Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu was a Japanese film director (1903-1963). He began with light, funny silent films and moved on to talkies that focused on the domestic life of ordinary people. After the war, he continued to depict mainly Japanese domestic life. In his final years, his achievements were recognized to the extent that he became a member of the Japanese Academy of Art.

Life of Yasujiro Ozu

 Yasujiro Ozu was born in the present Koto Ward, Tokyo. He later moved to Mie Prefecture, where he graduated from the Fourth Middle School.

 Career as a Film Director

 In 1923, Ozu returned to Tokyo and joined the camera department of Shochiku Kamata Studio. He became an assistant director, and in 1927 became a director, releasing his historical drama “Sword of Penitence” (懺悔の刃). Ozu later made a name for himself as a film director with his funny and nonsense B-movie.

 In the 1930s, Ozu depicted funny but sorrowful family life of Japanese ordinary people in films such as “Passing Fancy”(出来ごころ) . For the time being, his films were often based on the everyday lives of poor families. Ozu continued to make silent films until around 1935. In 1936, with “The Only Son”(一人息子), he moved to talkies, in which the sound is synchronized with the images.At this time, Japan was expanding its influence in East Asia. As a soldier, Ozu went to China. He returned to Japan and resumed producing films in 1941.

 Postwar Activities

 After the World War II, Ozu continued to depict the Japanese family life. He collaborated with screenwriter Kogo Noda on screenplays, most notably “Late Spring”(晩春), starring Hara Setsuko.

 In the late 1950s, he shifted to color films, producing “Equinox Flower”(彼岸花) among others. In 1953, he produced “Tokyo Story”(東京物語). It tells the story of an elderly couple living in Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture who visit their children in Tokyo. It is a masterpiece depicting a changing family life in a changing era. In 1959, he was awarded the Japanese Art Academy Prize. , and in 1962, he was elected a member of the Japanese Art Academy. He died the same year.

 Ozu’s works had already received a certain amount of high reputation during his lifetime. But after his death, his reputation increased, especially abroad. Ozu was famous for his “low angle” technique, in which films are shot from extremely low angles.

 Ozu’s Film Theory

 In 1958, in his last year of life, Ozu wrote an interesting article “The Film Industry: Kogoto Kobei” (映画界・小言幸兵衛) about his life in film and the Japanese film industry of the time. 

 For example, Ozu, recalling his own youth, discussed the relationship between film sales and artistic quality. After all, “If a film is good and it also does well at the box office, that is the best”. However, it is difficult for young directors in particular to achieve both. This is because young directors lack the ability to do so, even if they are highly motivated. Even if they are enthusiastic about creating a highly artistic film, they do not yet have the ability to produce it. 

 For this reason, Ozu recommends the following. Instead of pursuing artistry too hastily. He said, “I think it better to make profitable films for the time being. It would be a misnomer to say “profitable”. But he works to make sure that many people enjoy what he creates, and the company makes money from it. I think the two should be in agreement in that way”. Young directors acquire competence as they work. They will be able to strike a balance between competence and ambition. When they reach that point, it is time to pursue artistry. 

 Ozu supports this conclusion by recalling his own youth. “When I was young, I thought that box-office and artistry were contradictory. I did a lot of work with the determination to do what I wanted to do, even if my films didn’t earn much money”. Still, Ozu’s film company did not spend much money on his own films, so they let him do what he wanted. If the company had asked Ozu for goold sales, he would have already been fired, he said.

 Nevertheless, Ozu saw the problem of films becoming too sales-oriented. Ozu pointed out that Japanese cinema of the time was becoming vulgarized, and then stated, “Making money from movies is fine, but there must be a due way to make money. I would like them to be more moralistic. Thieving would be one way to make money. However, it would be the end of the world if a thief, who started out as a thief, becomes a worse robber, and finally a rapist who pulls a knife on you”. He urges that we should make films that we can watch with our children without embarrassment. 

 Ozu also spoke of the qualities required in the film industry, with young directors in mind. At that time, anyone who wanted to become a film director had to pass a difficult entrance exam, just like in any other industry. (Ozu says that if he himself had taken the same exam, he would not have become a director). It is true that those who pass such tests are very convenient and useful if they become directors. For they have a good memory and can make good arrangements. However, Ozu says that there are other qualities required of a film director. That is, their quality of perspective and illusion.

 Ozu also mentioned a problem that young filmmakers fall into. When they first entered the film industry, they must have had their own perspective and their own methods. However, working under the supervision of a film director as an assistant director, “they see and hear the established, conventional methods of film, and they compromise themselves, thinking that this is the way the grammar of film is supposed to be”. As a result, when they became directors, the way they made films was always the same and conventional. As a result, there was no freshness in Japanese films of the time. 

 As a remedy for this, Ozu states about cinema: “I think there is no grammar in film. There is no due pattern. When an excellent film comes out, it creates its own grammar”, so movies can be worth watching if taken the way you want them to be.

 Regarding young actors, Ozu offers the following advice. It is easy for people to get carried away by popularity. Popularity, however, is unreliable, changeable, and “as baseless as floating weeds”. Therefore, while we are drowning in popularity, it will soon leave us, and we will be miserable. So, what should we do? “While you are still popular, work hard to improve your art and graduate from popularity”. Then, “even if you lose popularity, you can still be a respectable star”.

Yasujiro Ozu

Source: National Diet Library, Portraits of Modern Japanese (https://www.ndl.go.jp/portrait/)

Recommended or Selected References

貴田庄『小津安二郎と七人の監督』筑摩書房, 2023

塚田幸光『 映画とジェンダー/エスニシティ』ミネルヴァ書房, 2019

蓮實重彦『監督小津安二郎』筑摩書房, 2016