Movie masters: Yasujiro Ozu and the human condition

Last Updated 18 May 2018, 14:08 IST
Among the most influential Japanese film directors is Yasujiro Ozu, whose name is still remembered decades after his death. His film 'Tokyo Story' is considered one of the finest films ever made.

Ozu was unknown to the western world for a long time. After his death in 1963, film critic Donald Richie did a retrospective of five of his films at the Berlin Film Festival that same year. And the brilliance of Ozu came into the spotlight.

Ozu started his career in silent films in the late 1920s. However, it was in the post-World War II era that he made his mark with family dramas about the intricacies of human relationships. His filmmaking style involves limited camera movements, low cameras, a strong focus on framing and the characters inside the frames. Ozu's lens allows the audience to concentrate on the characters instead of the surroundings. Another facet of Ozu's films is that silence is more important than speech.

The director gives the audience time to appreciate what they're seeing with lengthy static shots that serve as establishing shots for the scenes to come. These shots are known as pillow shots.

A fine example of the pillow shot is seen in the opening of the 1959 film 'Good Morning'. With the precise use of the frame and subjects moving through it, the story moves forward without dialogue. The audience is hooked with the brilliance of the setting.

Ozu's films break the rules of cinema. There's a consistent duration in his shots, trying to avoid long takes and quick shots. He goes to the extent of eliminating transitions between shots, opting instead for clear cuts.

He also keeps his cameras so low that the subjects occupy the top of the frame. Director Masahiro Shinoda, who worked with Ozu in the 1950s, once said, “The purpose of keeping the camera so low was to prevent it from having a human viewpoint.”

Ozu's films showcase what can be called the essence of cinema by capturing the truth in the portrayal of human beings.

To Ozu, everything is almost banal, even death. The audience, however, is struck by the calm within the films. Ozu’s stories offer the audience an opportunity to reflect and contemplate their own lives and how they relate to the characters on the screen. Ozu tries to capture daily life in a cinematic experience.

The Japanese distributors of his time, however, were reluctant to distribute his films in the international market. They believed that western audiences who flocked to samurai films would not like Ozu’s movies. He made 55 movies in his lifetime.

His best works include

'Tokyo Story'

(Published 17 March 2018, 10:40 IST)

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