctant to import films that seemed too "foreign" to domestic audiences. But Ozu’s intimately pared-down dramas soon struck chords among critics and discerning moviegoers, and now Ozu is referred to with the admiration and respect accorded all great filmmakers.
As the entries in the "Tokyo Stories" series show, there is always a common decency, humility and happiness tinged with melancholy underlying all of Ozu’s films. He inexhaustibly explores life, as it’s lived by hardworking, "regular" people who are not usually shown onscreen.
Ozu’s very titles often explain his intentions. Although there are occasional descriptive titles like "The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice" (showing July 23) or "Equinox Flower" (Aug. 15) - both of these pictures, by the way, are among Ozu’s very best - mostly, it’s a succession of seemingly interchangeable titles, each of them alluding to the serene sameness of his artistic methods.
Whether it’s the masterpiece "Late Spring" (July 9), the equally transfixing "Early Summer" (July 16), or the unbearably sad "Late Autumn," Ozu’s penultimate feature (Aug. 19), the barebones information in the titles belies the intensity of the feelings contained within the films themselves.
Even in this group of lovely, important films, one stands out above the others. That is Ozu’s 1953 all-time classic, "Tokyo Story" (Aug. 8), where another deceptively simple title sums up both everything and nothing about this brilliant, unsettling study of alienation. It is on a par with the best of Ingmar Bergman’s films.
When an elderly couple living in the country visits their big-city children, naturally no one can make any time to be with them. The kids eventually ship them off to a nearby spa just to get rid of them for awhile. But upon returning to their home, the old lady is stricken by a fatal disease, and the children - now obviously guilt-ridden - come running back.
Rudimentary plot summary always does a disservice to the subtleties of Ozu’s films; it is no different with "Tokyo Story." In this intensely moving drama, the director’s control over the characters and their emotions, actions and interactions is nothing short of masterly.
Much has been spoken and written about what has been dubbed "the Ozu shot," a low-angle camera shot of the characters, who often are seated on the traditional Japanese tatami mats. But this seemingly simplistic visual strategy is, finally, enormously complex, since it forces the viewer to concentrate so intently on those characters that they gradually become confidants and - yes - even old, beloved friends.
There are many other films to heartily recommend in this series: "Floating Weeds," a wise remake of Ozu’s own silent-era classic (Aug. 17); "Good Morning," a gentle comedy about two young boys who refuse to speak until their parents get them a television set (Aug. 13); and the aforementioned "Autumn Afternoon," a heartbreakingly elegiac study, and a perfect cinematic epitaph for its director.
All of Ozu’s films contain enough wit and insight, laughter and tears to be worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. A humanist filmmaker blessed with uncommon grace and rigor in equal measures, Ozu was the rare artist who could elevate the quotidian into the sublime.
"Tokyo Stories: Yasujiro Ozu" will be shown at the BAMCinematek, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, from July 6 to Aug. 24. Tickets are $10. For a complete list of films, screening dates and times visit www.bam.org or call (718) 636-4100.
©2004 Community News Group
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