Yasujiro Ozu | Late Spring | An Autumn Afternoon | I Was Born, But... | Record of a Tenement Gentleman | Early Summer | Equinox Flower
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Secondly, Ozu's perennial subject is a family pressuring a grown son or daughter to marry, and the sadness and devastation this leaves in its wake. I have seen many different critical interpretations of this: that the kids are too "lazy" to take on adult responsibilities, that the parents are doing this out of a sense of "duty" or "sacrifice", that this is a universal experience of children leaving the parent's nest. I think all of these points of view are wrong, and are not supported by the films in question. Instead, I think these scenes should be given a different interpretation. First of all, Ozu seems to be a gay man, although nobody wants to say so. He was a man who was unmarried, and who never had an active relationship with a woman. He was expelled from boarding school as a teenager for writing a love letter to another male student. What Ozu seems to be criticizing in his films is the huge pressure society puts on people to marry, whatever their sexual orientation. Such pressure can be bad for some straight people who are temperamentally unsuited for marriage. But it is absolutely devastating to gay people who are pressured into marriage against their will. What we are seeing is Ozu's films is what the poet Adrienne Rich called "compulsory heterosexuality", the huge machine of social pressure put on everybody to lead a heterosexual life, whether they are suited to it or not.
The early part of many Ozu films shows how happy everyone is living as part of a family, with a parent-grown child relationship and friends. These scenes show a blissful, ecstatic happiness. They are an outpouring of pure joy, and a picture of paradise on earth. Then, part way through the picture, pressure starts on the grown child to marry. It comes from everybody: all the relatives and friends of the parent. It is relentless, and the machinery grinds on. The child is forced into marriage, something that at the end of the movie leads to the destruction of the happy family, as the child goes off to the new home, and painful sorrow and despair for both the parent and the child.
No one in the film speaks out against marriage as an institution. The child resists, but has no ideological weapons. All voices are raised in favor of marriage as a universal obligation. But the film never makes any transcendental moral argument in favor of marriage. It shows that it is socially demanded, but it never shows it benefiting anyone, or hurting anyone by its absence. No moral case for marriage is ever made in the film. It is merely unthinkingly accepted by everyone as the natural order of things, a universal obligation of nature. Ozu's films are not ambiguous on this point: they do not make the slightest case for marriage as a moral obligation. So critics are reading into Ozu's films when they use words like "duty" to describe the characters' actions. Critics who summarize an Ozu film as "the father steps aside so that the daughter can find happiness in marriage" are also seriously misreading the movie. While the father's friends might make such an argument to him in the film, the film itself does nothing to support it. The heroine clearly is not going off to a life of happiness, but to a total hell.
Critics who assert that marriage is part of nature, or the inevitable cycle of the generations are also misreading Ozu. He nowhere makes that assertion. Instead, the daughter in Late Spring fights against her marriage with every ounce of her moral being. How can anything be "natural" or "inevitable" that human beings fight against with every fiber of their being?
I also think it is a disservice to Ozu to suggests that he regards the suffering in his films as the tragic result of the human condition. Nowhere does Ozu make the claim that the social custom of universal marriage is part of the human condition, part of man's timeless fate on Earth. Instead, one can easily imagine a society where it is not so, where people who are happy and who are not harming anyone are left alone and allowed to flourish.
Ozu in fact shows people making a choice. They are happy in the early parts of the films, before they choose marriage for the child. The subject of marriage is consciously introduced, and unhappiness follows immediately. The choice is made under tremendous social pressure, but it is a choice all the same. It is not "natural" according to Ozu, not "moral", not "mature", not an "inevitable part of life". It is just a very bad choice.
It is very easy for film makers to show moral obligations, without being preachy. For example, in Billy Wilder's comedy The Fortune Cookie, Jack Lemmon's character is exaggerating a minor injury to get insurance money. Instead of preaching in words that this is wrong, Wilder makes the nice guy football player who innocently "injured" him a major character in the film. His guilt and remorse, thinking he is responsible for an injury that in fact is just faked by Lemmon's character, are constant reminders of how wrong it is to lie about such things. Lemmon keeps getting his nose rubbed, hilariously and satirically, in the bad consequences of his actions. Such devices are very common in motion pictures. My point is, that we see no such justification for marriage anywhere in Ozu's film.
I would really like to see some air let into discussions of Ozu. A stereotyped set of interpretations of his films has built up, which the films do not support.
The word "universality" is also used in inconsistent ways to characterize Ozu's films. During Ozu's lifetime, his films were rarely exported abroad. It was thought that they were "too Japanese" to appeal to foreign audiences. After his death, in the 1970's, this statement turned out to be untrue: they were shown throughout the world to great success. In this sense, Ozu's films are certainly "universal": they appeal to people of all nationalities. Since the 1970's, it has become a standard part of Ozu criticism to refer to their universality. However, this word has other meanings that tend to creep into this discussion, with much less justification in fact. That is to suggest that Ozu's parent-child dramas show a universal experience, one that every parent and grown child goes through. I have been unable to find any claim in Ozu's films that the experiences of his characters, in particular their problems with marriage, represent a "universal" experience of all human beings in this sense. Ozu certainly regards the experience of his characters as of burning importance: he is showing their central life experiences. But he makes no claim, as far as I can see, that these experiences are shared by everyone, or in particular, by all heterosexuals.
The hero's office is full of devices to make Ozu's trademark visual compositions. Stripes on a chair a photographed so that they run in a vertical direction in one region of the composition. These add to the frequent "groups of repeated parallel straight lines" found in Ozu's compositions. He also includes a beautiful blue plastic bucket on the floor; this is the typical "circular object on the floor or table in an otherwise largely rectilinear composition" familiar in Ozu. Its bright blue color is also typical of Ozu's color design in his color films: bright primary colors for the circular objects, muted but pleasant whites, yellows, grays and beiges for the rectilinear parts of the screen.
