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A Great Auteur - Yasujiro Ozu

  Ozu


Foreword

Yasujiro Ozu was one of the most important directors in Japan. His films are unique in terms of the thematic elements and the innovative cinematic techniques he pioneered. Most of them, for instance, Late Spring, Tokyo Story and many more, belong to the genre of shomin geki. It is a genre that focuses on daily lives and interpersonal relationships of the members of lower-middle class families. The characteristics of Ozu's shomin geki are that they always have similar plots and involve the use of the same actors playing similar roles. The cinematic techniques always include the use of non-moving camera, a camera position that is considered lower than normal eye level, tight framing composition and the use of ellipsis. In this paper, I will compare some of the thematic and technical elements between his two films, Late Spring and Tokyo Story. The objective is to trace out the coherence in his works and explain why Ozu can be considered an auteur.


Merely a few pages are definitely not enough to discuss all of his techniques, therefore I will only focus on two elements and analyze them in details. The two characteristics are Ozu's use of ellipsis and the significance of his low camera angle.


I was born, but...   Late Spring


Ellipsis

Ellipsis refers to the shortening of a plot duration achieved by omitting intervals of story duration. It is a sudden cut of action that something in between is missed out. There is usually a confusion of time and lack of explanation between the cuts. It has a potential danger of misleading the viewers to a certain extent. Ozu uses ellipsis extensively with the same purpose in Late Spring and Tokyo Story. According to Kathe Geist, as she writes in her essay "Narrative Strategies in Ozu's Late Films", "Although it confounds our expectations, it provides a rich and accurate description of the characters, themes, motivations, and events in Ozu's story and never deviates from or clutters that story with irrelevant information. ... Ozu indeed omits what is unimportant for his story and neither leaves out important events nor needlessly prolongs unimportant ones" (Geist p. 98-100). For instance, In Late Spring, Ozu never shows the viewers Noriko's meeting with her future husband Satake. He rather leaves you curious and confounds your expectation. At first glance, it seems illogical for Ozu to totally miss out Satake's appearance in the film, since Noriko is the protagonist and the theme of the film is about her marriage, this husband character should be an important figure in the story. However, if you are reading the story carefully, you will notice that the ellipsis is not misleading at all. On the contrary, it amplifies your understanding of the film so that you will be able to react appropriately to what Ozu wants to convey. Since you are restricted to a certain perspective, it is less likely that you will comprehend the wrong meaning out of it. In this sequence, Satake is missed out because he is only a substitute of Hattori. Early potion of the film already gives you a hint that he is not important at all in the eyes of Noriko. Since the film always aligns the viewers' perspective with Noriko's, it is not difficult to understand why Ozu would omit the appearance of a character who means nothing to the protagonist. Similarly, ellipsis functions identically in Tokyo Story. In the scene when the parents arrive their son's house, the dialogue suggests that they will stay there for a few days. But in only a few seconds, they have already moved to their daughter's house. Once again, in their daughter's house, the dialogue suggests that the daughter is planning to send their parents to a spa in Atami. Then in the next scene, they are already in Atami. Their encounter in their children's house is totally omitted. Similar to the ellipsis in Late Spring, the omission of certain actions seems to obscure the viewers since the theme of the story is about family relationship, there should be more delineation about the actual confrontation or conflict between the parents and their children. However, Ozu's omission of these scenes does in fact maximize the narrativity of the film. In this scene, it reinforces the alienation and estrangement between the parents and the children successfully. The depiction of the little interaction between them explains it all. It creates a more powerful and dramatic effect than massive dialogues can do. Cinema is a visual art, as film theorist Bela Balazs writes in his essay "Der Sichtbare Mensch" in Theory of the Film: Character and growth of a New Art, "It is a spiritual experience which is rendered immediately visible without the intermediary words. ... Now the film is about to inaugurate a new direction in our culture. Many million people sit in the picture houses every evening and purely through vision, experience hap-penings, characters, emotion, moods, even thoughts, without the need for many words" (Balazs p. 40-41). Ozu seems to be a supporter of this theory as well. His use of elliptical images articulates the story clearly without the use of many dialogues and amplifies your understanding rather than baffles you. Since he uses the technique of ellipsis in Late Spring, Tokyo Story and many of his other works so extensively and incomparably that you can trace a pattern there, and his decision of using the technique is not merely based on aesthetic consideration but rather combines it with the thematic elements precisely, it is definitely not inappropriate to consider him as an auteur.


Story of Floating Weed   Tokyo Story


Camera position

A camera position that is considered lower than normal eye level is often seen in Ozu's films, that it has become his official signature. In almost all of his films, including the early ones like I was Born But..., Story of Floating Weeds, and his late films like Late Spring and Tokyo Story, the camera is always located in a low angle sitting position. For instance, in Late Spring, in the scene when Mr Somiya is sitting on the tatami and talking to Hattori in his house, the camera is placed in a low position that is parallel to Mr Somiya's point of view. In Tokyo Story, the beginning scene when the old couple is talking and packing their luggages, the camera is also located in a position that aligns perfectly with their sitting position. Some people think that it simulates the viewing position of someone sitting on a tatami. Other say that it is a kid's point of view since the height of the camera equals to the height of a kid. Although I can think of a logical explanation to interpret the first assump-tion too, that is, the sitting position enhances an attitude of calmness, quiescence and repose in the films, personally, I do agree with the latter assumption more than the first one. The low camera position, which represents the point of view of a kid, adds a feeling of innocence to the films. It is heavily related to the subjects of his films and Ozu's humane attitude toward the characters of his films. Apparently, his films like Late Spring and Tokyo Story are about everyday life and family relationships, therefore imitation of realism is a major concern for him. It seems that Ozu tends to believe that the world of adult is contaminated by the collapse of social and moral orders, as a result, it is only through the point of view of a kid that is possible for you to see the world clearly and genuinely. Since infant is pure and not contaminated, what a kid sees is supposed to be unbiased, not distorted or shaped by external influence. Moreover, there is never an absolute evil character in his films. Even though the characters have done something wrong, they are neither murderer or gangster, you can always feel the good in them. It parallels to the infant psychology in which there is no real hatred in the world of children. The innocent point of view reinforces the harmless and innocuous nature of the characters and reminds you of Ozu's humane attitude and forgiveness toward the misbehaviors of his characters. This kind of genuine love and care for characters are rarely seen in any other films throughout the history of narrative film. It is the most distinguishable trademark of Ozu and the most important element in positioning him as an auteur.


Conclusion

Since he utilizes cinematic techniques precisely in a way as an author uses a pen, leaving a personal stamp on his films and providing an unique viewing experience for the audience to appreciate the art of cinema in a totally new way, Ozu is no doubt one of the most important auteurs in film history.


written by Kantorates


Work Cited

Balazs, Bela. Theory of the Film: Character and growth of a New Art. Dover Publications, 1970

Geist, Kathe. "Narrative Strategies in Ozu's Late Films", Reframing Japanese Cinema . Indiana University Press, 1992