| || ||Notes of a Native Tongue: |
Ozu on Demand
In celebration of what would be Yasujiro Ozu’s 100th birthday, Criterion and the Film Society of Lincoln Center held a retrospective of his work, which began alongside the 41st New York Film Festival and continued into early November. Thirty-six titles, including Wim Wenders’s “filmed diary” Tokyo-Ga (85), ran on what may be Manhattan’s finest screen, loading the Walter Reade Theater with audiences salivating to catch 35mm prints of the of the eminent Japanese master’s widely unavailable films; a mere nine are accessible today and most are out of print. An epic undertaking executed with charm, Criterion and the Film Society pulled off a top-notch retrospective replete with sterling extras: live piano accompaniment for the silents, special guest introductions (including Tokyo Story (1953) actress Kyoko Kagawa), and two days of conferences. Featured panelists included Tadao Sato, Tom Gunning, Robin Wood, and Paul Schrader discussing “The Place of Ozu Within Japanese Film History” and “Ozu and Modernism,” to name a couple forum titles. Whether or not he’s your cup of green tea, the deserved tribute was worthy of high praise from anyone who values the chance to see a print of that “unseeable” film from their favorite director. For fans, a comprehensive Ozu retrospective of this sort was long overdue.
If there was any uncertainty, proliferative coverage evidenced clearly that even in a country whose capacity to “understand” the director’s “Japaneseness” (a subject as hotly contested as it is currently vague and confused), Ozu is considered one of history’s indelible cinematic luminaries. Offered a chance to indulge a passion for his architectural mise-en-scene, subtly reconstituted narratives, and Schrader-coined “transcendental style,” most critics haven’t managed more than a few deifying words without pangs of nostalgia coloring their commentary. Ozu can do that to you.
Throughout his career simplicity was paramount. He unabashedly shrugged off the academic “rules” of technical filmmaking, discarded cinematic grandiosity with the fervor of Bresson sans Christianity, and continually focused on the family with unprecedented directorial respect for characters and audience alike. Just for good measure I’ll add that the latter and most impressive years of Ozu’s artistry emerged from a vision which might best find summation in Tokyo Story’s most devastating dialogue, “Isn’t life disappointing?” Try that today. Needless to say, for the cineastic set, he’s an easily acquired taste.
The early comedic silents like Days of Youth (1929) and Walk Cheerfully (1930) revere American film while those that followed, like the sublime Late Spring (1949), quietly manage peripheral investigation of the U.S. postwar presence, if only in an extra second of onscreen Coca-Cola signage. There Was Father (1942) and Floating Weeds (1959), proffer father-son relationships that utilize psychological dilemma without making it their subject. More Ozu material: National tradition vs. burgeoning modernity, the marriage of daughters “past their prime,” the elderly and their busybody children. Many of his finest films commit multiple acts of the now-unthinkable in examining the Japanese family with unfettered tenderness and sentimentality. And uniting them, a saturating theme, loneliness.
Staring up at all this, one can’t help but feel they’re watching a dead language. Yes, there’s a handful of filmmakers still challenging audiences with cinema-pared-to-the-bone, but I’d argue that even the Hou Hsiao-hsiens and Tsai Ming-liangs of the world couldn’t manage the kind of pervasive modesty that Ozu exercised and still get away with it. Not that they’d try. Forget Hollywood. For that matter, you can forget America altogether. If Ozu represents anything to a kid who grew up with Tarantino shoved down their throat, Scorsese in their textbook, and indie-du-jour in their VCR, it’s an artist who lived at a time and in a place in which cinema was born of entirely different rules, free from the requisite jump through Hollywood hoops lining every path to American cineplexes. And the sickest irony, he found tremendous financial success. But here I am getting nostalgic like everyone else, about a time and a place I’ve never known. Truth is, “retrospective” has always seemed in some way synonymous with “nostalgia.” Ozu’s run in 2003 left that bittersweet taste in my mouth I’ve come to associate with such dives into “what was”...elsewhere. To me, that’s a large part of being a cinephile in 2003. Suffice it to say that for most of our future Hollywood “It” boys, Japan means Ringu. To the next Tarantino, Miike. Maybe. But I still believe somewhere in the bunch there’s a kid who lugged his bookbag up to Lincoln Center to take notes. Somewhere. We can only pray.