Stills from Tokyo Story (1953) often show the characters' heads framed by a separate rectangular region of the composition. Such framing is extremely common in film world wide, occurring in many older Hollywood directors, for instance. In Tokyo Story, this framing in often against a rectangular grid making up a window or door panel. This grid is made up of many repeated smaller panels. In some of the shots, the heads of both characters are outlined against such repeated grid areas, whereas the many rectangles that make up the rest of the composition are not composed of such grids. One wonders if the grids are a special region, one that attracts the eye. Since the characters' heads are also central zones of expressiveness in the composition, this could combine two "highlighted" areas into one in the composition, making the characters' faces with the grids behind them into the focus of the composition. The complexity of the grid also expresses the complexities of the characters' thoughts. After all, the mind is the richest object in the known universe, as Isaac Asimov liked to point out, and the many repeated regions of the grid suggest some of this complexity. The grids tend to have repeated vertical lines that are strongly emphasized. These are similar to the repeated vertical black bars that are such an important element in Mondrian's later paintings. They tend to lend Mondrian's later compositions an aspect of "movement"; they are the most important element generating the "dynamic" quality of Mondrian's later work. The vertical lines in Ozu's grids have a somewhat similar effect.
Other vertical lines are in An Autumn Afternoon, in the opening pillow shot: we see repeated smoke stacks. The repeated wires in many of that film's pillow shots also form a "dynamic" series of lines.
Many shots where the characters are at tables show vessels used for eating and drinking. These vessels tend to be brightly colored, and of many different interesting rounded shapes. They form a "still life", usually at the bottom of the composition. These shapes tend to form major points of emphasis within Ozu's compositions.
Ozu often shoots down long corridors. His motivations for this might be mixed. He might be trying to distance the viewer from the action. He might be trying to create geometric patterns on the screen: typically, these shots show many pieces of the rooms along the corridor, with rectangular panels and screens facing the viewer. This makes most elaborate compositions on the screen. He also might be trying to show the viewer much of the characters' houses or offices, establishing a context for the actions depicted. Another possibility: Ozu might be getting some three dimensionality into his shots. His frontal style of composition could be unbearably flat, if it simply lined up his characters against a flat background. The corridor shots instead create a sense of visual depth on the screen.
Ozu tends to keep his corridor shots balanced, with rooms shown on either side of the screen. There is rarely full, mirror symmetric imagery. Instead, there are pleasing differences on the left and right side of the compositions.
The shot showing the young son at home with his wife shows an unusual composition. We see the hero standing in a rectangular region, and this region is entirely surrounded by other rectangular regions on screen. These regions flow under his feet, and over his head. They occur on both the left and right vertical sides of the screen, as well. There is a sense of circular flow of this composition around the hero and his body.
Ozu mixed in exterior shots in his work. These shots tend not to have the characters of the film in them, although there are exceptions to this - one shot in An Autumn Afternoon shows the heroine and one of her boyfriends waiting for a train. These shots tend to be of exteriors, showing in general terms the environment in which the characters live. Although such shots are often described in film criticism as an Ozu trademark, one also finds very similar things in the work of Mikio Naruse. Naruse's films often have the same ground plan as Ozu's: a series of characterless exterior shots, elaborately composed, alternating with longer interior scenes showing the characters and their problems, acted against backgrounds made up of rectangular regions of Japanese buildings. It would be interesting to know the historical context of this film ground plan. Do other directors use it as well, or is it limited to Ozu and Naruse? Both Ozu and Naruse concentrated on dramas of Japanese daily life, known as shomin-geki in Japanese; was this ground plan associated with this genre of Japanese films? Or was it something unique to the two directors? Which used it first? Did their styles evolve, and influence each other? Unfortunately, I know far too little to answer these questions.
The establishing shots in An Autumn Afternoon tend all to be of cityscapes. They show purely man made objects, unlike the natural backgrounds one often found in the establishing shots of Late Spring. Both films have shots of trains, however: Ozu finds these as photogenic as most directors do. One remembers the wonderful montage in Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937), where the train arrives at the station.
The establishing shots in An Autumn Afternoon have a distinctly 3D quality. Ozu likes to show perspective shots on buildings, with them receding into the background, setting up strong three dimensional effects in the shots. Other parts of the shots have lines or planes pulling in completely different directions. This emphasizes their completely 3D nature. Ozu often includes wires in these shots. These generate complex networks of lines join the different regions of the composition. Ozu also likes round objects, such as the revolving cylinders used as signs on the streets in front of Japanese business, or spherical objects on roofs.
Ozu's shots show a visual language. This language is clearly related to that of modern abstract art. The establishing shots differ from much 20th Century painting, however, in that they emphasize the 3D quality of the buildings they depict. There are abstract painters whose work is 3D: one thinks of El Lissitzky and his Prouns, and the American painter Emil Bisttram.
The establishing shots in Ozu's films are spectacularly beautiful. One looks forward to the next one at all times, and hope that it is coming up soon. The addition of color to them in An Autumn Afternoon makes them even more interesting.
The opening establishing shot of An Autumn Afternoon relies on color for its full effect, with red and white rings on the smokestacks in the shot. A series of drums in the lower part of the shot are also striped, and echo the candy stripes on the stacks themselves. Factories and industrial areas are often brilliantly painted, in both Japan and in the United States. I have always found factories to be especially beautiful. They are full of complex geometric shapes. The bright colors with which they are painted also add to the effect, by making their geometric patterns even more complicated. Ozu clearly shares this enthusiasm. Many of the pillow shots are designed to show people how rich, complex, visually imaginative and beautiful the man made world of industry is.
The first shot of Early Autumn is the most complex of all the establishing shots in the film. This must clearly be deliberate; it forms an opening image of the whole film, its complexity suggesting the complexity of the lives of the characters to follow.
Ozu likes wires in his establishing shots. There are power wires here stretched between telephone poles. The cylindrical smoke stacks also look as if they have a second set of wires between them. These wires are faintly visible in this first shot, and are slightly more visible in the second - if I am not imagining things! Ozu like transparent grids in his compositions. Here these include wires, and a cyclone fence running along the whole base of the shot. The red and white stacks are also a grid, through which we can see the building. The smoke itself appears and disappears; it forms another kind of "grid" through which we can see the background of the composition. Other establishing shots show a person walking though them, or a train arriving and leaving. These too are transparent layers - we can see what lies behind the train's position before it arrives, and after it leaves. This sort of transparency allows Ozu to make more elaborate compositions. He can pile many different kinds of objects in front of each other, and the viewer can look through and see all the layers.
