Those brought up on the energetic diet of American cinema may find it hard to appreciate the quietist art of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. He has been called the poet of family life, capable of taking the seemingly trivial and making great drama of it. Nothing was too small to be significant.
Ozu steadfastly peers into the hearts and minds of his characters until we feel we know them intimately. And the loyalty of those who love his work is as absolute as his own conviction. The number of film-makers who have made pilgrimages to his grave (marked simply by the Japanese word for nothing) runs into dozens.
Ozu started making films in 1927 and was one of the last to forsake the silent cinema. Much of this early work has been lost or destroyed. But we know from examples that he wasn’t always as calmly contemplative as he was in his late work, which reached the west only in the 60s. He could make boisterous comedies and earthy chronicles of family life, containing outrageous sight gags. In the last stretch of his life, however, he had refined his art so much that it hardly seemed like art at all.
His most famous film, and certainly one of his masterpieces, is Tokyo Story. In it an elderly couple are taken to visit their grown-up children in Tokyo. Too busy to entertain them, the children pack them off to a noisy resort. Returning to Tokyo, the old woman visits the widow of another son, who treats her better, while the old man gets drunk with some old companions. They seem to realise they are a burden, and simply try to smooth things over as best they can. By now the children have, albeit guiltily, given up on them; even when their mother is taken ill and dies, they rush back to Tokyo after attending the funeral. A simple proverb expresses their failure: “Be kind to your parents while they are alive. Filial piety cannot reach beyond the grave.” The last sequence is of the old man alone in his seaside home, followed by an outside shot of the rooftops of the town and a boat passing by on the water. Life goes on.
The film condemns no one and its sense of inevitability carries with it only a certain resigned sadness. “Isn’t life disappointing,” someone says at one point. Yet the simple observations are so acute that you feel that no other film could express its subject matter much better.
Ozu shoots his story with as little movement of the camera as possible. We view scenes almost always from the floor, lower than the eye level of a seated character. He insisted that no actor was to dominate a scene. The balance of every scene had to be perfect. Chishu Ryu, who often played the father in Ozu’s films about family life, once had to complete two dozen devoted to raising a tea cup.
Tokyo Story was followed by eight other films, all of them as masterful, and a group named after the seasons, including Early Spring and An Autumn Afternoon. Each was about the problems of ordinary family life. While their conservative nature made younger more polemical Japanese directors, such as Imamura and Oshima, impatient, their universality has come to be recognised the world over. Ozu was the most Japanese of film-makers, but his work can still cross most cultural barriers.