Director Series: Yasujirô Ozu

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Yasujirô Ozu, early 1950s (via Wikimedia Commons)

Ozu is not only a great director but a great teacher, and after you know his films, a friend. — Roger Ebert

I came to love Yasujirô Ozu almost by accident. About three years ago, I watched I Was Born, But… on either TCM or the Criterion Collection’s Hulu channel. At the time, the only Japanese director I knew by name was Akira Kurosawa, and though I could name several of his films, I had yet to see any of them. Maybe I watched I Was Born, But… for the sake of novelty, or maybe it was the title that caught my attention (that was the case with Crazed Fruit, which I had watched a few months earlier and which may have been my first Japanese movie), but I found it unique, charming and, best of all, funny.

Almost a year passed before I saw my next Ozu, Tokyo Story. Though I knew very little about it, I had heard it praised as one of the all-time greats — and, to be honest, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about at first. Ozu’s style was strange to me, especially the way the characters tended to talk directly into the camera. I found it distracting, even awkward. Still, as it went on, the movie drew me in, and though I didn’t cry at the end (I rarely do), I was moved. The strangeness no longer mattered.

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Setsuko Hara in Tokyo Story

One Sunday night the following month, there was a film in the TCM Imports block that sounded interesting, something about a (Japanese?) teacher working in China. I have no idea now what title was listed, but when I starting watching my recording, I realized that there had been a mistake. Instead of the film described on my cable listings, it was Ozu’s Early Spring. Once I stopped expecting the protagonist to take up teaching and move to China, I really began to enjoy it. (I still refer to Keiko Kishi as “Goldfish” whenever I see her.) Even if I wasn’t entirely accustomed to Ozu’s methods, they had started to become endearing. I looked him up and, to my surprise, learned that he had also directed I Was Born, But…

From that point on, I was hooked: Late Spring, Early Summer, Late Autumn… I’ve now (to the best of my knowledge) seen all of his extant films except for the rather elusive The Munekata Sisters. Like a lot of people, I suppose, I watched most of his sound films before delving into his silents (with the exception of I Was Born, But…), and I was fascinated to see how different those could be from his better-known family dramas, in both content and style. For this series, I plan to view his existing filmography in chronological order, following his evolution as a director from 1929’s Days of Youth to 1962’s An Autumn Afternoon.

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