Ozu Collection Volume 1 Review

The mastery of Yasijuro Ozu and his ability to depict simple, familiar situations with unerring accuracy and emotional conviction is never more evident than in the three films that make up the Noriko Trilogy - Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and the film that would come to be seen as the director’s masterpiece, Tokyo Story (1953). The films are not linked by the same characters - although they contains Ozu’s regular cast of actors, they play different roles in each film – in Late Spring Chishu Ryu is the father to Noriko, in Early Summer he plays her brother and in Tokyo Story he is father-in-law to a different Noriko, all played by Setsuko Hara. While the configurations change, the characteristics are familiar, and the themes of growing up, growing old and accepting change are common to all the films, developed a little further in each one, covering the complex emotional landscape of family and human relationships.

Ozu’s style appears on the surface to be artless, functional and objective with no stylistic flourish and no apparent directorial hand influencing the course of events. The camera almost invariably remains at kneeling level, filming static, formally posed scenes. Even dialogue within those scenes appears functional, the actors delivering their lines often almost directly to a point-of-view camera, with little expression or elaboration. There seems to be no collaboration between the director and the actor to create a specific impression on the viewer, but this apparent simplicity is deceptive. Ozu was meticulously careful about filming scenes, shooting numerous takes to ensure that every movement, expression and gesture were precisely and correctly delivered. The fact that a strong impression is made on the viewer – subtly, imperceptibly, yet forcefully – shows that the director is clear on the effect he wishes to convey and quite capable of achieving it.

All the films in the Noriko Trilogy have a very much soap-opera quality to them, an everyday quality where nothing overly dramatic happens outside the normal drama of family, personal and working relationships and coping with the everyday changes that these relationships undergo. This ordinary subject matter, combined with the effect of Ozu’s apparently simple technique can leave many viewers wondering what all the fuss is about. I wish I could explain it, and certainly many critics have said many clever things about Ozu’s technique, characterisation and themes, but the truth is that while the technique can be identified, how it invisibly works its magic cannot. You’ll either connect with what he is doing or you won’t – you’ll relate to the characters and their circumstances or you won’t and no amount of critical analysis is going to take the place of the deep, personal and necessarily emotional commitment a viewer needs to make to connect to the almost devastatingly powerful and complex undercurrents that run through Ozu films. There is no point in me telling you that the three films here are masterpieces – you’ll have to feel that for yourself.

Late Spring (1949)
Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is of an age where she should be married, but while other friends and acquaintances are now divorced or remarried, she continues to live with her father (Chishu Ryu). Having just recovered from a long illness, both she and her father have become accustomed to her presence around the house, never considering that it is time for a girl her age to be making a life for herself. Noriko’s aunt steps in and arranges a meeting between Noriko and a businessman Mr Satake, at the same time arranging a match for the father to re-marry so that Noriko need not worry about him being left alone. But Noriko is reluctant to leave her father, doesn’t want things to change and is concerned about an unknown future.

The premise of Late Spring couldn’t be any simpler and the manner in which it is presented could hardly be more transparent – simple expository and formal dialogue, functional scenes, static shots and little in the way of expressive facial gestures – yet Ozu nevertheless manages to create a spellbinding situation devoid of contrivance, filled with a wealth of emotions that are instantly recognisable and identifiable. Over and above Chishu Ryu’s customary sympathetic and earnest benevolence, Setsuko Hara is quite remarkable here as Noriko, bashfully smiling throughout while at the same time conveying an enormous complexity of contradictory feelings towards her father, her failure to understand relationships between men and women, and towards an arranged marriage to a man she scarcely knows and whom the viewer never actually sees. Such is the force of Ozu’s directorial ability, to cut down situations to their purest and most simple form, yet lose not a fraction of the essence of all the emotions that family relationships encompass.

Early Summer (1951)
The themes of Late Spring are carried through into Early Summer, which again features Setsuko Hara as Noriko, but rather than being a sequel to the previous film, it features similar but not the same characters in a slightly re-worked configuration, expanding on the theme of the family ties and looking at them from a different angle. Noriko is 28 but still unmarried and with her friend Aya they make fun of their friends who have married and have drifted off into the role and behaviour of traditional wives. Although they see themselves as more modern in their outlook, the pressure to marry still remains and a match is arranged for Noriko with a man much older than herself. Noriko however takes matters into her own hands, agreeing to marry a man with lesser prospects, severely disappointing her family in the process.

