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.