Ozu Yasujirō: Simply too Japanese

Ozu Yasujirō (小津 安二郎, 1903–1963) is known as one of the most renowned directors of all time. His movies are considered major works of art, and continue to earn Ozu accolades until this day.

However, for many Westerners, the name of Ozu does not elicit any sense of such recognition. How could it be that a director, whose position as a ‘master of cinema’ is unquestioned by those in the know, is not appreciated by the general public? One does not need to be a member of the elite to recognize names such as Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, or Michelangelo. So why is Ozu often overlooked? Many consider that Westerners would just not be able to comprehend his unique simple style.

Out of all the directors in Japan, Ozu is typically seen as the “most Japanese of all filmmakers.” The majority of his works focus on the middle-class families in Japan (I Was Born But…, 1932; Late Spring, 1949; Tokyo Story, 1953). By implementing a variety of techniques, Yasujirō Ozu’s aim was to keep the audiences’ attention on the characters rather than the plot.

One of Ozu’s distinct styles is the breaking of the fourth wall. In typical cinema, the actors will never look directly into the camera, giving the audience a removed spectator role. Ozu, however, had his actors look straight into the camera while having a conversation. By breaking this cinematic convention, it places the audience directly into the conversation, and allows the audience to invest themselves, and become involved in the characters.

Another technique that Ozu used is called elliptical editing. This is a method of editing that involves the removal of the central action. For example, in Late Spring, two characters are shown walking into an Art museum, but the audience is not shown what occurs in the museum. Instead, we are told what happened through a later conversation. Ozu used elliptical editing to avoid too much detail on the plot, so the audience can focus on the characters and the family.

Ozu’s departure from Hollywood norms, and his focus on the everyday life of middle-class Japanese families, led many to believe that his films were “too Japanese” to be distributed abroad. Culturally, Westerns were used to fast paced action, special effects, and diverse, involved plots, and believed they were likely to view Ozu’s works as boring. This lack of early international distribution is the reason Ozu’s works do not receive much recognition in the Western world beyond film critics today.

Although even I admit I often found Ozu less than exciting, after realizing that he was focusing on family life and wanted the audience to build relationships with the characters, I was able to appreciate and enjoy his art. I encourage everyone to expose themselves an Ozu film (I Was Born But… is a personal favorite of mine).

While watching, remember to dissociate the film from your own culturally accepted standards of what constitutes a “good movie” and view the film as a method to learn more about family dynamics in Japan during the mid-1900s. Once you are able to appreciate the genius of Ozu, you will be able to fully experience a world of timeless cinema classics, whose messages transcend culture barriers.

Have you ever seen any of Ozu Yasujirō’s films? If so, which have you appreciated?