Early Summer takes a wider look at family relationships and their conflicting dual nature of protecting and controlling. Noriko’s family would like to see her married and claim they only want what is best for her, but do they really just want to control her and arrange a more prestigious marriage for their own satisfaction? The reaction of Noriko’s own family couldn’t be more markedly different from the reaction of Kenkichi’s mother. Ozu offers us up both reactions and leaves the viewer to decide which is the most selfless and genuine – and it’s not easy to determine. Everyone appears to be looking after their own interests and projecting their own desires and expectations upon Noriko. Her family could be genuinely concerned about a bad match and about the effect this is going to have on Noriko or they could be more concerned about themselves and the family unit as a whole, unwilling to relinquish their hold over the young woman. The truth is that there’s a bit of all these feelings in people’s behaviour and Ozu’s great skill is that he can depict such a commonplace situation in such a simple manner, yet make nothing simplistic – the film touching on situations, themes and emotions on so many levels that will be instantly recognisable.

At the same time, Early Summer examines many other aspects of family life with a delicious lightness of touch and simple moments of humour. Noriko lives in the one house with her mother and father as well as her married brother, his wife and their two children and the ties and emotional connections are complex yet accurate. The darker shadow of a son, Shoji, who went missing during the war is also subtly insinuated into the film, influencing the protectiveness and togetherness of the family, adding to the complexity of the circumstances and making the family’s potential dissolution through Noriko’s marriage incredibly poignant. The theme of how a family grows, separates and how each take their own paths in life is expanded upon further, to remarkable effect, in Ozu’s next film, Tokyo Story.

Tokyo Story (1953)
An old couple from the country travel a long journey to Tokyo to spend a period of time with their married sons and daughters. They are made welcome on their arrival, each family taking turns to look after them, but soon they all begin to feel the burden of trying to manage their daily routines and jobs around looking after their parents. The family agree to send them to an inexpensive hotel at a hot spring resort by the sea, which will not only make things easier for them taking up less of their time and finances, but they are convinced it is the right thing to do as they are sure the old couple will enjoy the break away from the bustle of the big city. However the resort doesn’t meet their parents’ expectations and they soon return to Tokyo, infuriating their families.

Both parents and children are disappointed by the visit, yet at the same time they are each aware of the difficulties it has placed on all of them. For the old couple it is a difficult time – when staying with daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), Mother (Chieko Higashiyama) has to come to terms with her son Shoji’s death in the war 8 years previously. Father (Chishu Ryu) admits, during a drinking session with some old friends (in a typically wonderful and very funny Ozu scene of old men getting completely drunk) that although his children live in Tokyo, they live and work in a small suburb and haven’t lived up to his expectations. They unexpectedly find comprehension and compassion not in their own family members, but in Noriko, the wife of their dead son.

Tokyo Story is a small-scale film that works on universal level, charting the dynamic of the family unit with all the little joys and disappointments of daily life, the warmth of family life as well as the inevitable growing apart that comes with getting older and starting your own life. It’s a theme evident in many of Ozu’s films – and is treated just as effectively in the earlier Late Spring right through to Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon – yet there is still something special about the film that first brought Ozu to the attention of the west on a large scale. Ozu demonstrates a perfect understanding of the family dynamic, not an idealised version of how they should be, but how they really are. The characters and the situations are universally recognisable – not in a dramatically contrived or stereotypical way, but with an absolute and clear element of truth.

Tartan have put together a handsome boxset here. The three DVDs are housed in a fold-out digipack slipcased within a cardboard box. An 8-page booklet provides useful background notes on the three films without over-elaboration. The DVDs are encoded for Region 2. (It's also incidentally, an absolute bargain at Bensonsworld if you click the link on the left).

There is a certain consistency to the tone of the transfer in all three black and white films. The heavy scratching during the opening titles of Late Spring gives no indication of the clarity of the actual transfer of the film itself, with its beautifully balanced tones, solid blacks and terrific shadow detail. There is a hint of softness and some motion blur, which is usually an indication of an NTSC to PAL transfer and that seems to be the case here. Since movement is something we don’t see a great deal of in Ozu films anyway, this doesn’t cause many problems, but movements can seem a bit jerky on occasions. The softness is greater issue – the image looking fabulously clear in medium shots, but looking almost blurred in wider shots. Marks and damage are evident now and again and a tramline scratch or two, but the film looks to have been superbly restored. There are one or two skips in frames, but the most noticeable issue is some very jerky telecine wobble for one reel, just after the central Noh theatre scene. The film returns to its normal stability after this.

