Late Spring (1949) by Yasujiro Ozu

November 3, 2010 § Leave a comment


Overview

Late Spring is about as gentle a film can get. The opening music score sets the tone for tenderness and understanding of a simple story of an unbreakable bond between a daughter unwilling to marry and her caring, patrichal father. Despite the emotional potential latent in the screenplay that Ozu and Noda writes, Late Spring shows how Ozu’s terse direction never allows himself, his characters and his films fall into an overtly sentimental, sappy mood. The result is a subdued sense of emotion that broods as an ebbed flow throughout the film, seeking empathy from the audience through objectivity.

Mise en Scene

This review picks up from the earlier review on Ozu’s Tokyo Story, where the use of narrative ellipses was explained against the backdrop of Tokyo Story. For Late Spring, I have chosen to discuss about the distinctive way in which Ozu shoots his symmetrical shot-reverse-shots during conversations and breaks the 180 degree rule. Through that, I feel that Ozu articulates off-screen space elegantly as we peer into the private lives of these ordinary Japanese characters.

In Late Spring, as in Tokyo Story, shot-reverse-shots are almost never filmed in the traditional over the shoulder fashion that is typical of Hollywood films. In fact, safe to say, non-Hollywood films are also fond of shooting conversations using over the shoulder shots that cut across characters in a conversation following the 180 degree rule because it is part of a foundation film grammar that helps ground films in traditional continuity. Audiences will thus not be confused with the screen direction (ie. Character A, who first appeared screen right, does not “jump” to screen left)

I feel that over the shoulder shots give a particular sense of voyeurism, where we as viewers, are “peering” into the lives of the characters without their knowledge. The most apparent effect of symmetrically composed shot reverse shots that do away with placing the receiver of the conversation in the foreground is that of immediacy.

Rewatching Late Spring again, I noticed several occasions where a character deliberately breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly into the camera rather than ahead of it (which Ozu usually does). While I cannot say for sure that Ozu intentionally has his characters break the fourth wall (because he seems to do it almost capriciously rather than at certain high points in dialogue), I think it has the effect of placing viewers in the center of the conversation. It was almost as if we, as viewers, are sitting in the center of two characters conversing about very personal details of their lives (ie. Noriko’s final conversation or plea with her father not to let her marry in their last evening of their last trip together). Most heartwarming of all, was that it felt like the characters didn’t mind us ‘being there’, sitting beside, or rather in the middle of them, witnessing them at their most private moments. Rather than secretive voyeurism, Ozu was almost saying to us: “This is a slice of their life, as it were. We have nothing to hide.”

Another effect of Ozu’s shot-reverse-shots was that it sometimes felt like one character’s face or indeed fate was written over that of the other, vice versa. While most directors would possibly employ the use of cross dissolves from one shot to the next to express this particular relationship between two characters, Ozu uses the straight cut, consistent throughout Late Spring, as in Tokyo Story. I think this is consistent with how Ozu’s concern is primarily with the relationship between his characters, rather than their inner, subjective psychological landscapes. Ozu appears to be expressing the notion that his characters are intrinsically bound together in a symbiotic, unbreakable relationship. Life then, is not only “disappointing” as Noriko puts it in Tokyo Story, but also inevitable. In later reviews, I intend to explore this notion of inevitability and unbreakable bonds against the context of Zen Buddhism.

In I lived, But… (1983), a documentary of Ozu’s life and work, it was shown that Ozu’s symmetrically framed shot reverse shots also reflect the director’s almost obsessive attitude towards graphical continuity and geometry. Because Ozu did away with the 180 degree system, graphical continuity maintains the smooth flow of the film from cut to cut, most apparent of which seen in his shot-reverse-shots. It has to be acknowledged that Ozu was often playful even with the most severe of his films. Some of the things he did, such as the symmetrically centered shot reverse shots, probably had no particular intentions on the effects that I experienced and tried to explain in the last two paragraphs. But it has to be acknowledged that Ozu was an artist that kept his style and expressions of the film grammar consistent through the oeuvre of his films. In fact, one can see how Late Spring is a beautiful culmination of Ozu’s style that evolved and grew from its roots in his early silent comedies.

While others have argued that Ozu’s camera is undisputedly self-conscious, almost possessing a mind of its own (often stating the example of I Was Born… But tracking shots of students and bored office workers), I still feel that Ozu’s intention, especially in both Tokyo Story and Late Spring, was objectivity. This is not to say that Ozu’s camerawork in Late Spring and Tokyo Story wasn’t self-conscious. As a matter of fact, I think that there was plenty of self-consciousness in the camerawork; in keeping the camera static and low,  and then framing shot reverse shots symmetrically centered.