Ozu has chosen a visually interesting factory building, as well. Its front goes in an out, with rectangular regions thrusting towards the viewer, with recessive regions in between. The thrusting regions have rows of high windows along the top. Ozu like objects high up in the sky, such as these roofs and windows. Many of his establishing shots show such elevated structures - e.g., the baseball stadium lighting towers shown later. Ozu also like row like structures along the tops of rectangles, such as these rows of windows. Two shots later, his hall will feature rows of blinds raised up against the top of windows in the hall, making striped top shadows along the other wall.
There are also visual puns in this opening shot. One of the black towers supporting the power lines does not have the conventional telephone pole shape. Instead, it has the shape of a bottle. This shape will echo that of the many bottles shown on tables and elsewhere throughout both this film, and others of Ozu's.
The second shot of the film shows the striped cylinders again. Here the lower frame is filled with two black buildings. Their gently sloping roofs are among the most beautiful images in the film, making a delightful visual pattern.
Later we see the cylinders through the hero's window. The cylinder nearest to the viewer is apparently shot so close, that we can no longer see any striped rings on it. This gives an odd effect that stirs questions in the viewer's subconscious. I hope these are in fact the same cylinders we saw before, but I cannot prove it. It is hard to build up any coherent geometry from these opening shots. We do not get a clear view of the black buildings from shot 2 in shot 1, for example; and where the hero's office is not clear in shot 1 either.
One of the most beautiful establishing shots shows buildings at night. The scene is photographed in blue and red, continuing Ozu's love of primary colors.
Ozu's shots like to show the corners of buildings. This gives a 3D effect to the shot: we are seeing the intersection of two perpendicular streets. He does similar things with power lines: sometimes they come in from more than one direction in a picture. The guard fence on the train is similar: one side is shown, which is at a right angle to the long side of the rail, which is parallels to the tracks. However, the 3D effect seems somewhat limited. The cross direction tends to be quite short compared to the long direction, often just the side of a building or a fence. The cross direction is often very limited in features compared to the main direction: one building just has a blank wall. One can also see these shots not as 3D, but as the meeting of two diagonal lines projected on the flat rectangle of the screen. This is true of any line in any film, of course, but Ozu's lack of emphasis on the cross direction tends to highlight and underscore this effect.
A shot that rivals the opening in complexity shows the apartment house with many rugs draped for cleaning over its balcony. The whole face of the building is a grid of colored rectangles. It is a shot that goes through a Mondrian effect to total ecstasy! It is not as complex in 3D structure as the opening shot - most of the rugs are in a single visual plane - but its color, variety and two dimensional visual design are staggering. Ozu links it through what David Bordwell calls association to the scene that follows: the son's wife is cleaning rugs in their apartment.
Some scholars, notably Paul Schrader in his book Transcendental Style, have seen philosophical or religious meanings in Ozu's establishing shots. I can sometimes see that they suggest such meanings, but not always. Many of Ozu's shots have some simple motion in them: a train arrives and departs, smoke puffs out and dissipates. Such events can be seen to suggest the transience of things in this world - that our lives come and go like a puff of smoke.
A second kind of interpretation: Ozu often shows events with a recognizable, fixed beginning and end. An early shot shows a young man entering a corridor, walking across the screen, then leaving the image. Such an action suggests the cycle of birth, life and death. His entry into the image from off screen is a kind of birth, his exit is a form of death, and the walk between suggests the course of his life.
These shots can be interpreted very differently. After the smoke puffs out once, it puffs out again. Ozu often shows actions that are rhythmically repeatable. At the climax of Early Spring, a wave arrives and crashes on shore. These shots can suggest the recurring rhythms of life. Events will happen and recur, and Ozu is capturing their pulse. One might note that these events have irregular rhythm: they do not occur on a beat, like a dance number or some kinds of machinery, such as train wheels or pistons. So Ozu sees life as full of irregular rhythms, not something cut to a beat.
A different interpretation: these actions, such as a puff of smoke or a train's arrival or a man walking, can be seen as the small units out of which all actions in life can be built up. It is if Ozu is looking at the tiny, irreducible monads out of which everything else in the universe is built. They are the building blocks of all actions. This is my favorite of the various interpretations, but I am by no means sure if it is correct! These various interpretations are by no means consistent with each other.
A kind of recurring imagery shows revolving, circular objects on top of poles. These can be seen as phallic symbols. So can the trains, smokestacks, baseball towers and men walking through the establishing shots. Ozu's scenes with people often include coat racks in them which similarly are poles with rounded tops. Ozu is perhaps suggesting that there is something deeply central about such phallic imagery, that it is at the center of life. The fact that these objects are frequently moving, either forward like the men and trains, or around, like the revolving barber shop signs, suggests that these phallic entities are sources of energy in the universe.
Many scenes in the film deal with time passing. One scene shows the son winding a clock. This scene and other suggests that time is something that people manufacture themselves. There is much talk about installment plan payment for the golf clubs, for instance, which creates a monthly schedule. The clock at the opening is in a business context. Ozu seems to suggest that how people view time is something made up by society. Just as he saw marriage as a purely social demand, not something fixed in natural law, even the way people view time is something built and constructed by society. Since time passing by is often used to pressure people in marriage, the arbitrary, social construction of time is a key insight into marriage pressure.
In real life, Ozu liked nothing more than going out drinking with his buddies. An Autumn Afternoon is full of scenes showing this, especially in its happy first hour. Most of Ozu's script writing was apparently done at such sessions, where Ozu and his constant scriptwriter Kogo Noda would go drinking at inns. It is easy to undervalue such scenes. To Ozu, they clearly represented the center of existence, the main source of joy in life.
