If a viewer watches enough of Yasujirô Ozu’s work, many of the actors become as familiar as old friends. Perhaps it’s something in the nature of his films, in their largely low-key, down-to-earth, everyday quality, or perhaps it’s because the actors who appear in multiple Ozu movies often play similar characters. At any rate, there’s a definite pleasure in seeing certain faces pop up again and again. Along with the iconic Setsuko Hara and the ubiquitous Chishû Ryû, one of the most memorable of these performers is Haruko Sugimura — even if her characters aren’t always particularly pleasant people.
“I always tell people that I don’t make anything besides tofu, and that is because I am strictly a tofu-dealer,” Yasujirô Ozu said of his work while promoting An Autumn Afternoon, the 1962 film that would turn out to be his swan song. (He died of cancer the following year, on his sixtieth birthday.) By that point, he had been directing for thirty-five years. Although his resume includes college comedies, crime dramas, a period piece (his now-lost debut, Sword of Penitence) and a documentary short on a kabuki dancer, the bulk of his impressive output — fifty-four films in total, despite the fact that his career was interrupted in the late 1930s and again in the early to mid-1940s when he was called up for military service — deals with family relationships in contemporary Japan. Tokyo Story, released in 1953, is probably the best-known example, a tale about an elderly couple traveling to the titular city to visit their children and grandchildren. However, the most representative entry in Ozu’s filmography — his tofu in its purest form, as it were — may be 1949’s Late Spring.
To any film lover, the thought of being limited to a mere five movies for an indefinite period is nightmarish. Even when given a choice of titles, countless favorites have to be left out, not to mention the seemingly infinite number of films that remain unseen. After much debate, here are the five classic movies (i.e., from the 1970s or earlier) that I would want to compose my desert island library.
Although Yasujirô Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Late Autumn (1960) were based on different novels — by different authors, no less (Kazuo Hirotsu and Ton Satomi, respectively) — they tell strikingly similar stories. Each film revolves around a young woman living with a widowed parent; in the first, it’s a father, and in the second, a mother. Various acquaintances urge the girl to marry, even proffering potential husbands, but she turns them down because she’s happy as she is. However, when she comes to the conclusion that her parent intends to remarry, she feels betrayed, which may make the separation easier.