If you go down to NYC’s Film Forum this week, you’ll find a cinephile treat: a new 4K restoration of “Late Spring,” one of the finest films from Yasujirō Ozu, one of the finest filmmakers that ever lived. Obviously, many of you are geographically unable to do that, but to us, it served as a reminder that we’ve never written a feature specifically built around Ozu’s work, and that seemed like an omission that needed rectifying immediately.
For the uninitiated, Ozu had a thirty-five year career, staring with his silent debut in 1927, to his death in 1963, and he scarcely made a bad film. He was always acclaimed at home, but only found an international following after his passing thanks to fans and critics like Paul Schrader and David Bordwell. Today, his films regularly rank highly on international critics polls, with “Tokyo Story” in particular often named one of the greatest movies ever made.
To those who never quite get the taste for him, Ozu made the same movie over and over again: quiet, understated dramas that often felt like variations on the same theme, using his trademark semi-austere, observational style (including the tatami shot, with the camera looking up at the actors from the ground) over and over again. His fans might possibly agree with assessment, but would also point to the endless nuance and humanity in Ozu’s work that makes his films endlessly moving, satisfying and rewarding.
With “Early Spring” playing until the end of the week, and many of Ozu’s finest works available on Criterion, we’ve picked out five of our absolute favorites as the essential entry-points to the director’s work, though we could have gone on much longer. Take a look below, and let us know your own beloved Ozu films in the comments section.
“I Was Born But…” (1932)
Ozu’s earliest films, mostly comedies, are mostly lost to the ravages of history — 1929’s “Student Romance: Days Of Youth” is the earliest one to survive, while some made as late as 1936 are yet to be found. But the film that arguably first marked him as a major talent, and that began something of a shift in his career, does survive, and it’s still one of his very best. One of his final silent films, it stars Hideo Sugawara and Tomio Aoki (the latter of whom had starred in Ozu’s short “A Straightforward Boy” a few years earlier) as Ryoichi and Keiji Yoshi, whose family have moved to the suburbs of Tokyo for the new job of their salaryman father (Tatsuo Saitō). It’s an uneasy transition, with threats of bullying seeing them try to play truant from school, but later they heartbreakingly discover that their father is having similar difficulties as them, and is not the stern, strong man they imagined him to be. The director loosely remade the film late in his career as “Good Morning,” but there’s a winning purity to the original version which has a loose, episodic comic tone for much of its running time, almost like a series of “Our Gang” shorts strung together (though Ozu’s framing is as controlled and rigorous as it ever would be), and with Aoki and Sugawara making utterly charming and authentic leads. It’s the sly social satire, which packs an unexpected emotional punch, that really elevates this, the director using his modest story to unpack larger truths about the culture of the time. Though he probably didn’t expect the film’s conclusion, in which the boys swear to join the military and become generals, to be as haunting as it now feels.
“Late Spring” (1948)
After the war, Ozu returned to filmmaking with two movies that in many ways stand out as atypical in his filmography — 1947’s “Record Of A Tenement Gentleman,” and 1948’s “A Hen In The Wind,” respectively about children made homeless by bombing raids, and about soldiers returning from the war and reuniting with their families. These two films are still somewhat overlooked (rather unfairly, particularly in the case of the latter), but it’s perhaps understandable given that they were swiftly followed by “Late Spring,” the film that set the tone for the final act of the director’s career, and which is almost indisputably counted among the finest of his masterpieces (the most recent Sight & Sound poll named it the fifteenth greatest film ever made). It’s the first of three (a trilogy completed by “Early Summer” and “Tokyo Story”) in which his soon-to-be-regular collaborator Setsuko Hara plays a woman called Noriko. In this case, she’s an unmarried 27-year-old woman who still lives at home, caring for her widower father (Chishu Ryū), whose family conspire to find an arranged marriage for her. It could, from premise alone, sound like an Austen-ish comedy of manners, and perhaps the film that Ozu might have made early in his career. Here, though, it’s an immaculate, gentle drama in which society gets in the way of the happiness of a father and daughter, and growing up and moving away isn’t so much a victory as a bitter cost of time and change. Unfolding in an even more leisurely manner, and missing much of the humor of the earlier work (though none of the humanity), the film saw Ozu embrace the shomin-geki genre (a word invented to describe this sort of social realism drama about the lives of ordinary people, and a genre that Ozu perfected) most fully and then never let it go: it sets the tone for everything that was to come, and not just because Ozu would riff on it more than once over the rest of his career.
