An Uncommon Master of Cinema, Yasujiro Ozu

By Michael Karpienski | Last Updated: Feb 16, 2023
When we think of the greatest film directors of all time, it is a common misconception to define the film maker solely by the kinds of stories they tell. Naturally, the stories the film maker portrays does say something about the film maker and his or her interests. But to stop there is missing the most important part of movie making. That’s to say, that a film maker’s largest contribution to cinema is not in the stories he chooses to tell but the way the stories are told, not to forget the myriad decisions made in the process.
Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s breakthrough approach of holding his viewer on the tenterhooks of suspense, whose scenes he constructs with the intention to just as much move the story forward as to suspend the viewer, as if holding his audience prisoner only to be released when he is good and ready. Or take Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” considered as the greatest film ever made, whose story line is so epic, and with plot twists and dramatic moments that one can define as Wellian from the start. But what if there is a film maker who chooses to make quiet, simple, melancholy films; films that are not portraying exciting and dramatic stories of revenge or murder, but instead the most banal tales of domestic life which, on script, should be impossible to hold the viewer’s interest longer than a few minutes?
A young woman returns home after working in the big city. A woman takes care of her widowed father, who only wants her to marry and lead an independent life of her own. Elderly parents go to the big city to visit their children, only to receive an unsettling welcome. Two teenage girls try to outwit their parents into marrying them to a well respected men. On the surface, these simple storylines are impossible to pull off in the world of cinema. In fact, focusing a film on domestic life is almost an unspoken rule of what never to do in film making. But once in several generations there arrives a film director that approaches the medium completely on his own terms. And such a film maker is named Yasujiro Ozu.
Born in Tokyo, Japan in 1903, Yasujiro Ozu directed his first film at 27. Before long, he began to develop his style — an approach to film making that has many rules that set him apart from other film makers. Most notably, Ozu shoots all films with a 50mm lens, which is the closest we can get to the naked eye. Again, with the focus on simplicity, Ozu starts with framing and positioning of the camera, and never shoots while moving (except for only 3 or 4 shots in his total 54 films).
With stories that take place mostly indoors and in the domestic surroundings of a bedroom or a kitchen table, Ozu’s other remarkable style is to leave his camera only a few inches off of the ground, similar to one’s view when sitting on a tatami-mat in Japan. So famous this shot is, which he used in near every shot of every film he created, always low and looking up at the characters in the scene, this became known as Ozu’s “tatami-mat” shot.
Ozu’s rules of film making did not stop there however. You will find that in almost each scene before a character enters, there is a shot looking up at the setting for a few moments, placing the viewer, followed by the character entering, only to leave later and hold the same shot of the empty room for the same amount of beats as before the character entered. Such decisions by Ozu create a space that can be felt in each of his films. There becomes this deeper sense of profundity when we see a character enter and leave a physical space, which influences us to feel as a real spectator of the family in one of his stories, sitting on a mat at table and watching the subtle story unfold, and not without a period of time between scenes to process an emotional reaction.
Ozu’s style of film making, which portrayed middle-class life in Japan in great detail, was said to not be welcomed readily in the western world. However, one year before his death in 1962, ten of his films were released at the Venice Film Festival to uproarious praise, putting him on the global stage overnight.
Among Ozu’s most famous films are “Tokyo Story” (1953), “Early Summer” (1951), and “Late Spring” (1949). In each of these films, Ozu portrays the slow progression of a seemingly plotless story. Some consider these films slow. But if you keep an open mind and let yourself be immersed in Japan, sitting with a family, watching an authentic depiction of family life unravel, slowly you will find that the film grips you almost as tightly as a plot-focused film. And this is why Ozu is one of the greatest film makers of all time. To both depict ordinary life as closely as possible, and to do this in a way that profoundly touches you, leaving you with the sad but beautiful reality of the impermanence of being human, this is genius film making. In Ozu’s films he brings the viewer into his world so that your own life gets reflected back from the story as it slowly moves . . . No film maker has achieved such universality. And surely, no film maker has made more viewers cry just the same.
-Michael Karpienski
Scene from Ozu’s “Late Spring” (1949)