Watched a 1933 silent Ozu movie this morning before breakfast. Woman in Tokyo is unusually short (47 minutes) and downbeat. I've not really watched many (any?) of his silent era movies before so I don't have much to compare it to in that respect, but I did notice the same careful care for composition and repetition as seen and refined in his later works, as well as those always identifiable transition shots.
The movie is a short tale about an older sister who besides working as a secretary, works as some kind of hostess or prostitute in a bar at night, all to support her younger brother's education. He doesn't know until his girlfriend's older brother (or possibly father?) hears rumours about it and tells her. She then tells the younger brother, who kills himself in... shame? It's a pretty bleak... morality tale (?). Which mostly made me think the brother was an idiot. He didn't ever seem to grasp that what she was doing was so she could support him. (Or maybe he did and... decided it was better to have all her effort be useless.)
Anyway, some screenshots of things I took note of.
A lovely composition of the young brother and his girlfriend as she is telling him about the rumours. Note how they are foregrounded by multiple teapots (I can't help but wonder if one of them is that red teapot that pops up in so many of Ozu's films) and some kind of tall heating device (at one point the brother lights it with a match and you see steam coming out of the teapot on top). The tall teapot divides them.
As their conversation continues and they both stand we get this great compositional matching. The camera is inbetween the two, but it is all organized so the ceiling lights appear in the same area of the composition during the cross-cuts.
This is just a great shot of the sister at the bar. This is the first (and really only) time we see her like this and at first she is unrecognizable from previous scenes. It took me until the next shot to realize it was the same character/actress. It also has a great noir vibe to the composition and lighting.
When the brother confronts his sister later in the film, we get a repeat of this composition with the teapot/heater dividing the male and female character, a thematic repetition about how he is separating himself from both women that love him.
After the two woman have learned of his suicide (the one collapses her head into the other's lap, sobbing), the film cuts to three transitional shots to the next scene. Nothing unusual for Ozu except that third shot, where the shadow on the wall looks like a noose. It's harder to notice in the still, but in the film it's slowly swaying back and forth. Not terribly subtle at that point, but an unusually direct symbolism for those transitional sequences.
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I had taken the walk to the store as a break from watching Wim Wenders' Tokyo-Ga, which comes as a second disc on the Criterion edition of Ozu's Late Spring. It's a personal essay film he made in the 80s. Wenders travels to Tokyo ostensible related to Ozu and his films. It's a lot of long takes of Tokyo or scenes of people in stations, parks, and cemetaries. Some of it feels like an homage to Ozu (scenes of a golf range, scenes of children playing baseball, shots of bar signs in Shinjuku), some of it less so (rockabilly/greaser cosplayers dancing in a park, a long and interesting scene in a place that makes wax food replicas for display in restaurant windows). The highlights are definitely the two conversations he has: one with Chishu Ryu, who starred in a large number of Ozu films, and one with Yuharu Atsuta who was Ozu's assistant and then camerman for decades (looks like his first film with Ozu as cameraman was What did the Lady Forget? that I watched recently).
Both men not only offer insight into how Ozu worked but also talk about how much he changed their lives. It was really moving to watch both of them talk about their working relationship with this man who was basically their boss (Atsuta at one point refers to him as "a king"). Ryu talks a little bit about practicing scenes and takes, and Atsuta shows off the camera they used and the tripods they shot with to get Ozu's characteristic low camera angle.
The more I read and watch about Ozu, the more I see the generalities that get used about his work and the way the same truisms gets repeated over and over, despite evidence to the contrary. Wenders' narration repeats the truism about the camera being at the eye level of a person seated on the floor (though many often add the Japanes touch of "on a tatami mat"), while we are seeing Atsuna at the camera on its tripod, and... he's pratically lying on the ground. When showing off the tripod they used for exterior/location shots he is literally lying on the ground. Not seated. Bordwell talks about some of those truism a bit in his book, as does Adam Mars-Jones in his Noriko Smiling.
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I finished the first half (the overview portion) of Bordwell's Ozu book. The rest is movie-by-movie commentary and analysis, which I think I will leave for another time. I dip into it when I watch specific ones, but I'm not sure I want to read it all in a row.
