Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Films of Yasujiro Ozo at Film Forum Part 1

In one of his last silent films, An Inn in Tokyo (1935), Ozu tackles family dynamics in a Depression-era scenario, much darker and more serious than his subsequent more famous films from the late 1940s and into the 1950s. It in fact is very similar to the post-war neorealist films of Italy. Takeshi Sakamoto is a single father, wandering the country with his two sons, the eldest played by Ozu child actor regular Tomio Aoki, searching for a job and a way to feed his children. He stumbles upon an old friend, Choko Iida, who offers him employment and a place to live, but his growing love for a down-on-her-luck single mother (Yoshiko Okada) and her infant daughter leads to drinking and more trouble as he becomes determined to pay for the young girl's hospital bills. The film's aesthetic is one of dreary uncertainty, with many barren fields, dark alleys, and shadowy interiors; it's an unusual contrast to the lighter, airier compositions found in his later work. But this is a film that inspired my interest in seeking out more of Ozu's silent films. Without dialogue, the emphasis on performance, editing, and photography brings out a more vivid and compelling form of storytelling that I found nicely surprising in comparison to his sound works. This is a masterpiece of surviving early Japanese cinema.


Ozu's first talkie, The Only Son (1936), reunites the director with Iida as the single mother of the title character, who she sacrifices everything for so he can get a good education and make a name for himself. Visiting him in Tokyo years after he leaves for school, she discovers he is married, has a child, and is working as a night school teacher...and is deeply unhappy with the path of his life. Tension builds between mother and son, as she reveals just how much she has given up for him, and he reconsiders his aspirations and concerns over his future. The theme of human kindness trumping wealth is carried over into the sound era, as the son's wife sells her kimono to earn money so the family can spend a day out together, but the money goes towards a neighbor boy's hospital bills after he is kicked by a horse (the boy is played by Aoki). With sound, Ozu begins his tradition of a sparse narrative in favor of simple camera set-ups and quiet scenes of character interaction, often in the domestic space, with deliberate pacing that will either draw you in or repel you into bored slumber. Truth be told, for the longest time, I was in the latter camp, but approaching Ozu with one film after another, a wider appreciation for his accomplishments as a director began setting in. I can now count myself as an admirer and follower of his work. It was this one-two punch combo of Inn in Tokyo and Only Son that converted me, and led me to re-visit his other films through new eyes.

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) is a return to the concept of traditional versus contemporary values, but one that is often overshadowed by Ozu's preceding and subsequent films (1951's Early Summer and 1953's Tokyo Story, respectively). Rather than explore the dynamic between parents and children, Green Tea focuses on the stagnant marriage of Taeko, a spoiled upper-class woman, and Mokichi, her dull husband. Taeko's social circle of lady friends includes her niece, Setsuko, a single woman with a modern sensibility about dating and marriage. While Mokichi tries to bond with their maid, Fumi, instead of his wife, Taeko regularly lies to her husband so she can go on spa getaways with her girlfriends. As per usual with Ozu, the film takes its time developing into a solid narrative, and the turning point occurs when Setsuko abandons an arranged marriage interview at the Kabuki theater and, returning to her aunt and uncle's house, is taken to a bike race and gambling casino by her uncle and Non-chan, his work apprentice, who naturally becomes a solid romantic interest for the rebellious young woman. This immediately sparks questions of their arranged marriage for Taeko and Mokichi, and if they've reached their breaking point. An argument over the way Mokichi eats his favorite meal, described in the film's title, leads to the film's very good third act, with genuine suspense over whether the couple will reconcile and if so, just how will it happen. If it's possible for there to be an underrated Ozu film, it's this one, rarely spoken of in the same breath as his more popular films, but a worthwhile starter film for newcomers to his oeuvre and one for Ozu admirers to give a second look.

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