12 December 1903|
|Died||12 December 1963
Yasujirō Ozu (小津 安二郎 Ozu Yasujirō?, 12 December 1903 – 12 December 1963) was a Japanese film director and screenwriter. He began his career during the era of silent films. Ozu made fifty-three films: twenty-six in his first five years as a director, and all but three for the Shochiku studio. Ozu first made a number of short comedies, before turning to more serious themes in the 1930s.
Marriage and family, especially the relationships between the generations, are among the themes in his work. His outstanding works include Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), and Floating Weeds (1959). He made great use of ellipsis, where many events are not depicted visually, and he also used a style of cinematography in which the camera rarely moves and is usually positioned below the eye level of the actors.
His reputation has continued to grow since his death, and he is widely regarded as one of the world's most influential directors.
Ozu was born in the Fukagawa district of Tokyo, the second son of five brothers and sisters.[n 1] His father was a fertilizer seller. He attended Meiji nursery school and primary school. In March 1913, at the age of ten, he and his siblings were sent by his father to live in his father's home town of Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture, where he lived until 1924. In March 1916, at the age of 13 he entered what is now Ujiyamada High School.[n 2] He was a boarder at the school and did judo. He frequently skipped school to watch films such as Quo Vadis? or The Last Days of Pompei. In 1917 he saw the film Civilization and decided that he wanted to be a film director.
In 1920, at the age of 17, he was thrown out of the dormitory after being accused of writing a love letter to a good-looking boy in a lower class, and had to commute to school by train.
In March 1921 he graduated from the high school. He attempted the exam for what is now Kobe University's economics department,[n 3] but failed. In 1922 he took the exam for a teacher training college,[n 4] but failed it. On 31 March 1922 he began working as a substitute teacher at a school in Mie prefecture. He is said to have travelled the long journey from the school in the mountains to watch films at the weekend. In December 1922, his family with the exception of Ozu and his sister, moved back to Tokyo to live with his father. In March 1923, when his sister graduated, he also went to Tokyo.
Entering the film business
With his uncle acting as intermediary, Ozu entered the Shochiku Film Company as an assistant in the cinematography department on 1 August 1923, against the wishes of his father. His family home was destroyed in the earthquake of 1923, but no members of his family were injured.
In 1926 he became a third assistant director. In 1927 he was involved in a fracas where he punched another employee for jumping a queue at the studio cafeteria, and when called to the studio director's office he used it as an opportunity to present a film script he had written. In September 1927 he was promoted to director in the jidaigeki (period film) department, and directed his first film, Sword of Penitence, now lost. Ozu's story was dramatized by Kogo Noda, who would become his co-writer for the rest of his career. On 25 September he was called up to military reserves until November, and the film was partly finished by another director.
In 1928, Shiro Kido, the head of the Shochiku studio, decided that the company was to concentrate on making short comedy films without star actors. Ozu made a series of these films. The film Body Beautiful, released on 1 December 1928, was the first Ozu film to use his trademark low camera position. After a series of "no star" pictures, in September 1929 Ozu's first film with stars, I graduated but..., starring Minoru Takada and Kinuyo Tanaka, was released. In January 1930 he was entrusted with Shochiku's top star Sumiko Kurishima in her new year film, An Introduction to Marriage. His subsequent films of 1930 impressed Shiro Kido enough to invite Ozu on a trip to a hot spring. In his early works Ozu used the pseudonym "James Maki" for his screenwriting. His film Young Miss, with an all-star cast, was the first time he used the penname James Maki,[n 6] and was also his first film to appear in film magazine Kinema Jumpo's "Best Ten" at third position.
In 1932, his I Was Born, But..., a comedy with serious overtones on adolescence, was received by movie critics as the first notable work of social criticism in Japanese cinema, winning Ozu wide acclaim.
In 1935 Ozu made a short documentary with soundtrack: Kagami Shishi, in which Kokiguro VI performed a Kabuki dance of the same title. This was made by request of the Ministry of Education.:p. 221 Like the rest of Japan's cinema industry, Ozu was slow to switch to the production of talkies: his first film with a dialogue sound-track was The Only Son in 1936, five years after Japan's first talking film, Heinosuke Gosho's The Neighbor's Wife and Mine.
On 9 September 1937, at a time when Shochiku was unhappy about Ozu's lack of box-office success (despite the praise and awards he received from critics), the thirty-four-year-old Ozu was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army. He spent two years in China in the Second Sino-Japanese War. He arrived in Shanghai on 27 September 1937 as part of an infantry regiment which handled chemical weapons. He started as a corporal but was promoted to sergeant on 1 June 1938. From January until September 1938 he was stationed in Nanjing, meeting Sadao Yamanaka, who was also stationed nearby. In September, Yamanaka died of illness. In 1939, Ozu was dispatched to Hankou, where he fought in the Battle of Nanchang and the Battle of Xiushui River. In June, he was ordered back to Japan, arriving in Kobe in July, and his conscription ended on 16 July 1939.