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On some kind of roll, I watched Ozu's Early Summer (1951) last night. This one is much more in the mold of the later family dramas than the others I've watched recently. Much like in the slightly earlier Late Spring Setsuko Hara stars as an unmarried young woman named Noriko. Her marriage (or at least the selecting of a husband) becomes the primary plot thread. A young Chishu Ryu also stars as her older brother who often acts as the antagonist in this one. This has a lot of the elements of the later family dramas, though unlike many features young children as part of the family, comedic relief, and an even playing a part in the marriage plot. It also features the various lacunae in the plot that is characteristic of Ozu.
Once Noriko impulsively picks her suitor, we actually never see him reacting to the idea of the marriage. He sees her before he knows about her decision, and then after he finds out we never see him in the film again. The husbands-to-be in these films are almost never important, especially once they become the husband-to-be. Even the other suitor in this film never actually appears in person.
One strange scene that jumped out at me in this one, was an odd camera movement. I forget the specifics of the scene, I think it's at the doctor's office where the brother works. A woman has come to see him for a check-up (she gets sick when she drinks a few cups of sake!). They are in the background, sitting, then get up to go into, one assumes, an examination room. They exit through a door at the back of the shot. The camera lingers for a moment and then tracks... to the right across some shelves of books in the foreground. It moves a few feet and then... cut to the next scene. I may have some of the specifics of that wrong, but the odd tracking at the end of the scene stood out to me as unusual. I should watch it again to remember what the next scene is and whether it has any connection.
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I also ended up watching What Did the Lady Forget? an Ozu film from 1937 that was paired with The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (see my entry from 2019-09-22) dvd. It might be the earlist of his films I've watched. I can't say it was one of my favorites, and plot-wise felt like a less developed version of the latter. Though one notable difference here is how the niece of the primary couple in this one is a bit more wild. She dresses modern with a jaunty hat tilted at an angle that looks like something out of a film noir, and she pressures her uncle in taking her to a geisha house where she drinks too much and has a hangover the next day. She is not the more subdued young woman of the later film(s).
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My current reading is primarily been focused on David Bordwell's Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. I decided I wanted to get a copy recently after rewatching some Ozu movies. When I went to Amazon to look it up, the page claimed I had ordered the book back in like 2010. I searched all around the house and could not find a copy, nor could I remember actually ever reading the book. It's been out of print for a long time, so even back then I had ordered it from a third party seller. I still don't know for sure, but I have this vague memory of the one time a book just never showed up and I have to think it was that one. So I reordered it this summer and thankfully it did show up.
It's an excellent read so far, starting with context about the film industry in Japan, Ozu's life, and different general analyses of his films. The latter part is then a sequential film-by-film discussion of all his work. Like good criticism/theory, Bordwell's writing makes me want to return to the object of his writing so I can get even more enjoyment from it via his insights and analyses. It helps a lot in this context that I've scene a lot of Ozu's movies, so I'm not coming to the text without knowledge of the films (and having read a few other books on Ozu too). Bordwell's focus on narration and structure really appeals to me. He doesn't avoid biography or history or theme or process, but he always comes back to how the films are put together narratively and visually.
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Watched Ozu's Floating Weeds over a couple sessions. Breaking up a movie into multiple sittings is not ideal, but I've seen it before, and it's not exactly one where I'll forget important plot elements. I feel like I say it for all the Ozu movies I've watched recently, but this one also feels a bit unusual for the late Ozu. I'm wondering if my conception is just based too much on a few of the films I've watched multiple times that are very family, parent-child, indoor home/work, themed like An Autumn Afternoon, Late Autumn, Late Spring, End of Summer, Early Summer... basically almost all the ones with seasons. (Interesting that he never made a winter movie, though also I know some of these are not exact translations of the original Japanese.)
Floating Weeds starts with an travelling acting troupe coming to a seaside town. In way the troupe serves as the family in the movie, but also, we quickly learn the troupe leader has an son in the town, who thinks he is an "Uncle". It's not exactly clear what the relationship is between the actor and the son's mother. They are amiable, it's indicated he sends money for the son, but it also doesn't seem they see each other often or are lovers. But that serves as a second family in a way, and so we get a clash between the two when the actor's lover (an actress) finds out about the other family and asks a younger actress to seduce the son. Drama ensues, including a few rather angry fights than you normally see in late Ozu.
