There have been some interesting rumblings recently over on the Guardian Film blog.
The Guardian’s film-related output tends to be dominated by the work of Peter Bradshaw. Reportedly one of the few British film critics whose reviews still have the power to make a film. However, despite Bradshaw’s prominence, I have never warned to him as a writer. His reviews generally lack either theoretical or historical foundation, they are seldom funny and they are generally pedestrian enough to be predictable. I also think that he gets it wrong a lot of the time. Especially when it comes to films that cause a stir. Anyway, beneath Bradshaw’s prominence, there are a number of other film writers whose work I do have a lot more time for. Indeed, while I tend to ignore the Guardian’s reviews, I almost always read its film-related op-eds. Which brings us to the inspiration for this particular piece.
Since the beginning of January, it has become de rigueur for Guardian film writers to reference the works of Yasujiro Ozu. Indeed, back on the 9th of January we had a piece about Ozu’s work itself by Ian Buruma entitled “An Artist of the Unhurried World”. Then, on the 15th of January David Thomson produced “Ozu vs Avatar”, an impassioned piece that framed Ozu’s work as a natural antithesis to mindless effects-driven films such as District 9 and Avatar. Then, on the 16th of January, John Patterson gave us “John Woo, Ang Lee, Jet Li, enough of the Hollywood Kung fu movies”, a piece that ends with a plaintive :
“I’m all through with this genre, thanks. I’m heading back to Ozu and Mizoguchi”
There are two good reasons for Ozu being present in the minds of these film writers. The first is that Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953) has been re-released at the cinema. The second is that the first great film to emerge this year at British cinemas is Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking (2008), an extended homage to and updating of the family drama genre that Ozu made his own. While I broadly agree with the sentiments animating these pieces, I was struck by the extent to which they go out of their way to Other the works of Ozu.
For example, in his article, Buruma states :
“Ozu’s style would surely strike action-loving westerners as boring and slow”
“To young Japanese brought up on lurid comic books and animated science fiction, Ozu’s world looks as alien as it might to uninformed westerners”
“Surely, foreigners preferred to see more exotic creatures, rushing about with drawn swords, wearing colourful kimonos”
Meanwhile, Patterson and particularly Thomson’s pieces set up the idea that over here you have mindless action films and over there you have works such as those of Ozu. My problem with these articles is that I do not think that this distinction exists. There is only one meaningful spectrum along which works of art can be placed and that is one of quality. Ozu’s films are not qualitatively different to District 9 or A Quantum of Solace, they are simply better made, better written, better thought out, better acted and better shot. Ozu made great films, it is as simple as that.
The idea that there is some other kind of film is one that draws its strength chiefly from the dialectics of marketing. Kevin Smith once said of Jersey Girl (2004) that it was “not for critics” and most of the people who have been defending Avatar from its high-minded detractors have taken the line that it is simply mindless fun. But why should fun be mindless? How can fun actually be mindless? People in marketing are fond of the idea that we live inordinately hectic lives. Lives lived at break-neck pace. Lives spent wading through dense data-schoals that leave us exhausted at the end of the day. If you buy into this vision of your life than a) I suggest you think about the people currently trying to survive in Haiti and b) maybe you’d like to spend just a little bit more on dinner? Maybe you’d like some gourmet chocolate? Don’t you deserve a 50” 3D TV? You work hard, why shouldn’t you have it? There is no such thing as mindless entertainment, but there are rubbish films that people get tricked into going to see.
So it is in this spirit that I have decided to visit one of Yasujiro Ozu’s more accessible and instantly lovable films – Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) in order to demonstrate why it is that appreciating Ozu should come naturally to everyone, even those people who cannot help but spend money on Hollywood blockbusters.
Record of a Tenement Gentleman is set in a rather downtrodden Japanese street. The action opens with a man sitting on his own, seemingly rehearsing a speech that will end his relationship with someone else. The someone else in question could well have been his room-mate but after the room-mate returns home, there is no further mention of the speech or of any antipathy the two men might have for each other. The room-mate has with him a small boy who reportedly followed him home. A boy whose father disappeared, leaving him by himself. Who will look after the boy? The room-mate wants the job but the first man claims to hate kids and convinces the room-mate to pass the boy on to their next-door neighbour, the rather bitter widow Tane. Tane claims to hate children too but she takes pity on the boy and allows him to stay. The boy rewards her indulgence by wetting the bed. The following day, the neighbours decide to return the boy to his home and Tane is tricked into making the voyage. Outwardly hostile to the boy, she tells him to leave her alone and yet keeps feeding him. When he catches up with her after an attempted escape, Tane growls “I will bite you!”. The next thing we see is Tane arriving home with the boy who has been put to use carrying spuds. Slowly but surely, Tane comes to terms with her guardianship of the boy. Not only does she start to feel affection for him, but her neighbours do too and suddenly, she finds herself bringing up the boy as a part of an enlarged social unit. The neighbours who used to merely drink together and cheat each other, now help each other out raising the child, offering advice, money and food where possible. As the film ends, the widow Tane finds herself considering the possibility of adopting another little boy. The final shot is of children playing near a status. Presumably, these are children who lost their parents in the war.