In 1939, he wrote the first draft of the script for The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice but shelved it due to changes insisted on by military censors. The first film Ozu made on his return was the critically and commercially successful Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, released in 1941. He followed this with an autobiographical theme: Chichi Ariki (There Was a Father, 1942), describing the strong bonds of affection between a father and son despite years of separation.
In 1943, Ozu was again drafted into the army to make a propaganda film in Burma. However, he was sent to Singapore instead, to make a film called Deruhi e, Deruhi e (translation "To Delhi, to Delhi") with Chandra Bose. During his time in Singapore, having little inclination to work, he spent an entire year reading, playing tennis, and watching American films provided by the Army information corps. He was particularly impressed by Citizen Kane. He occupied a fifth-floor room facing the sea in the Cathay Building where he entertained guests, drew pictures and collected carpets. With the end of the Second World War in August 1945, Ozu destroyed the script and footage shot of the film. He was detained as a civilian and worked in a rubber plantation. Of his film team of 32 people, there was only space for 28 on the first repatriation boat to Japan. Ozu won a lottery giving him a place, but gave it to someone else who was anxious to return.
Ozu returned to Japan in February 1946, and moved back in with his mother, who had been staying with his sister in Noda in Chiba prefecture. He reported for work at the Ofuna studios on 18 February 1946. His first film released after the war was The Record of a Tenement Gentleman in 1947. Around this time, the Chigasakikan[n 7] ryokan became Ozu's favoured location for scriptwriting.
Tokyo Story was the last script written at Chigasakikan. After that, Ozu and Noda used a small house in the mountains at Tateshina in Nagano Prefecture called Unkosō[n 8] to write scripts, with Ozu staying in a nearby house called Mugeisō.[n 9]
Ozu's films were most favorably received from the late 1940s, and the so-called "Noriko trilogy" (starring Setsuko Hara) of Late Spring, 1949, Early Summer and 1951, Tokyo Story, 1953, has come to be seen as his masterpiece. These three films were followed by Equinox Flower, 1958, his first film in colour, Floating Weeds, 1959 and Late Autumn, 1960. Ozu often worked with screenwriter Kogo Noda; other regular collaborators included camera man Yuharu Atsuta and the actors Chishū Ryū, Setsuko Hara, and Haruko Sugimura.
His work was only rarely shown overseas before the 1960s. Ozu's last film was An Autumn Afternoon in 1962.
Ozu was well known for his drinking. He and his screenwriting collaborator Kogo Noda measured the progression of their scripts by how many bottles of sake they had drunk. Ozu remained single throughout his life and lived with his mother until she died, less than two years before his own death.
Legacy and style
Ozu became widely recognized internationally when his films were shown abroad. Influential monographs by Donald Richie, Paul Schrader, and David Bordwell have ensured a wide appreciation of Ozu's style, aesthetics and themes. Ozu was voted the tenth greatest director of all time in the 2002 British Film Institute's Sight & Sound poll of Critics' top ten directors.
Ozu is probably as well known for the technical style and innovation of his films as for the narrative content. The style of his films is most striking in his later films, a style he had not fully developed until his post-war talkies. He did not conform to Hollywood conventions. Rather than using the typical over-the-shoulder shots in his dialogue scenes, the camera gazes on the actors directly, which has the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene. Ozu did not use typical transitions between scenes, either. In between scenes he would show shots of certain static objects as transitions, or use direct cuts, rather than fades or dissolves. Most often the static objects would be buildings, where the next indoor scene would take place. It was during these transitions that he would use music, which might begin at the end of one scene, progress through the static transition, and fade into the new scene. He rarely used non-diegetic music in any scenes other than in the transitions. Ozu moved the camera less and less as his career progressed, and ceased using tracking shots altogether in his color films. However, David Bordwell argues that Ozu is one of the few directors to "create a systematic alternative to Hollywood continuity cinema, but he does so by changing only a few premises."
He invented the "tatami shot", in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat. Actually, Ozu's camera is often even lower than that, only one or two feet off the ground. He used this low height even when there were no sitting scenes, such as when his characters walked down hallways.
[Ozu] once had a young assistant who suggested that perhaps he should shoot conversations so that it seemed to the audience that the characters were looking at one another. Ozu agreed to a test. They shot a scene both ways, and compared them. "You see?" Ozu said. "No difference!"
In narrative structure, Ozu was an innovator in his use of ellipses, in which many major events are left out, leaving only the space between them. For example, in An Autumn Afternoon a wedding is mentioned in one scene, and then in the next, a reference is made to the wedding that has already occurred. The wedding, however, never occurs on screen. This is typical of Ozu's films. Usually Ozu elides moments that Hollywood films use to stir an emotional reaction from the audience, thus eschewing melodrama.
Tributes and documentaries
In 2003, the centenary of Ozu's birth was commemorated at various film festivals around the world. Shochiku produced the film Café Lumière (珈琲時光), directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien as homage to Ozu, with direct reference to the late master's Tokyo Story (1953), to premiere on Ozu's birthday.
Ozu's Tokyo Story has appeared several times in the Sight & Sound poll of best films selected by critics and directors. In 2012, it topped the poll of film directors' choices of "greatest film of all time".
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