Late Ozu Review
Yasujiro Ozu's films have enjoyed a richly deserved renaissance in the last ten years. The films themselves are the antithesis of modern cinema in many ways with long spare narratives which don't so much tell stories as represent people, times and places. The style of the films involves simple editing, front on static camera placement and the almost complete absence of tracking shots. Much like other film-makers who have a distinctive style and environment to their work, Ozu's films are both universal and personal - the world seen through his eyes. His film making career saw much development in his method as he worked first in generic entertainment projects to learn the trade, through to some autobiographical and socially concerned cinema in the 1930's, and on finally to his later almost plot free evocations of families and Japanese life.
Noel has written fine reviews of many of the films included in this Late Ozu collection and if you would like greater depth on the individual titles you can find his reviews of Late Autumn here, Tokyo Twilight and Equinox Flower here and the End of Summer here. The set on review also includes Early Spring and, with a few films missed out, such as Floating Weeds and Good Morning, goes from 1956 until 1961. As is the case throughout his later films, Ozu considers his characters in generational terms with often the mores of the westernized young at odds with the traditional parents. His films watch the development of post war Japan and captures the changing nature of home, the workplace and the relationships within both.
In Early Spring, Ozu takes a look at a young marriage in trouble whilst illustrating the changing lifestyle of the office worker. Shoji and Masako have been married for a while and their first child has died in infancy. Shoji has started to develop friends in the commuters he meets every day at the station and Masako is starting to notice that he is less reliable and attentive than in the past. A friendship with a female commuter goes too far and Shoji commits adultery. Masako becomes aware of his false excuses and puts two and two together so that when he is offered a transfer out of the city she dares him to take it. They separate, and Shoji moves to the country but Masako soon decides to give their life together another try.
Ozu fills Early Spring with vignettes of home, the office and commuting. And it is on the way to work that fidelity is tested by the freer relationships afforded by the new economy of consumer durables and corporate ambition. Shoji's dalliance is almost an act of self harm, a painful attempt at escape, and Masako's forgiveness comes from forebearance rather than a romantic choice motivated by her love for him. Shoji's life, like that of the salaryman, has a become prosaic meaningless trap - "We're locked up all day in our jails" - and this is further reinforced when Shoji's friend Miura commits suicide to avoid the oppressive routine that is the life of the company man. Early Spring is not exactly a laughathon with the life of this young couple grown cold and loveless with the tedious rote of working life, and all the people around them are fighting the same disease. A bitter, sad film that accepts disappointment as a refund for love's young dream.
Ozu's next film continues the pessimism of Early Spring and in fact exceeds it in a tale of the sins of the mother becoming those of the daughter. Akiko and Takako have grown up under their father's sole care after their mother deserted the family to run off with a work colleague of her husband's. Takako, the older married sister, knows the whole sordid tale and respects her father's efforts to keep this private. Akiko, young and single, has started secretarial college and has began to go off the rails, drinking, staying up late and going to Mah-Jong parlours. She has become pregnant and is being avoided by the father of her child and she is keeping her secret shame from her family. When she meets an older woman at the parlour she suspects that it is her mother, and Takako, aware that Akiko is at her wit's end, elects to hide the truth from her when she asks about their mum. When the secrets are revealed, Akiko feels guilt for her abortion, for her betrayed father, and for being born.
Tokyo Twilight is as grim a film as Ozu made. It deals with infidelity, abortion, and even suicide. All of the marriages in the film prove unhappy and the children lack one parent or another through the choices of their fathers and mothers. Similarly, the lives of the children are miserable; Akiko is arrested by a policeman suspecting her of soliciting and Takako is married to a hateful alcoholic. Their lives almost seem like punishment for their mother's betrayal of their father and her choice of romance above her duty to them - not that Ozu suggests that faithfulness will bring happiness or that the sins of the world are merely down to slack morals. The truth of the film is that the past has a powerful effect on the present and that greater freedom of choice often leads to terrible decisions and pitiful fates. Even in the film's resolution as Takako decides to return to her husband, there is little conviction that her life will be better with the drunkard, only that her sacrifice for her child is a noble one.
Equinox Flower continues the themes of inter-generational conflict and changing times but in a warmer fashion than the previous films in this set. Hirayama is a middle aged senior manager looking to arrange a marriage for his modern minded daughter, Setsuko. His family life orbits his desires and routines and he is outraged to discover that Setsuko has sought her own happiness through a work colleague, Taniguchi. When Taniguchi comes to ask for his daughter's hand, Hirayama's nose is put well out of joint and despite the young man's clear qualities he refuses to sanction his daughter's impertinence, or the wedding. Bit by bit, the women around him chip away at his defiance and hypocrisy until he reluctantly becomes a modern father and abandons his traditional reservations.
