If you can rank the work of a filmmaker by the number of video essays it inspires, then Yasujirō Ozu must have made some of the greatest motion pictures of all time. Wes Anderson, despite having got his start 65 years later than Ozu, would also place well — and naturally, as we posted back in July, one video essay even examines the two men’s films (on most levels so seemingly different) in parallel. But today, let’s take a closer look at the midcentury Japanese auteur of Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds, Late Spring and many more in isolation, through Lewis Bond’s new video essay “The Depth of Simplicity.”
At first glance, most of Ozu’s more than thirty films — domestic dramas which, as critic Donald Richie wrote in his study of the director, “had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution” — might seem similar to each other. But that first glance only reveals the parameters within which Ozu decided to work, the strictures that engaged his genius. “Although I may seem the same to other people,” he said in the quote that opens “The Depth of Simplicity,” “to me each thing I produce is a new expression and I always make each work from a new interest. It’s like a painter who always paints the same rose.” (Or maybe the same tea kettle?)
“Ozu wanted to capture the cinematic quality of everyday life,” says Bond, “and doing so required a very specific style.” Rather than adding techniques on to his cinematic vocabulary, Ozu eliminated them, making complete and meaningful use of those that remained: rigorous, painting-like compositions using frames within frames; a low-placed camera (set, legend has it, around the height of someone sitting on a traditional tatami mat) that hardly ever moves and always uses a human eyesight-like 50-millimeter lens; dialogue that cuts between straight-on close-ups of each speaker (breaking filmmaking’s sacred “180-degree rule” every time).
These techniques and others, which “seem false at first glance but begin to weave their way into the texture of his films,” give Ozu’s work what Bond calls its “radiantly calm tone,” its ability to “straddle the line of subjectivity and objectivity,” and its expression of mono no aware, one of those not-especially-translatable Japanese concepts having to do with the distinctive emotion felt upon recognition of the transience of all things. Of course, Ozu himself, who compared himself to a humble tofu-maker, would never have made such claims. “I just want to make good tofu,” he said, and cinephiles the world over continue to eat it up today.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.