Another key scene in the first hour of An Autumn Afternoon is where Koichi and his friend go golfing together. This too is a scene of pure bliss. It is hard not to read a gay sensibility into this scene. It shows two men sharing a common activity. For both, it is deeply fulfilling. It is clearly an idealized portrait of male companionship. The two men are dressed virtually identically, in suits and ties, further accentuating their affinity with one another. The classical leading man good looks of the actor who plays Koichi are also underlined here. Similarly, in Late Spring the heroine regards Gary Cooper as the ultimate movie star; it is clearly this sort of leading man type that Ozu found most interesting.
Happy scenes of companionship in Ozu are often related to "Western" activities. There is the lyrical bike ride to the beach in Late Spring, and the golf and baseball in An Autumn Afternoon. One of the main themes in Late Spring was the Westernizing of daily life in Japan. Ozu regards this with a slight tone of bemused satire - one can cite the classic bar conversation in An Autumn Afternoon about what would have happened if Japan had won the war, and America had been "Japanicized" instead. But one feels that Ozu is also not so secretly thrilled with Western activities. They often seem to be linked to the characters' fondest desires and happiest moments.
Ozu's hero has to struggle to find other men willing to socialize with him. Everyone regards this as a secondary priority - they would rather go to a baseball game or go home with their wife. We could interpret this personally - the widowed hero is lonely. Clearly he is not offensive to the other characters - he is very respectable and dignified, and he is clearly always in good taste and socially acceptable. However, I think a structural interpretation here is preferable. Finding male companionship was a number one priority to Ozu, and to people like him. Ozu is showing the difficulties in finding this companionship in Japanese society. Such relationships are not necessarily institutionalized. Quite the reverse, in fact. The society insists they always be treated as casual meetings, however essential they are to his characters. So the hero's daily struggle to put such meetings together is a hidden but key struggle in his life. Day after day, one meeting at a time, he tries to put together the male socialization that is the key to his being. He is always polite, always smiling, always struggling to get such meetings going. He wades through an endless series of social conventions that insists such meetings are insignificant and of no importance.
The young son Koichi in the film also has a struggle. He really wants to play golf with his friend. It is his dream. Ozu includes a powerful shot of the son fondling his friend's beautiful golf clubs. Several shots of the son using the clubs show him only from the neck down. It emphasizes his body. Golf is something he does with his body: the head is not involved, it is a purely physical activity - and need.
I Was Born, But... (1932) is a silent comedy. It deals with two little boys who move with their parents to the suburbs when their father gets a promotion at the company where he works. The boys have great trouble coping with the bullies in their new neighborhood. The film shows close ties with the world of American silent comedy.
I Was Born, But... takes place in an outdoor world familiar to us from Hollywood silent comedy, especially the work of Buster Keaton. These Japanese suburbs remind one of the Los Angeles suburbs of their day. They are sparsely built up, with long roads through empty fields, reaching a few buildings. The trolley here plays a prominent role, just as trains do in the films of Keaton. There is a great deal of emphasis on precisely time arrivals and departures of trains being integrated in the rhythms of the scenes; Keaton had similar razor sharp timing. The car in the opening shot breaks down and gets stuck in the mud; malfunctioning cars were a staple of American silent comedy. Ozu's film has a movie within the movie, as does Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (1924). All of the construction of roads and buildings seems minimal and fresh, as if it were just built. This too is the look of LA suburbs in Keaton.
Ozu is one of many world directors who started out in silent comedy, and gradually switched over to domestic drama. Hollywood directors who emerged from silent comedy, such as Leo McCarey and George Stevens, often focused on dramas of domestic life. These dramas could have a political component, such as McCarey's My Son John (1952) or Stevens' Giant (1956). But the politics is played out nearly entirely within the domestic sphere; it is not acted out in the political arena, or in public forums. The domestic life did not have to be of a family: McCarey's Going My Way and The Bells of Saint Mary's look at the personal life of the Catholic clergy, who are unmarried. Even when the directors made genre films, the emphasis on home prevails: Stevens' Western Shane mainly looks at life within a farm family of the era, and his musical Damsel in Distress concentrates on Joan Fontaine's home and some locales near it.
Much of I Was Born, But... is about the perils and pleasures of male bonding. Ozu gives a thorough, logical depiction of this institution and how it functions in Japanese society, just as a film like Equinox Flower systematically looks at the institution of marriage. Ozu's scenarios are notable for their logic and rigorous examination of social issues. Underneath their comic surface, they are carefully organized to explore various topics. Here, we see all aspects of boys' groups and how they function: at play, at school, the influence of parents and families, bullies, social pecking orders, new kids and how they are integrated into social groups, the influence of economics and so on. On a parallel track, Ozu shows us how male bonding works in companies among adults, giving a very detailed look at the relationship between the father and his boss, both at the office and outside of it. Ozu shows plenty of problems in both the kids' and adults' male bonding. Although such bonding is all important and desirable to his characters, he hardly white washes it as an institution.
I Was Born, But... is most astonishing in its long middle section. These are the parts where Ozu's compositions are richest. These include complex geometric patterns made out of phone lines, trolley lines, fences, gates and railroad equipment, among other things. Some are of these are in peopleless transition shots; but many are also in the backgrounds of compositions that include the characters, and which advance the story. These shots look both graceful and complex. The wires and fences use the transparent grid approach favored by Ozu, and allow many layers to be built up.
One shot shows several rows of laundry hanging out on a series of wash lines. These anticipate the rugs hanging on the balcony in An Autumn Afternoon (1960). Laundry on lines will recur in a key scene in Equinox Flower (1958).
I Was Born, But... is unexpectedly full of camera movement. In Ozu's later films the camera is almost entirely stationary, so this is unexpected. Ozu likes lateral camera movements, either following characters when they walk, or tracking down rows of office workers. His camera movements tend to have plenty of kinetic punch. They help keep up a sense of movement that runs through the film, just as the many shots of the trolley do.
Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) is Ozu's first film after his long absence from filmmaking during World War II. It is one of his most affecting films. It is set among poorer people than many of his later films, dealing with characters who live in shabby homes, and who seem to be making a modest, innocent living by making household items to sell in the black market. This reflects the poverty of Japan as a whole during this era.
Record of a Tenement Gentleman is a bit shorter than some of Ozu's later works. It also avoids multiple sub-plots, unlike the later films, concentrating nearly entirely on a single story, the relationship between the lost boy and the older woman who takes care of him.
The woman's house seems to be mainly kitchen; it doubles as a kitchen-ware shop. It is full of the kitchen implements that fascinate Ozu. Each one has a different geometric structure, and Ozu combines them to make complex compositions. Other kitchens in Ozu are also full of such implements - e.g., the one in Early Summer - but this kitchen in that film does not dominate the mise-en-scene the way it does here. The kitchen is definitely a domain associated with mothers and older women in Ozu. It is the place where they do much of their work. It is also a place where they feed their families, part of their key role as mothers. The way the kitchen looms so large in this film is related to the centrality of the woman here. Mother love seems to be the main theme of the movie.
The scene at the photography studio is one of Ozu's gems. It is clearly a portrait of the process of photography, one that can also stand for Ozu's career as a movie maker. The scene symbolizes in a small way all of Ozu's daily work. And just as the photographer here specializes in family portraits, so are Ozu's films portraits of families. The source of light at the studio echoes the many outdoor lights shown in the establishing shots of this film; both are on tall poles, and tilted at angles. Light shines out of darkness, illuminating the characters' lives; it also shines to make pictures.
This film has a song in its middle. Ozu sometimes shows groups of characters entertaining each other with songs or recitations. Such family entertainments used to be extremely common in the United States, as well; this one reminded me nostalgically of my own youth. One wonders here if this song is related to characters' poverty: is this supposed to be typical of lower class characters, like singing songs in pubs in Britain? I do not know enough about Japanese society to answer this. This is one of the most entertaining and sweet spirited of such scenes in Ozu.
This film is a bit richer in exteriors than many Ozu films. Ozu often has a lot of train scenes; but here he goes to other locations as well. The cage at the zoo is one of many transparent grill work structures in Ozu's exteriors. It is full of the tall poles, wire mesh, and complex geometric structures that Ozu loved.
Early Summer (1951) combines several of Ozu's subjects. Its first half recalls Late Spring (1949) and its social pressure on an unmarried daughter to marry; its second half anticipates Equinox Flower (1956). Meanwhile, the subplot about the two rowdy young boys recalls I Was Born, But... (1932), while its look at the older generation invokes Tokyo Story (1953). The film is very rich, in terms of both plot, and the number of characters in it. It is sprawling and filled with incident.
The film's structure recalls other Ozu films in that the first half is more comic, with a sense of joy and a lyrical, poetic look at everyday life, while the second half is more tragic. Once again, in the film's first half, the family is united, and functioning happily as a group, while in the film's second half it breaks up.
This film has an explicitly feminist theme. It shows women becoming more independent, rejecting their family control. This is a look at a turning point in Japanese history.
Many of the heroine's experiences here involve her with other women. During the first half, we often see her with her girlfriends, in scenes that anticipate the girl friend and her mother in Equinox Flower. In the second half, we get a look at the relationship between the heroine and a potential mother-in-law. These looks at female-female relationships are relatively unique in Ozu, and occur less in other films about marriage-age young heroines. These relationships are the central ones in the heroine's actual life. We also see her in a key scene with her sister-in-law towards the end of the movie.
The possibility that the heroine might be a lesbian is explicitly raised in the dialogue, assuming that the subtitle is an accurate translation. It is immediately dismissed by another character as impossible. Such a dialogue serves two purposes. It seems to excludes gayness as a possibility, at least on the surface. But it also suggests subtly that the film's events are consistent with the behavior of gays, and might be viewed in this way by the audience.
The highly unusual love story of Early Summer seems to be between a woman and her mother-in-law. There is a long tradition of love between older and younger women in lesbian history and culture. One of the classic works of American literature, Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896-1900), is in part about this subject.
Ozu's films often do not show the scenes that one might expect. Instead, they often show other scenes, ones that most directors would not ordinarily stage. This can be interpreted in a number of ways. In my opinion, Ozu does this to underscore the importance of what he does show. In Early Summer, the fact that almost all we see of the marriage is its arrangement between the mother-in-law and the heroine is meant to suggest that the relationship between the two women is all important. What is being suggested is that we are witnessing a lesbian love story. The fact that the traditional scenes between husband and wife are left out of this courtship story, in defiance of all screen convention, is meant to emphasize that they are not the central subject here.
Ozu and Noda clearly had fun deciding which scenes to leave in and leave out of their films. The decisions show wit and formal originality. But they also serve as editorial comments from the team, telling what they think is important and unimportant in the story.
Ozu and Noda do not seem to be deeply modernist in this area. I do not believe that they are leaving important scenes off the screen, in order to satisfy some modernist impulse to subvert narrative storytelling. They show a witty desire to avoid and even burlesque conventions in their choices. But when the rubber hits the road, and the filmmakers come down to essentials, what is shown by them is what they feel is genuinely important.
The heroine's motives for marrying here also have a number of other sides. For one thing, there is the film's feminist commentary. The arranged marriage the family wants is created by two men, the boss who originally proposes it, and the brother who insists that it be carried through. By contrast, the heroine and the mother-in-law, who arrange the alternative marriage, are two women. This film shows women taking control of matters of importance in their lives, and evading male institutions.
There is also the matter of attractiveness. The film emphasizes that the young doctor is very handsome, with a sweet, appealing personality. He is the sort of man who probably appealed to Ozu himself. One suspects that such an appeal is meant to be important to the heroine. She clearly likes the young doctor, in both of their scenes together early in the movie. This is in contrast with the arranged candidate, who is forty, unseen and who probably has no visual appeal, at least in the world of the film. The awful brother insists that this is of no importance; when both his mother and sister disagree, he rages at them till they submit. But they are not really convinced.