There are two main reasons for loving this film. They are also reasons for loving all of Ozu’s other films as Ozu’s work has an astonishing degree of continuity to it.
Firstly, The Humanistic Tone :
Ozu’s films are filled with an astonishing reverence for humanity. This is present not only in the images that make up the film, but also the film’s general tone. Ozu was a fantastic observer of human behaviour and his films are invariably filled with little details and quirks that serve not only to bring his characters to life, but also to embed those characters in a very specific time and place, namely post-War Japan. Consider, for example, the following scene in which a meeting of the local neighbourhood association bursts into song. Note the way that Tane mimics the motions of the singer :
Record of a Tenement Gentleman features the extent to which post-War Japanese people lived in each others’ pockets, the prestige granted to local geishas, the capacity for food and drink to dictate the rhythm of the day and even the way in which social standing and prestige would influence an individual’s actions and beliefs. However, Ozu’s films are not merely reportage. Nor are they politically motivated. Ozu’s post-War works are not, like the works of Robert Hamer for example, attempts to raise awareness about social problems. Instead, they are films that celebrate the human capacity for change and the wonders of human emotion. Record of a Tenement Gentleman shows the difference a child can bring to an otherwise lonely existence. It even seems to suggest that this might be a path to happiness for many of post-War Japan’s shattered families and communities, but the point being made is not one of advocacy but of celebration : Look how our opinions can change. Look how we can move from bitterness to happiness. Even Ozu’s more downbeat films take delight in the complexities of human emotion.
Secondly, The Recognisable Cinematic Tics :
One of the more unhappy legacies of the 60s art house movement is the idea that certain kinds of films need to be decoded. Works such as Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) are films that make little sense unless you are willing to look at them through historical or theoretical lenses. They are not stories, they are riddles. They are films that one almost needs to talk oneself into liking. This model of cinematic enjoyment has also come to encompass more straight-forward works like those of Ozu. In fact, one could almost read this very piece as a cheat sheet for tricking oneself into enjoying his films. See also Time OUt’s recent piece entitled “A Bluffer’s Guide to the films of Yasujiro Ozu”. However, Ozu’s cinematic quirks are here not as hurdles blocking the road to comprehension. Instead, they are like a person’s accent. A means of expression that is individual to Ozu and whose idiosyncracies one can easily come to adore.
The first quirk worth mentioning is the way in which Ozu shoots and edits his dialogue scenes. Back in 2007 David Bordwell wrote a wonderful piece comparing a scene from Lubitsch’s Shop Around The Corner (1940) with the corresponding scene from the Nora Ephron directed remake You’ve Got Mail (1998). Bordwell notes that the 1940 version of the scene is much more simply shot and edited than the Ephron version. In the Lubitsch version, the average shot length is 82 seconds. In the Ephron version that average drops to 4.1 seconds. A similar difference can be felt between contemporary films and Ozu’s work. When Ozu shoots people talking he does just that. He fixes a camera tightly on their face and films them speaking directly into (or just off to one side of) the camera. When it is someone else’s turn to speak, the camera switches to a close-up on their face. The camera does not pan around. Nor does Ozu edit in different shots of the same person talking. He simply films one person for a bit and then changes. This gives the film an astonishing feeling of intimacy.
The effectiveness of this type of mis-en-scene is only increased by the fact that, when Ozu moves beyond interiors, he shows a real eye for visual composition and selects his shots with real care.
A feeling only multiplied by the low-level tatami-mat angle of the shots. As though we too are sitting in the houses of Ozu’s characters. Indeed, Ozu makes his dialogue appear as though a camera just happened upon it. The way the cameras dally upon the faces of his actors also encourage us to take in every nuance of their performances. Here is human emotion, drink it in.
The second quirk is in the way Ozu structures his films. After a particularly important or emotionally intense scene, Ozu will frequently insert an image of a building or of nature. Sometimes (particularly in his later colour films), he will even include street scenes and models of trains snaking their way through the suburbs. These scenes function both as palate-cleansers and as emotional force multipliers. They give you time to think about that which you have seen. Allow it to sink in. And then prepare yourself for the next development. It is the cinematic equivalent in some respects of a play that has a big dramatic moment just prior to the interval. It gives you breathing room. Breathing room in which to think. Indeed, this keenness for the audience to think is another of the reasons why Ozu tends to be seen nowadays as an art house director. Many contemporary films seek to dominate their audience’s minds. They stress the idea that going to the cinema is an experience. One does not go to the cinema to think, one goes there in order to touch the face of God that appears in the relentless phenomenological outpourings of the screen. As an audience we are supposed to be pinned to the back wall with noise, images, plot developments, jokes, twists, revelations. If you stop to allow thought you invite boredom. Boredom invites nitpicking. Nitpicking invites realising quite how bad a lot of films are. In contrast, Ozu’s willingness to allow his audiences time to think is genteel. Genteel and yet powerful in its complete confidence.
There is no mystery to the films of Ozu. No code. No special mindset. No unique language. His films are instantly accessible and almost universally fantastic. All that they require is a willingness to sit down and sit through something a little different. It’s not like you need special glasses to watch them or anything…