“Watching a Ozu’s movie is such a cruel and intense experience, that every second is lived as an infinite present.” Shigehiko Hazumi
Yasujiro Ozu, one of the biggest names of Japanese cinema, was born in Japan, in 1903. Son of merchants, he sees himself plunged in the art of cinema, when at the age of ten, he wacthes Civilization of Thomas Ince (father of the western’s movies). Since then, he starts to collect programs, he writes for silent commentators and travels to Nagoya in search of movies imported from Europa and the United States. He falls in love with Griffith, Chaplin, Lloyd, Murnau and Lubitsch, from which he will be heavily influenced by. In 1923, against his parents’ wishes he joins Shochiku – one of the largest Japanese film studios.
Ozu reaches his apotheosis in 1953, when directing Tokyo Monogatari. The film tells us the journey of the couple Hirayama to Tokyo, where they’ll meet their children. The meeting will reflect on the collapse of the family values in the postwar Japanese society. In 1953, Japan was in a full socioeconomic recovery. Westernizations had brought new customs characterized by strong democratic ideals. Under a shrewdly Japanese look, Ozu portrays the reality of Japan back in the 1950s in a masterful way without the means of dramatization. In the pursuit of the truth, Ozu invites us to a game of mutual discovery, between the characters and ourselves.
Almost mute, everything is suggested to the smallest detail. The film itself, metaphorizes a certain abstraction that goes beyond time, space, as an ephemeral poem (mono no aware) in which images, shots and sequences take part of a whole. This Buddhist aesthetic requires a meticulous cinematographic technique that Ozu shows in his several films – a fixed camera, that means deliberation; meditative time; the low position of the camera and the frontal shots. All of it seems to encourage the spectator to pay attention to the way the narrative is constructed throughout the film and establish contact with a declining culture and the passage of an era.
In his work, Ozu reveals a deep “japonism”, precisely because of his truly humanist and just portrait of Japanese society. On reflecting about Japanese art, we could say that one of its principles concerns the question of non-art, that is, an art driven by a certain ingenuity and simplicity.
Ozu is the master of that simplicity. There is no pretentiousness in his art. No. Ozu seeks the beauty that can be found in the nothingness and emptiness. The beauty that can be found in a simple flower, in a solitary cloud or in a short poem. It is the here and now, or in another words, an ephemeral presence that Ozu intends to capture in his images, by offering the spectator the initiative of his gaze, his interpretation and his reaction to each shot.
In a universal and true story, Ozu gives us the image of a Japanese middle-class family, showing how their members interrelate and are affected by the events of everyday life. In Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders emphasizes that “Ozu’s films deal with a slow deterioration of the Japanese family, and thereby with the deterioration of a national identity. But they do so not by pointing with dismay at what is new, western or American, but by lamenting with an unindulged sense of nostalgia, the loss taking place at the same time.”
In a simple portrait, Tokyo Monogatari is much more than it seems.
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