At first glance, such a story-line seems contradictory to the other suggested story-line of the film, the lesbian love story. However, the two make sense on a metaphorical level. Ozu is combining his own feelings about attractive mates, in the form of the doctor, with a lesbian love story that is right for a female heroine. The two types of ideals are not consistent on the surface. But they blend together in one moving stream of emotional feeling in the movie.
Finally, there is the issue of family versus commerce in the two marriages. The first marriage is proposed by the heroine's boss, and its chief merit is the candidate's affluence. By contrast, the doctor is a family friend, and he and his mother are already partly integrated into the heroine's family life. These two ways of approaching a marriage are drastically different.
The elderly uncle here goes to the theater, then later offers his endorsement of the new generation of young actors. There is something very moving about this. It represents cultural continuity, the endorsement by one generation of the cultural efforts of the next. This generosity is admirable. Such an effort is very important to society. It is absolutely necessary, if any human culture is going to go forward. One also sees the ability of the heroine and the doctor to talk about books in the early train scene. This ability to share culture is a deep clue to their relationship.
The two little boys here are rowdier than those in I Was Born, But..., and not as nice as they should be to their great-uncle. Still, they do not deserve their mean, autocratic father. He seems like one of the least sympathetic characters in Ozu. Admittedly, he seems to be a hard worker at his doctor's job. But otherwise, he seems to have few pleasant characteristics. He does his level best to coerce his sister into an arranged marriage, for instance, stifling the objections of his mother and wife, and riding roughshod over both women and children. This film suggests that men have some serious problems.
You do not learn all about Ozu's characters in their first introduction. You have to watch them throughout the course of the film, and see how they behave. Gradually, they become more complex, and start filling in as people. Only then do we fully realize what they are like inside. Their behavior tends to be consistent throughout the work - Ozu and Noda have a good grasp of each character.
Many of Ozu's films feature a leading man type. These characters tend to be sympathetic. They also tend to be a bit passive, easily manipulated and controlled by the stronger willed characters around them. Here Ozu includes two such men, an index of this film's comic abundance: the heroine's boss at work, and the doctor who is her brother's friend and neighbor. Both of these men are highly sympathetic. Like other Ozu leading males, they tend to be well dressed in good suits. They are clearly people who have appeal.
Ozu's original titles are much better than the titles applied by distributors in English. Who's Who in the Tenements is better than Record of a Tenement Gentleman, The Barley-Harvest Season than Early Summer, and The Taste of Mackerel far exceeds An Autumn Afternoon. Ozu's originals are all imaginative. I especially like the use of food in Ozu's titles, also found in The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice. However, I have used what have become the standard English titles in this article. They are now universal, both in the distribution of the films, and in critical writings. Use of the originals would tend just to confuse people.
The establishing shots in Early Summer continue Ozu's love of trains. The most awesome shot shows the train in an immense hillside landscape. The many houses and geographical features spread out over this hill recall in their visual complexity the "rugs on the apartment facade" shot of An Autumn Afternoon.
A shot of the grandfather waiting for a train to pass at a pedestrian crossing recalls the trolley shots in I Was Born, But...; both films show the elaborate mechanisms of descending gates. Such train crossings also appear in Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (1950) and Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956).
Several of the shots involve large hills. These include the shot near the beginning, showing the cage birds through the house window, showing a hill in the background; the big hill landscape of trains; the sand dune covered with vegetation at the start of the beach scene; and the final shots of the large hill over the village, with the barley fields in the foreground.
The opening is one of several shots of water in Ozu. It reminds one of the sea shot that concludes Late Spring, and the lake in Equinox Flower. In all of these films, the awesomeness of water suggests the equally large nature of life itself.
The scene under the giant statue of Buddha seems deeply symbolic. It shows both the very old, and the very young, the two boys, standing under his protection, with his upturned hand symbolizing compassion. This is the start of life and the end of life, representing human existence. This scene also recalls the finale of Record of a Tenement Gentleman, which also showed young boys playing under a giant statue, this time of Saigo. In both films, there are strong horizontal lines under the statue: a park rail fence in Record of a Tenement Gentleman, the steps and benches in Early Summer. Ozu's outdoor shots with people often have such a strong horizontal as part of their construction. Both scenes show Ozu's gift for rich composition. In each, we are in a unique world, a geometric place different from common reality, a geometrized reality in which his characters can wander. They are like the environments that will later be created by avant-garde artists in the 1960's. Both films offer their characters a glimpse of a future home: one of these boys will be adopted by the heroine of Record of a Tenement Gentleman, while in Early Summer the heroine encounters her future family for the first time. These worlds, under spiritual protection symbolized by the giant statues, allow the formation of new families.
In this black and white film, the pottery dishes used at the family's table are full of black and white designs. These are varied on each dish. Most involve large black splotches against a mainly white background. Their arrangement on the table is a pleasing still life.
Early Summer is full of camera movement. Many of these are quite beautiful, such as the scene at the theater where Ozu tracks through the audience, and the finale in the wheat field. These are both lateral tracks. Sometimes Ozu tracks along with his characters. He also can track into the scene: the close-up of the broken pieces of bread, or the track into the corridor at the restaurant. These are tracking shots without any people in them. There is also a lateral track through the empty theater, that parallels the earlier track through the audience.
Early Summer seems more comic than many of Ozu's works. While it still invokes serious themes, the characters are more successful in dealing with them here, and manage to avoid tragedy. One wonders if the use of camera movement here is related to this comic orientation. It recalls the profuse camera movements in Ozu's silent comedy, I Was Born, But.... The film also has a sheer abundance of plot compared to other Ozu films, suggesting that the life force is fully operational here.
Equinox Flower (1958) is a look at a daughter who marries for love, in defiance of her father, who believes that he should choose a bridegroom for her, in the Japanese tradition of arranged marriages. This film offers a scathing criticism of the father, and by extension, the whole Japanese social system that he represents.
Ozu has been widely criticized by extreme leftists for not making films that glorify Communist revolution. They have caricatured his films, stating that there is no social criticism of them at all, and that they accept society as it is. This is plainly not true. Nor does the film deal with "eternal, timeless truths" of human nature, as is sometimes stated about Ozu. Equinox Flower looks at a moment of genuine social transformation in Japanese society, when old norms are breaking down, and new ones are taking its place.
