The great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu was always one of those daunting and unapproachable figures of international cinema whom I didn’t exactly avoid growing up but I found his work, or at least what I sampled, somewhat otherworldly and difficult to assimilate, at least intellectually.
Fortunately, as my vocation evolved from an eager amateur to aspiring professional, I was much more willing and ready to take the plunge on Ozu. A traveling retrospective some years ago helped with efforts at catch up, though there remains a great deal I still haven’t seen.
The Criterion label justifies their reputation and cultural cachet with their work on expanding awareness and appreciation of Ozu. The company has issued six stand alone titles, including the silent and color remake of Floating Weeds, the supreme masterpieces Tokyo Story, Early Summer, Late Spring and the director’s final work, An Autumn Afternoon.
They have also issued on their special Eclipse imprint two essential box sets: Late Ozu (Early Spring, Tokyo Twilight, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn, The End of Summer) and Silent Ozu (Tokyo Chorus, I Was Born, But…, Passing Fancy).
Now, Criterion has just published a new box set of two essential Ozu titles: The Only Son, the director’s 1936 debut sound work and the companion piece, There Was a Father, from 1943 (significantly with The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, the only two titles Ozu directed during the Second World War.)
What’s valuable, even essential, about the two titles is what they say and reveal about the Japanese condition during a period of nationalist fervor, economic volatility and an extreme social coercion its citizens lived under, whether they were artists or bricklayers.
The man born and died on the same date, December 12, Ozu was born in 1903 and died in 1963. His life corresponded to his country’s spectacular imperial rise from the time of the country’s startling and convincing military rout of czarist Russia in 1905 through its series of military conquests, territorial expansion and foreign occupation of Korea, China, Manchuria and Taiwan to its ultimately disastrous and humiliating surrender to Allied forces in 1945.
Ozu himself never married and was for much of his formative years susceptible to military conscription. He was first called up for a two-year mandatory national service in the mid-twenties, right after he began his career-long association with the powerful Shochiku studio as an assistant cameraman. Following the completion of The Only Son, Ozu was ordered to serve two years of military service in China.
In 1943, the year the war turned decisively in the favor of the Allies in the Pacific and European theaters, Ozu was dispatched to Singapore to work on a series of propaganda films. Following his country’s unconditional surrender, Ozu spent six months in a British POW camp.
(Interestingly, of the three major directors of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, a work that did a great deal to expand Ozu’s reputation in the West, Robert Bresson served in German concentration camp for eighteen months and Carl Th. Dreyer lived under the Nazi occupation.)
Naturally, these two Ozu films are of a piece: both are about the often difficult, complex relationship of parents and children, are concerned with guilt, shame and redemption, and both are marked by an almost unsurpassable sorrow and pain never lessened in spite of the oblique manner and off-handed way the emotional particulars are addressed and dealt with.
Loss is the dominant undercurrent: in The Only Son, the father, or patriarch, is dead; in There Was a Father, the memory of the dead mother haunts the work. In both films, the son is introduced as a post-adolescent and the bulk of the story is concerned with his own emotional plight or professional standing in young adulthood. Interestingly, Ozu handles the passage of time differently.
In The Only Son, he uses intertitles to mark the film’s three time breaks and note the passage of the story from 1923 to 1935 and then 1936. In Father, time is revealed more elliptically through the son’s matriculation through school.
The autobiographical shading is also interesting to consider. Ozu’s only previous professional work before his uncle helped him get the job at Shochiku was as a teacher. (In both films, Ozu specialists David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson record illuminating twenty-minute interviews that combine scholarship, criticism and observations with background and context and Bordwell points out some interesting parallels with Ozu’s own father.)
“Is Ozu Slow?” Jonathan Rosenbaum once proposed in a provocative essay and lecture about the director. For me, what comes through most forcefully in the two films is just how dynamic, rigorous and sublime Ozu’s art truly was. Of course, historical context is central to both works. Both films illustrate sharply, unpretentiously the poetry of Ozu, his fascinating use of sound and off screen space, animated by action or behavior, that establishes a milieu or work environment or a shot, like the overturned boat in Father that registers a chilling exactness.
The Only Son is couched in failure and disappointment. There Was a Father conveys a wholly different manner of grief and rupture. The drama develops out of the often excruciating emotional exchanges of these contradictory or irreconcilable positions adopted by mother and son or father and child. On the contrary, the work is not static or embalmed but open and alive and allowed a directness of expression and intensity of feeling Ozu transforms into art of the highest distinction.
They’re pure, direct and brilliant. Watch and rejoice.