“Tokyo Story” (1953)
If you’ve seen one Ozu film, it was most likely “Tokyo Story,” the best known of his films, and the one that helped to establish his reputation in the U.S. and elsewhere (though not for nearly two decades after its Japanese release: it only reached these shores in March 1972). It’s frequently named among the greatest movies ever — in 2012, Sight & Sound’s poll of filmmakers put it in their number one slot (and critics in their number three). It’s in many ways the perfect entry point to Ozu, exemplifying so much of what’s special about his work, especially in the almost untouchable third act of his career. Reuniting him with his stars of “Late Spring” and “Early Summer,” and closing off the so-called Noriko trilogy, it sees an elderly married couple (Chishu Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama) travel to Tokyo leaving their youngest daughter (Kyōko Kagawa) behind, to visit their other children. Their eldest son and daughter (So Yamamura and Haruko Sugimura) both married, treat their parents mostly as an inconvenience, with only Noriko (Hara again), who was married to their son before his death, paying them any attention, and soon, the children will find that it’s too late. It’s a riff on the same sorts of themes as the earlier films in the trilogy (and in much of Ozu’s work); of old age, the responsibility of children towards their parents, the gulf that can exist between the generations, the loss that comes with change. “Tokyo Story” sees Ozu at once both quiet and angry — Yamamura and Sugimura’s selfishness engenders a fury in the viewer that’s rare for the director — and arguably in a more conciliatory place, with Noriko generously defending her brother and sister-in-law in the film’s famous final moments. It’s an exquisite and perfect piece of work, and deserves every inch of its towering reputation.
“Early Spring” (1956)
After “Tokyo Story,” Ozu took an almost unprecedented three years off (he was remarkably prolific across most of his career — and indeed this was no holiday, but he was instead helping actress Kinuyo Tanaka with her second directorial feature), before returning with a film that marks something of a break with the themes of much of the other films he made in this period, “Early Spring.” Not often ranked high in the Ozu canon, but one of our personal favorites, the film is less involved with older family dynamics, and more in infidelity in a younger marriage. It stars Ryõ Ikebe as a salaryman in a Tokyo brick company who begins an affair with a colleague (Keiko Kishi), with his wife (Chikage Awashima) swiftly coming to suspect that something is wrong. Abandoning his usual themes of the difference between generations and family politics (at the behest of his studio, who felt that they’d gone out of fashion and wanted him to cast younger actors), Ozu nevertheless tells an atypical story in his career with his usual understated, delicate style, skipping over what lesser filmmakers would consider key scenes and letting the audience fill in the blanks (or keep guessing as to whether they took place at all). As ever, life bursts in from outside the frame: this isn’t so much a story as it is a slice of reality. Ozu’s usual nuance and fine eye for human nature means that both the affair and the eventual reunion of the married couple feel authentic and utterly earned, but it also serves beautifully as a portrait of the 1950s salaryman, feeling like a precursor to Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.” Feeling as his films often do, both traditional and surprisingly ahead of its time, it’s one of the best films ever made on the subject of infidelity and marriage.
“Floating Weeds” (1959)
Perhaps fittingly for a filmmaker whose work is so elegaic and so concerned with the different ways that a young and an old person might see the world, Ozu returned to his own stories more than once, with “Late Spring” inspiring “Late Autumn” and “Equinox Flower,” and “I Was Born But…” returning as “Good Morning.” But the closest of his remakes of his own films was probably “Floating Weeds, a re-do of “A Story Of Floating Weeds.” The original, a silent from 1934, had been one of Ozu’s most successful movies, and he’d often talked about a remake, but finally got the chance when he was left with a slim window between his films for Shochiku Studios to make one for a rival company, Daiei, using a pre-existing story to save time. The story, though updated to contemporary times, is much the same, tracking a traveling actor, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), who returns to the seaside town where he fathered a son (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), only for his current mistress (Machiko Kyō) to attempt to engineer a romance between another actress (Ayako Wakao) and the boy. Arguably plottier than most of Ozu’s later work (thanks to using a plot from 25-years-earlier), it nevertheless feels quite different from the original, despite sometimes sharing compositions: it’s palpably a film made by a man approaching his sixties rather than one just in his thirties, one who knows the absolute minimum he needs to tell the story, and taking advantage of every syllable and frame to do so. Ozu’s compassion hadn’t been lessened in time: if anything, we understand every character’s position a little more clearly the second time around. But his visual instincts might have improved: it was the director’s second film in color, and it’s an absolute feast for the eyes, even while the camera remains ever-neutral. It’s a film that makes a fine argument that every great director should revisit one of their masterpieces years down the line.
We could keep going all day on Ozu’s finest work, and we hope to return to him with a more comprehensive retrospective down the line, but if you’re looking for more after the five above, we’d also recommend the early, crime-themed trio of “Walk Cheerfully,” “That Night’s Wife” and “Dragnet Girl,” the sweet “Passing Fancy,” the heartbreaking “The Only Son,” which was his first talkie, the wonderful marital-strife drama “The Flavor Of Green Tea Over Rice,” the aforementioned “Early Summer,” “Late Autumn” and “Equinox Flower,” and elegiac late films “Tokyo Twilight,” “The End Of Summer,” and “An Autumn Afternoon,” among many more. Did we leave off your fave Ozu? Talk it up in the comments.