Equinox Flower also obliquely evokes other concerns. Specifically, it suggests the difficulties gay people have, in getting their parents to accept their choice of lovers and life partners. The situation depicted in the film, in which grown children have to defy their parents to choose a romantic partner, is a daily experience for gay people in modern society. Much of the force of Equinox Flower derives from Ozu's deep understanding of such situations. Western movie critics are clearly not picking up on this aspect of the film. Equinox Flower is not about some quaint, now disappearing custom. It is about a situation that is a daily occurrence in most societies today, one of the central facts of our existence in the new millennium. It is one that has tremendous support, from both the government, church groups and many organizations, as well as families themselves. All of these groups have thrown themselves dead center against gay marriage as an institution. The film business is also part of this homophobic system. The film industry has made almost no movies supporting gay marriage. And the only mainstream Hollywood movie to advocate gay marriage, Dennis Dugan's Big Daddy (1999), was ferociously reviled by many film critics. It clearly advocated ideas they felt were intolerable.
Ozu is also forthright about class structure. The father's objections to the bridegroom are that he is not from a wealthy family, and that his salary is limited. The satire here is often scathing. It shows some of Ozu's most sparkling comic dialogue. We are seeing a divide between the upper middle class father, and the lower middle class bridegroom. Ozu also repeatedly shows working class people in the film: railway porters, window washers, taxicab drivers, bar workers, the janitor at the father's business. Many of these are classically handsome leading men, a group with which Ozu instinctively sympathizes. The question that was insistently asked at the end of I Was Born, But... also seems relevant here: why should these people be at the bottom of society, and less impressive rich people be at the top.
Ozu shows lower downs in the father's company performing their work all lined up at a long desk. This scene has the same dreary assembly line quality as the business scenes in I Was Born, But.... Both films have considerable satiric look at business, both comic and sharply pointed. The desk here is in the same room as which the window washers were shown working in the earlier sequence.
Ozu explores some alternatives to marriage in this film. The subplot about the daughter at the bar shows an unmarried woman living with her boyfriend. And the father initially suggests to the young woman who works at the inn that she should never marry at all. Both of these options are taken seriously by the film, as alternatives to marriage. They involve serious choices: they will affect these women's whole lives. These scenes are quietly stated. But the fact that they are broached at all, in defiance of Japanese tradition that expects everyone to marry, marks a major challenge to existing social norms.
The father in the film is an obnoxious jerk. He both bullies and neglects his family, and he tyrannizes his office staff. The film offers much creative satire of this. But he also has some virtues, or at least a productive side. He is the only character in the film who changes his mind. Everyone else is completely fixed in their opinions, and do not change them. But the father is slowly changing his ideas throughout the film. As the mother says, he is "inconsistent", which he defends. He responds that life consists of inconsistencies. And there is something alive in the father because of this. He is the main character in the film to actually criticize social institutions. He criticizes the conduct of Japanese authorities during World War II. And he offers a direct challenge to marriage as an institution. Both of these ideas are directly critical of received social customs.
The establishing shots are of many types. Many are of single buildings. These tend to be large, and often in a Western style of architecture. The styles of architecture are those most popular in previous eras; they are not modernist in style. They tend to be complex, with many jutting wings, extending out from the building. These help give the image a 3D effect. These buildings are shown all by themselves, framed against the sky. These shots can double as exposition, showing buildings either close to the action (the train depot at the opening) or the exterior of buildings where action is occurring (the hospital). The hospital looks as if it were in Art Deco style.
A shot shows a building façade with many windows; several of these are being washed by a crew. Many of the individual windows are set into unique patterns: some are partly open at different angles, have a different position of their blinds, or have window washers performing unique tasks. This gives a mixed effect. Each window is a unique individual, with its own activities and visual style; yet all the windows are also part of a regular, overall pattern, in their geometric repetition on the building. There is perhaps an allegory here about humans, both individual, and units of a common humanity. The shot anticipates the spectacular one in An Autumn Afternoon, in which all the rugs are arranged over the façade of an apartment building. Both are flat building surfaces, full of unique rectangles arranged over its surface, in visually spectacular ways. However, the image in Equinox Flower is almost monochrome, unlike the multi-colored one in An Autumn Afternoon. At least in the video print I saw, this image is almost a uniform gray. It is followed by an interior shot of the building, showing the window washers at work from a closer view. This image seems somewhat unusual for Ozu, as part of his establishing shots: it is full of people, and shows the interior of a building, two fairly atypical things. These workers echo the railway workers we saw at the opening. They also recall the members of the wedding party in the opening sequence, who are also a large group of people "working" to pull off a common task. Throughout the movie, we also see many of the workers in the father's business. There is a consciousness throughout the film of people who are at a lower economic level than the family in the film.
Perhaps the best sequence in Equinox Flower is the visit to Hanoke Park. Here, establishing shots blend into the action itself, rather than being totally separate. This recalls in a small way the long middle section of I Was Born, But..., in which geometric patterns of the establishing shots also appeared in the background of regular action. Both sequences are completely outdoor, which allows such a fusion to occur. The shots of the couple's two grown children, seen far away in a boat on the lake, are evocatively allegorical. The kids are now far from the parents, although still visible as individuals, and still in touch by waving. They are about to set forth on their own, on the voyage of life, one that will take them away from the parents. The outing will be the last excursion together for the family, before the daughter's marriage. This is a poetic and haunting metaphor.
Even with the beautiful scenery in the background, my eyes were often drawn to the railing in the foreground. Ozu just has a great affinity for such man made objects. The raining has the transparent grid effect of many of Ozu's establishing shots.