Experience

If I had to sum up the entire film in a word, it would be ‘tender’. The experience was beautiful, and the telling of a story, so refined, elegant and graceful it sometimes felt like the screen directions of Noriko was that of a dancer, floating in and out of screen space. At times though, Noriko’s relationship with her father felt like it had Electra undertones, though the extreme care and gentleness that Ozu took in his direction quickly steered me away from a Freudian reading of the film. I just couldn’t bear to think of such an untainted, beautiful relationship between father and daughter in any other Western way of thought.

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Tokyo Story (1953) by Yasujiro Ozu

November 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Overview

Tokyo Story is regarded by many to be one of a finest telling of a simple story in the gendai-geki genre, the Ozu way. It is a poignant, subtle film that meanders around the lives two children and in-laws when their elderly parents from the rural Onomichi come to visit. Ozu crafts an elegantly unrelenting film with its strictly objective, sometimes playful narrative. Against the backdrop of picturesque geometrical compositions and a trademark low, static camera angle, Ozu invites viewers to actively participate in the lives of the Hirayama family as we experience and explore, recall and reminisce their relationships among, between and against each other.

Mise en Scene

In this section I attempt to discuss the most striking aspects of the film in relation to its mise en scene, specifically its use of ellipses. I feel that Tokyo Story is a good starting point to explore certain aspects of the cinematic grammar that Ozu unrelentlessly holds onto, while at the same time discarding rules, techniques and stylistics (eg. cross dissolves, fade to blacks, 180 degree rule etc) that most filmmakers cannot possibly imagine themselves without. In my next few reviews of Ozu’s films, I will explore different parts of Ozu’s mise en scene that make his films so characteristically his and some argue, Japanese.

Narrative ellipses through the use of straight cuts
One of the qualities of Tokyo Story that struck me at the close of the film was the use of straight cuts throughout the entire film. There were no cross-dissolves, nor were there fade to blacks. While Ozu himself is said to have done so to preserve the quality or “cleaniness” of each image, I personally see it as an extremely effective way in creating ellipses or gaps in the narrative structure.

Through ellipses, Ozu playfully withholds crucial information about the narrative flow. Drama and events are thus given ability by Ozu to occur off-screen, rather than on-screen. For instance, at the start of the film, Shukichi and Tomi are seen talking about visiting their son in Osaka en route Tokyo as they pack their bags. The film then cuts to a shot of tall, burning furnaces, next to a shot of a railway station, next to shot of two ladies talking by the station, and then to a sign that says Dr Hiramaya – Internal Medicine & Children’s Disease. Although we do not, at this point of the film know that Dr Hiramaya is the son of Shukichi & Tomi, the main point here is that Ozu cuts across time and space with 4 shots of “still life” and transports the viewers from Onomichi to Tokyo, completely obliterating the eldery’s visit to their son in Osaka. It is only later in the scene that we learn that Shukichi and Tomi, did indeed visit their son Keizo in Osaka.

An early exemplification of the ellipses has the most immediate effect of driving the story forward and not have it sink into the trap of being “too flat”. Next, because Ozu constantly (or playfully, as Bordwell argues) jumps forward spatially and temporally, audiences have to constantly reorientate themselves within the time and space of the film.

Through the use of ellipses, Ozu also obliterates important points of drama in the story. The best example of this is the manner in which we find out that Tomi has fell ill en route her journey back to Onomichi. From the last shot of the clock at the scene in the train station where their two children send Shukichi and Tomi off, the film cuts to a shot of a temple, then to overhead railway lines, and then to a shot of the railway tracks where Keizo runs into the office. Through his conversation with his colleague, we find out that his mother fell ill along her train journey and had to get off at Osaka.

In doing so, Ozu avoids overt sentimentality and creates a muffled sense of drama. Just as how Ozu never cuts to the perspective or point of view of his characters save for two shots in the film (one of Keizo looking at the tombs and another of Kyoko looking outof the window and at the train tracks), Ozu preserves his unrelenting mode of objectivity. Compounded with Ozu’s use of a static camera, these have the effect of allowing us to first take a third person perspective and judge for ourselves the entire nature and scheme of things, rather than to fall into conventional sentimentality and take the sides of characters.

Experience

Tokyo Story was for me, a fleeting experience never experienced before. I was initially afraid of being disappointed by the massive hype that surrounded the film, but there was so much in the articulation and simplicity of film space that changed the way I looked at various parts of the film grammar. After rewatching the film, it suddenly struck me that Ozu was very fond of filming within the confines of a Japanese home, and his masterful craft was the way he imbued the sense of ‘being there’, very much like Flowers of Shanghai, the film I wrote about before this.

It is perhaps why at the close of the film, I thought about two scenes: one at the open terrace where Tomi asked her grandson about his future ambitions, and the other at the Atami beachfront where Tomi had a faint dizzy spell. Both of these scenes were shot outdoors, and both scenes came back to me like faint memories that felt very, very nostalgic. It was truly amazing how Ozu was so subtly hinting at the imminent death of Tomi (although Donald Richie explains that such foreshadowing is uncommon in Ozu’s films).

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