This is a late color one, and as expected, the color is beautiful, as is the way the shots have been set up with spots of color dotted across the composition from shot to shot. Ozu came to color really late in his career (only 6 by my count of his... 55 according to imdb... are in color), but he immediately seems to have taken to it in his work. Lots of outdoor scenes in this one too, with bright skies and the ocean. It looks like I wrote about Floating Weeds the first time I watched it back in 2008 and there are a number of samples there to see... And looking at that post I realize how little new I have to say about the film.
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And I just finished a viewing of Ozu's The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice which is the latest Criterion release. It's a mid-career Ozu, so still black and white, and not as austere as his later works. This one also focuses more on a marriage than a parent/child relationship. In that sense it's probably a better companion to Early Spring. Compared to the later movies, you can see a variety of directorial choices that Ozu seemed to have mostly given up. There are more outdoor and crowd scenes, more camera movement too. One really unusual scene has the wife riding a train as she (temporarily) leaves her husband. She is shown sitting on the train and the audio is someone announcing stops and times. When the announcement stops, the sound of the train running over the tracks shifts from background noise to foregound noise and becames almost an aural assault as the shot cuts to a view out the back of the train, looking through the window as the train passes through bridge, with all the beams moving into the distance in a harsh one-point perspective. After a period of this, the film cuts to the husband's office, as the camera dollies forward toward his desk. It's a really fascinating and unusual scene, especially for Ozu who does not usually make sound such a prominent feature (that I have noticed at least).
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Started Ozu's Early Spring at the beach and finished it up yesterday. At first I didn't remember if I had seen it already, but a few of the scenes had stuck in my mind when I got to them. This is actually an unusual one for the later Ozu (I've watched almost none of the pre-war/50s Ozu so I can't comment on that) in that it has a young male protagonist and a tiny bit of sexuality in evidence. It also spends a lot more time outside the family boundaries. The protagonist's family, outside of his wife, is never seen or mentioned at all, but we do see a whole group of co-workers and friends that serve prominent parts. The young male has a flirtation and then a one night stand with one of the women in the group of friends. The scene where they are in a restaurant in a private room and she slides closer to him and they kiss is perhaps the only romantic kiss I can remember seeing in an Ozu movie (though my memory could be bad here), and then the next scene where they are clearly getting dressed in the morning is the only direct implication of sex in an Ozu movie that I can remember either.
I suspect these elements are perhaps more a cross-over from his earlier films than any kind of outlier, but it is unusual to have one of his films not primarily dealing with a parent-child relationship. For a man who never had children and lived with his mother for most of his life (until she died), it is interesting to note how much the later movies are all about parents and daughters and never, as far as I recall/have seen, about sons.
This one also was slightly unusual (again, maybe because of it's time in his oeuvre) for having numerous outdoor scenes with lots of people moving about, and for a couple scenes (two or three) where the camera dollies forward down a hallway. They show the hallway leading to the door of the office where the protagonist works, and act as a scene transition, but the way the camera dollies forward is unexpected in Ozu and also felt oddly a little menacing, like a strange invasion from a suspense thriller in the heart of this domestic drama.
In Schrader's book he talks a bit about the actors/acting in Ozu and how they don't really emote a lot, but that feels like another one of his misreadings (or me misreading him). You get a lot of emotion out of the acting, but it is mostly very restrained. But this one in particular, has at least one character (the woman the protagonist has an affair with) quite forthrightly crying and emoting. And even later during the restrained reconcilitation of the husband and wife, you can read a lot out of their faces and tiny movements. And thus again I reiterator to myself how much I enjoy Ozu's films.
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Reading Schrader on Ozu was unusual, because I've already read a book recently, Noriko Smiling by Adam Mars-Jones, that takes apart a bunch of Schrader's arguments. I spent the whole time really questioning his assumptions about Ozu in relation to broad discussion of Japenese culture and Zen, and also wondering, in 1972, how much access Schrader actually had to Ozu's films. We are privileged now to be able to watch them, rewatch them, pause, rewind, while Schrader would have had to watch ones in a theater, probably at some kind of archive or musuem (Mars-Jones explicitly talks about the advantages of video watching in his book). Schrader does seem to rely on too reductive a version of Ozu, focusing on his style distilled down to the most easily recognizable parts. In that respect I don't know that the book increased my knowledge or appreciation of Ozu.
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