The shot of the night club district with the Luna Bar sign is especially Mondrian like. Like Mondrian, it consists almost entirely of rectilinear grids marked off by black lines, although Ozu includes a few curving lines, from a car and what seems to be a light fixture. And the shot uses Mondrian's bright primary colors: red, blue, yellow against a white background. It is strikingly beautiful. Later, inside the bar the still lifes include a striking red telephone, which echoes the bright red tea kettle inside the family's house. The red also harmonizes with soft pink lamps in the bar. The bar set includes some vertical wooden slats along the left hand side, making a sort of alcove. Ozu uses these to construct Mondrian like vertical lines in some of his compositions.
Towards the end of the film, the father achieves new insight for the first time, and becomes a better person in how he is treating his daughter. He looks up, and sees one of Ozu's establishing shots. The subject is an old favorite for Ozu: laundry hanging on a line. Ozu has been using this at least since I Was Born, But... (1932). Here, for the first time in Ozu, the laundry image is in color. Each garment is of a different color, and it is the most colorful still life in the whole film. Like all of the laundry images in Ozu, it is very beautiful. The color and the geometric pattern make it a mystical vision, marking a new level of insight for the father, something beautiful, joyous, and full of hope for a better future. It also is the humblest of all images, focusing on the domestic, day to day living of a family.
Laundry images combine two of Ozu's favorite visual subjects. The laundry is on lines that stretch out in parallel through the sky, like all the electrical, phone and trolley wires that stretch through Ozu's images. And the regularly repeating hanging garments echo the many hanging objects on building facades in Ozu's work. This makes laundry images have a climactic quality in Ozu's films. These seem like the visual fusion and narrative climax of images that have gone before. It is appropriate that laundry emerges at such a key point in the narration of Equinox Flower, at the beginning of the father's spiritual redemption.
The final shot of the film shows a train receding down tracks. At first, we see the rail equipment on one side of the tracks only. This is the whole railway world of wires and grid work that Ozu loves so much. Eventually the train finally disappears, and the up to now hidden grid work on the other side of the tracks emerges. This completes the pattern. It is quite satisfying. It makes the pattern become full and rich. It is also fascinating to see what was hidden emerge. Ozu is suggesting that a pattern is now complete, just as the pattern of the film's narration is also complete, and as the relationships among the characters is now established.
Much of the action of Equinox Flower takes place within the living rooms of the family's house. It is surprisingly easy to follow the floor plan of this house. The sets of this film are in the round - the rooms have four walls, and can be seen from any angle.
First, we see an entrance hall to the house. It has a door in one end, leading outside. For the sake of description, we can imagine that this hall runs due North and South, with the door at the North end.
Emptying off this hall to the East are three interconnected rooms. The three rooms each run from West to East. They are the main living rooms of the family. The three rooms all open into each other. There is a large doorway or opening, between the center South wall of each room, and the center North wall of the room immediately South of it. Both the middle room, and the most Southern room, have tables in them, which also run from West to East. Both tables are slightly more located towards the East side of the rooms. The table in the middle room is where the characters often sit. It is full of vases, glasses and other objects, forming some of Ozu's classical still lifes.
Ozu's favorite angle during long shots is to shoot through the openings, so that all three rooms are depicted, one after the other. He can shoot through the openings in either direction. Sometimes his camera is on the mid Southern wall of the Southernmost room, looking due North through the three rooms through their central openings. Conversely, sometimes his camera is on the mid North wall of the Northernmost room, looking due South through the three rooms. There is often a clue for viewers as to which of these locations Ozu has chosen: the still life on the table in the central room. Its objects appear in reverse directions, depending on whether Ozu is shooting due South or due North.
There is a red tea kettle, usually sitting on the Northwest corner of the floor of the middle room. It is visible when Ozu shoots towards the Western side of the middle room. It is also visible from the entrance hall, when Ozu shoots North along it. This red tea kettle is the most conspicuous element of any shot that includes it. It is the centerpiece of the first establishing shot that shows the family's house. The second establishing shot shows the still life on the middle room's table. These objects symbolize the family and their life. They have almost a mystic quality, suggesting the strong emotions and ties of family life.
Ozu seems to be trying to make it easy for the viewer to be oriented within the house. He typically shows everybody in long shot, with a view that runs due North or due South. Then he cuts to close-ups of the characters, which show the rooms behind them. The viewer always knows where the close-ups are pointing, because of the previous clearly arranged long shots. He also shows characters walking directly from the hallway into the three living rooms, or back. The motion of the characters is always clearly depicted, and it is easy to see them leaving one of the three rooms for the hallway, or vice versa.
There has been some suggestion that Ozu is deliberately confusing about the spatial organization of his sets. It also has been implied that this is an avant-garde alternative to Hollywood, which is depicted as displaying a vulgar concern with audiences understanding movies clearly. This is not a good or accurate description of Equinox Flower. It is actually far easier to understand the spatial orientation of shots in Equinox Flower than those in such Hollywood films as Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943) or Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945), to name two movies with vastly complex sets. Lang loves to jump his camera all over the complex apartment in Scarlet Street, making shots that are brilliantly composed and dramatically appropriate, but which offer the viewer few immediate clues to their actual position in the apartment. By contrast, Ozu uses a straightforward, long shot - close-up sequence to keep the viewer well oriented in his house. Both Lang and Ozu face the same exposition problem: both are directors who do not move their cameras much, so their individual fixed camera shots are always from different angles and positions, and do not necessarily automatically "link up" into coherent patterns. At least in Equinox Flower, Ozu is trying to counteract this, with a well organized sequencing plan for his shots.
A few more notes about the house: the East end of the Southernmost room is full of a gold decor. It is here where the mother is shown opening and laying out a kimono, during the first scene in the house. The East end of the middle room contains the radio, sitting on a cabinet, and many bottles on shelves. The Northern most of the three rooms is perhaps more of a corridor than a room. This corridor contains the bath room at the far Eastern end, as well as a broom which hangs on the wall. Next to the bathroom is the telephone on the Southern wall of the room, and the opening to the staircase to the second floor.
Ozu sometimes moves the furniture around. During the dinner scene on the evening before the daughter's wedding, the table is turned 90 degrees, and moved into the North-South opening between the middle room and the Southern room. The red tea kettle is moved to be due North of the table, presumably as part of the dinner food.