Equinox Flower is the first of Ozu's films in colour and a return to a less despairing world view. The anger at progress and loss of culture which marked the previous two films is absent as the father learns that he has fallen behind the times and that to keep the love of his daughter he must accept her wilfulness. His friends and acquaintances show him the pitfalls of keeping to old principles with their battered filial relationships and he learns to give in to the flow of change to stay an involved father rather than a traditional relic. A haughty performance from Shin Saburi is perfectly complemented by Kenji Mizoguchi's muse, Kinuyo Tanaka, as his long suffering and wise wife who knows her husband's stubbornness is borne out of envy for the newly free, young people. Equinox Flower is gentle, subtle drama of the present catching up on the past.
Late Autumn is a superb tale about marriage and the social pressures on the family, in this case the widow Akiko and her daughter Ayako. When her late husband's friends decide to engineer a match for her daughter, Akiko is happy to accede to their offers of help but soon learns that her daughter doesn't want to leave her. Ayako refuses to meet potential men or see their pictures and it is only through the men's clumsiness that she meets Goto, a man she could love. Further blunders occur and Ayako believes her mother will desert her by marrying Hirayama. The women fall out but Ayako bows to the inevitable and her mother decides to remain faithful as a widow.
Late Autumn is a very likeable film, structured unapologetically as a comedy but with a sensitivity to the fates of the attractive widow and her faithful daughter. It is the pressure of friends and social expectation that eventually breaks the two women up, and we see clearly that for others marriage is a way to leave the parents behind, but for the admirable Akiko she desires no such thing. It is her eventual acceptance of the modern role of married off daughter which allows her mother to remain a traditional widow. As in Equinox Flower, the women are to be admired for their virtues and the men are figures of fun for their lack of subtlety and game playing. The film contains one of my favourite Ozu observations when in a bar the three men meet with one of their number, Hirayama, eager for good news of his proposal to Akiko, and the other two men are reluctant to talk. He stares at them and waits to be spoken to, but they distract themselves by playing with their pipes - ironically given to them by the attractive widow who has no interest in the pipe-less Hirayama. Late Autumn is a warm and pleasing film that would be an excellent introduction to this director.
The End of Summer was Ozu's penultimate movie. It deals with a widowed patriarch who has re-connected to his mistress from before the war. His grown up family interfere with his unseemly alliance for the good of the family business and disapprove so that when he is taken ill, they imagine that his wandering will cease for the good of his health and that the business may be sold to their benefit. He has other ideas though, and when he recovers a little he slips off to see his mistress again. His family receive a call from her and discover the old man has died.
Ozu sells the audiences a dummy with this film as he sets up a tale about the usual family concerns of marrying off the offspring, but here the head of the family forsakes his role as patriarch and has little interest other than making his last few days as entertaining as possible. His main intention is to wring the last drops of joy from his life and even his likely demise will not stop him from taking in some sport with his mistress. This turns on it's head the usual self-sacrificing relationships of the Ozu family - the wastrel father chooses his own pleasure rather than his family's legacy, and the families concern for propriety is more rooted in protecting their own welfare than his. The family is changed in other ways with the decisions of one daughter to choose love rather than status in her choice of partner and the other widowed daughter who fights family pressure for her re-marriage. Change is in the air and the film ends philosophically with the idea that the dead father's cremated body is just part of the "cycle of life". End of Summer seems to be the final Ozu resignation that some traditions and lifestyles are meant to end so that we all can move on.
This selection does not seem to boast new transfers, and I would guess they have been sourced from the existing R2J discs. This means that despite the Criterion tag the picture quality is not up with their best releases and I would advise caution with double dipping if you have the existing Tartan discs. I compared the Late Autumn disc to my Tartan copy of the same(Tartan on top):
There is very little to choose between in the two stills above, but I felt on this occasion that the Tartan disc presented stronger colours and contrast when watched in motion. The remaining transfers range from the very good in Tokyo Twilight and Late Autumn to the less impressive in End of Summer and Equinox Flower. I wouldn't claim that any of the transfers are especially clean in terms of visual noise - look at the white train seat above and the blue sky behind Setsuko Hara - but all the transfers are sharp and for the colour films the skintones come off well, apart from odd moments in End of Summer. There is no audio restoration of the soundtracks and this means that some source imperfections are noticeable with background hum in End Of Summer, some moments of distortion in the music in most of the films, and clicks and pops present on occasion as well. All of the films come with excellent English subs which will make an upgrade from the R3 discs an easy decision to make.
Each film is presented in slimline transparent disc case with good quality sleeve notes on the inside for each film. Each disc is dual layer with static menus offering subtitle, scene select, and play movie options. All five discs are contained together within a slight cardboard dust sleeve.
These are great films from a master. The opening two are darker, unhappy tales which I think are masterpieces and the final three are much lighter in tone, although still excellent. This affordable opportunity to own all five from scratch or to replace existing R3 discs is too good to pass up, but owners of the Tartan discs may want to hesitate before trading those discs in.