The picture on Early Summer is also mostly quite clear and free of marks and scratches – they are there certainly, but barely noticeable. The image is a touch soft, but not quite as blurred looking as some scenes in Late Spring. Contrast is a little on the bright side however, tending to wash-out blacks slightly. There is a certain amount of flicker and wobble in the image, again only in one or two scenes – otherwise this is a perfectly adequate, but unimpressive transfer – again probably an NTSC to PAL transfer.

Tokyo Story exhibits the same characteristics as Early Summer, only the brightness levels here are a shade darker than they should be. Grey levels however are reasonably good. Otherwise it has the same minor softness and occasional jerkiness in movements. Neither of these issues should cause undue concern. The image is mainly free from any serious marks or damage although scratches are occasionally visible. Despite the fact that this is evidently an NTSC to PAL transfer - the running time of 136 minutes is identical to the Criterion NTSC release - it is nevertheless a more than acceptable image.

The audio on all of the films is not particularly strong, but the quality can vary from scene to scene. There is a fair amount of echo on the soundtracks and a low level of hiss and crackle, but they are all mostly adequate, dialogue is relatively clear and there is little harshness to distract the viewer.

Each of the films has removable English subtitles. The titles are clearly visible at all times and read well.

Extras are minimal, adding up to nothing more than a Photo Gallery (10) for Late Spring, a Trailer (4:14) and Photo Gallery (19) for Early Summer and a Trailer (4:14) and Photo Gallery (19) for Tokyo Story. The booklet that comes with the set however, with notes by Nick Wrigley of www.ozuyasujiro.com, contains all the background information you need to know about the films.

Tokyo Story Criterion Comparison
The print used for the Criterion release of Tokyo Story is not a new pristine print from the original negative – rather it looks like a heavily restored, high-contrast print with not a great deal of definition or detail. That said, the restoration work is quite superb. Scratches and marks can be seen on occasion and there is frequent fluctuation and waver in the brightness. Frame transition movements aren’t always steady. I don’t believe the original negative of Tokyo Story is still in existence, so Criterion have no doubt done the best they could with the elements available. The sound is also reasonably good considering the age and the source material used. Once or twice the noise reduction is too vigorous, dropping the sound to a very noticeable silence, but for the most part, it is effective and dynamic in both dialogue and the music score. The Criterion release contains a typical Criterion commentary - academic and boring, unnecessarily deconstructing a film that is more than the sum of its camera angles. A second disc contains rather more interesting features, including interviews with both cast and international directors who have been greatly influenced by Ozu (including Paul Schrader, Aki Kaurismäki, Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-hsien). None of these extras compare to Tartan's inclusion of Ozu's Late Spring and Early Summer alongside Tokyo Story.
The Criterion picture quality of Tokyo Story is certainly superior to the Tartan issue (and their edition of Early Summer likewise), as can be seen in the Tokyo Story screen captures below (Tartan first, Criterion second), but the differences aren't considerable. This might not be a popular opinion, particularly with Criterion aficionados (and I include myself among that number), but the print quality is the least important element with these films. Just as no amount of commentary can increase the enjoyment of Tokyo Story, so too a pristine print wouldn't improve the film one iota.

Tartan have packaged this DVD collection beautifully and appropriately, setting it out like a family photo album, perfectly capturing what these films are about. Delving into this set of films is like opening up a photo album on your own family life and the viewer cannot help but identify closely with characters and real-life situations depicted here. The selection of titles has also been carefully considered, including three films which are not only individually masterpieces in their own right (and I would have no hesitation in awarding each of them a 10 individually), they complement each other perfectly, each one adding to the richness of the others. Masterfully directed and performed, each also benefit from the deeper resonance they gain through forging a direct emotional connection with the viewer. Tartan’s DVD transfers, while looking beautiful for the most part, unfortunately suffer from some technical deficiencies and there is little in the way of extra features, but nothing can add to or take away from the depth of Ozu's talent and sheer brilliance of the director’s vision that is clearly evident here.

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