Yasujirō Ozu. Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story). 1953

“Pictures with obvious plots bore me now. Naturally, a film must have some kind of structure, or else it is not a film, but I feel that a picture isn't good if it has too much drama.”

Yasujirō Ozu

No other filmmaker has brought the heart and soul of Japanese life to the screen like Yasujirō Ozu. He directed more than 50 films over the course of his career, and is known for portraying ordinary Japanese families with remarkable insight and sensitivity. Despite the recognition he received in his home country for his achievements, Japanese film studio executives hesitated to send his films to overseas film events, fearing that international audiences would lack an appetite for quiet dramas focusing on the mundane. It was American writer, film historian, and former MoMA film curator Donald Richie who began to bring Ozu’s films to the West in the early 1960s. Contrary to expectations, the international film world gave his films a rapturous reception—though most got to know his work only after his death.

Ozu distinguished himself with an unmistakable visual style. Often setting his films in the interior of a traditional family home, he mostly employed a static camera to capture conversations and actions. He preferred to place his camera close to the floor, contrary to the convention of placing it at standing eye level. The shots resulting from this setup are called “tatami shots,” since they capture the scenes from the point of view of someone sitting on a tatami (a rush-covered straw mat used as a traditional Japanese floor covering), the typical position of a Japanese person seated at home.

Ozu was also known to “cross the line,” a reference to his tendency to eschew the 180° axis of action conventionally used by filmmakers since the time of silent cinema to help spatially orient viewers. In order to show a conversation between two people, for example, filmmakers would traditionally cut from one shot of a person facing the right end of the frame to a shot of another person facing the left. These shots would be taken from only one side of the axis of action—an imaginary straight line connecting and extending beyond the two characters—so that the two people, without appearing in the same frame, would look as if they were speaking to each other within the same physical space. Ozu paid this filmic grammar no regard. His camera often crossed this imaginary line, generating moments of disorientation. Often, he took direct frontal shots of his characters speaking and gazing slightly off to the side of the camera. He would cut from a frontal take of a person speaking to another compositionally identical take of another person responding. Shot in a narrow aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the faces of these speakers would look like tightly framed, animated portraits looking out on the audience directly, creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy that is distinctly Ozu’s own.

While film critics and cinephiles are enthralled by Ozu’s distinctive stylistic and technical approach, general audiences worldwide are moved by his heartfelt storytelling about ordinary life. In Hitori Musuko (The Only Son), a small-town widow learns that the son she worked so hard to raise is now a struggling teacher living in Tokyo; in Banshun (Late Spring) a young woman is unwilling to get married and leave her widowed father; in Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story), an older couple takes a cross-country trip to visit their grown children, only to find them too busy to spend time with their parents. Without dramatic plotlines, the films bring to the fore life’s unadorned essentials: family, growing up, marriage, work, aging, and obligation. While one film might seem like a variation of another—as do many of his film titles, including Bakushu (Late Spring, Early Summer), Soshun (Early Spring), Kohayagawa-ke No Aki (The End of Summer), Akibiyori (Late Autumn), and Sanma No Aji (An Autumn Afternoon)—Ozu portrays the truths and richness of life with an unabashed simplicity, full of compassion and humanity.

Note: The opening quote is from Richie, Donald. “The Later Films of Yasujiro Ozu.” Film Quarterly 13, no. 1 (1959): 18–25. https://doi.org/10.2307/1211232.

La Frances Hui, Associate Curator, Department of Film, 2016


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