Ozu: A Journey Begins at the End



So, I had my first Ozu experience this week.

I've been watching a lot of films over the past couple years and I try to watch as wide a variety as possible. Lately, I've been working on familiarizing myself with Chaplin, Lumet, and Altman. However, there's one director I've always had an interest in, but never explored.

Ozu.

The very name often evokes a sort of hushed reverence amongst followers, although some scoff at his pretentious reputation. I had no real knowledge of the Japanese director, as he's not frequently mentioned amongst local film connoisseurs. With no research undertaken, I found one of films and commenced to screen it.

Unbeknownst to me, this film was the very last in his canon. Released in 1962, it marked the end of a career that began 40 years earlier. Many regard An Autumn Afternoon as one of his finest masterpieces.

There is something about this film that lingers with me. While watching it, I kept waiting for the plot to start. When 30 minutes had rolled by, I began to realize that it wasn't going to kick in soon. An Autumn Afternoon, or more accurately The Taste of Sake, doesn't have a lot of drama in the Western cinematic sense. Nor is it truly a character piece. We don't go inside anyone's head, there are no murders or violence, no betrayal or lust and almost every conflict is subdued, domesticated and seemingly insignificant.

But I couldn't tear my eyes away from this picture.

For one thing, it's so exquisitely composed. The cinematography is breathtaking, although it's not easy to explain why. Yasujiro Ozu's subject matter is often hallways, apartments, offices– the stuff of filmmaking standards. Yet, every set is dressed and ordered to favor the camera. The color and design is orchestrated like a painting. Every single frame is, to borrow a cliche, a painting. Indeed, the 4:3 aspect ratio only enhances this idea.

Ozu never moves the camera ever. This may sound dull to you, but to me it was unbelievably refreshing. The camera stays low to the ground, choosing to look up at the actors, instead of staying at eye level as is standard in Western productions.

Then there is the characterizations. We don't explore much in terms of inner thoughts and feelings. Most of the scenes that take place are ordinary conversations. A lot of it seems like small talk, but again it's hardly boring.

In spite of his rigid camera placement, or perhaps because of it, Ozu creates the feeling that we are gazing into the souls of his characters. He has no closeups, only medium shots with the actor most often centered in frame. The actor looks just over the camera, and almost appears to be looking into the lens that is looking up at him or her. We feel like an invisible person, listening in to an ordinary tête-à-tête but able to freely study the eyes of the character and read the subtle hints to what is contained within without the distraction of participation.

According to commentator David Bordwell, this is all intentional and totally unique. He argues that Ozu's films are a cinematic form of poetry.

I can't say I disagree and I'll be watching more of this incredible director's films in the near future.