Setsuko Hara always has a way to just smile and smile and smile and break your heart, but maybe that’s also innate in Ozu’s filmmaking too, the way he picks apart these delicate domestic stories to find the hurt and conflict within. She’s being pestered by her family to marry as she’s reaching the grand old age of 28, and there’s a sense in which you wonder whether she’s just settling for someone, or reacting to them, or whether even all this talk isn’t out of step with the times. After all, there’s a lot of play around the generational gaps, about post-war Japan’s youth not adopting the same values as their parents and grandparents’ generations, and that all seems to play out here. For me, it’s one of Ozu’s very finest films, and Hara is just such a watchable actor.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Kogo Noda and Ozu | Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta | Starring Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu | Length 125 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 February 2019
Bringing together two films by Ozu, his first made towards the tail-end of the silent era of cinema in Japan, and the later one a remake in colour towards the end of his career, this allows for a compare-and-contrast approach between the two, and for me Ozu has grown significantly as a filmmaker, such that the latter is the greater work. Ozu didn’t make many colour films (it took him long enough to get into sound films, after all), but the remake is lovely in many respects. The framing, the pacing and the use of colour is all expertly done. While it’s a drama about an elderly travelling player returning to the small town where he fathered a child — a son who only knows him as ‘Uncle’ — it’s also filled with moments of comedy, for the father (here played by Ganjiro Nakamura) is a rather bad actor and there’s plenty of fun at the expense of his hamminess. The drama with his son didn’t always connect with me on this viewing, but there’s a lot of pathos to the way his life has unfolded — even if he rather too often takes it out on the women around him. The earlier film (from 1934) follows the same melodramatic plot (with Takeshi Sakamoto as the father), but it never succumbs to anything mawkish or sentimental. Ozu expresses it all so clearly that I imagine I’d pick up on a lot more were I to watch it again (which, given for technical reasons I had to watch it all completely silent, I feel I should probably do).
Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934) || Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Tadao Ikeda and Ozu | Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara | Starring Takeshi Sakamoto, Choko Iida, Rieko Yagumo | Length 86 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 September 2018
Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959) || Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Kogo Noda and Ozu | Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa | Starring Ganjiro Nakamura, Machiko Kyo, Haruko Sugimura | Length 119 minutes || Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1997 (and most recently on DVD a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 October 2018)
Oh sure, yes, it is deliberately paced, as so many Ozu films are, but for all its acclaim (it used to regularly show up on best-ever lists, and I think it still does), it is one of those films that really does deliver. I’m not even personally very good at communicating with my family sometimes, but I still get all up in my feelings whenever I see the way all these grown children act atrociously towards their elderly parents, who are visiting Tokyo from the countryside. Obviously Ozu is, to an extent, commenting on modern society, and we get interstitial shots of trains and built-up urban areas, but none of that is particularly forced, and this works very well too on simply an emotional level — what it means to get older, the responsibilities you continue to have to family, showing respect for the elderly. Only Setsuko Hara’s character (the daughter-in-law) seems to make much of an effort, and the way she radiantly smiles at the camera even when she’s clearly upset just seems to make it all the more poignant.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Yasujiro Ozu and Kogo Noda | Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta | Starring Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara | Length 136 minutes || Seen at Victoria University, Wellington, Monday 27 April 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 May 2018)
A late film by Yasujiro Ozu which is set amongst a small group of neighbours in a Tokyo suburb and treats childhood with a light, comic touch. The plot, such as it is, has the kids of one family refusing to speak after being scolded by their father (Chishu Ryu) for going round to a neighbour’s home to watch sumo wrestling on TV. In a fit of pique after being refused this modern convenience — their father inveighs against its stupefying effect — the kids reject the language of their parents and what they see as all the stupid meaningless banalities of conversation like “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and of course “good morning”. Meanwhile, gossip spreads amongst the neighbours when the local residents’ association dues haven’t been paid, as first one and the another member of this tight-knit community is suspected of having absconded with the cash. It may depict a long-vanished world in which doors are always open and people can pop round to one another’s home to chat, but at the heart is the tension brought about by the modern consumerist world and its increasing technologisation. The gossip centres largely on the purchase of a washing machine, while the TV also seems to divide the families. Things never get too dark –- everyone converses with a fixed and ready smile, even when you suspect they’re pretty angry, and indeed entire conversations proceed with a surface level of the kind of banality that the kids hate, even as other feelings are being expressed. The comedy is provided by the kids, and for all Ozu’s austere reputation, there’s a recurring farting game that consistently goes wrong for one of the kids.
Criterion Extras: Another very basic edition, with only the written notes and nothing on the disc, though it’s as fine a transfer as ever of this rare Ozu colour film. (However, since this review was written there’s been a new blu-ray release with more extras.)
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu | Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta | Starring Haruko Sugimura, Chishu Ryu | Length 94 minutes || Seen at my mother’s flat (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 15 March 2015
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW (for DVD new release) || Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Tadao Ikeda and Hiroshi Shimizu | Cinematographer Hideo Mohara | Starring Minoru Takada, Hiroko Kawasaki | Length 92 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Monday 22 April 2013 || My Rating excellent
Reviewing a silent film screening is not just about the film, but also about the unique aspects of the live performance, for of course (as is now I hope a widely-understood truism) silent films were never silent. This screening featured music from the duo Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell, and (rather more unusually) a benshi narration by Tomoko Komura. The latter is a traditional form of accompaniment which is largely confined to Japanese cinema, as it derives originally from kabuki theatre. As Tony Rayns explained in his introduction to this screening, silent cinema held out as the dominant form of film production in Japan until the mid-1930s due in part to the unionised power of the benshi, who resisted the coming of sound film technology. Their role was to narrate the film (and translate foreign films’ intertitles), often doing different voices for the different characters, and this indeed is how Ms Komura accompanied Walk Cheerfully, all the time nattily dressed in a hat and suit similar to that of lead character Kenji ‘The Knife’ (played by Minoru Takada).