An Introduction to Yasujiro Ozu, “the Most Japanese of All Film Directors”

Yasu­jiro Ozu, the man whom his kins­men con­sid­er the most Japan­ese of all film direc­tors, had but one major sub­ject, the Japan­ese fam­i­ly, and but one major theme, its dis­so­lu­tion.” So writes Don­ald Richie in Ozu: His Life and His Films, still the defin­i­tive Eng­lish-lan­guage study of this thor­ough­ly Japan­ese film­mak­er. (Richie, per­haps the most astute and expe­ri­enced liv­ing crit­ic of Japan­ese film, tells more of Ozu in the rel­e­vant seg­ment of Mark Cousins’ series The Sto­ry of Film.) Despite his Japan­ese­ness, or indeed because of it, Ozu con­tin­ues, near­ly fifty years after his pass­ing, to enthrall gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion of west­ern cinephiles. Yes­ter­day we fea­tured a clip from Tokyo-Ga, the doc­u­men­tary where­in Wim Wen­ders makes a Tokyo jour­ney out of sheer need to seek out the spir­it of Ozu. Crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed French film­mak­er Claire Denis has also paid trib­ute, and above you’ll find a salute to Ozu as inspi­ra­tion from equal­ly laud­ed but res­olute­ly dead­pan Finnish auteur Aki Kau­ris­mä­ki. “Ozu-san, I’m Aki Kau­ris­mä­ki from Fin­land,” the Le Havre direc­tor explains, ready­ing a cig­a­rette. “I’ve made eleven lousy films, and it’s all your fault.”

What is it about Ozu? The dis­ci­plined econ­o­my of his sto­ries, dia­logue and images accounts for some of it. But he also deliv­ers some­thing less obvi­ous. “Just as there are no heroes in Ozu’s pic­tures,” writes Richie, “so there are no vil­lains. [ … ] In basic Zen texts one accepts and tran­scends the world, and in tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese nar­ra­tive art one cel­e­brates and relin­quish­es it. The aes­thet­ic term mono no aware is often used nowa­days to describe this state of mind.” And, whether in those words or not, Ozu’s fol­low­ers savor the expres­sion of mono no aware in his many films, such as An Autumn After­noon, Tokyo Sto­ry, Late Spring, and Good Morn­ing. This sort of thing being bet­ter expe­ri­enced than described, why not watch Ozu’s 1952 pic­ture The Fla­vor of Green Tea Over Rice? (Or 1941’s The Broth­ers and Sis­ters of the Toda Fam­i­ly, 1948’s A Hen in the Wind, 1950’s The Mureka­ta Sis­ters?) To my mind, noth­ing sums up Ozu’s appeal quite so well as his use of “pil­low shots” — sim­ple, sta­t­ic com­po­si­tions placed in his films for pure­ly rhyth­mic, non-nar­ra­tive pur­pos­es — of which you can watch one fan-made com­pi­la­tion below. How many film­mak­ers, Japan­ese or oth­er­wise, could pull those off?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Kurosawa’s Rashomon Free Online, the Film That Intro­duced Japan­ese Cin­e­ma to the West

Wim Wen­ders Vis­its, Mar­vels at a Japan­ese Fake Food Work­shop

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (5)
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  • Bradley Elfman says:

    Instead of quot­ing experts, who are full of non­sense, like Ozu is most Japan­ese film mak­er or Ozu’s films have one sub­ject (absurd and wrong!)and are about dis­so­lu­tion of the fam­i­ly (total­ly wrong for each and every Ozu film!!), why don’t you watch the full body of Ozu films (min­i­mal­ly 25 films), each a good num­ber of times, and sim­ply report your own response, which I would hope is more hon­est and accu­rate than what you have quot­ed from Don­ald Richie.

    To say Ozu’s films have one sub­ject and a sin­gle theme is incred­i­bly offen­sive to the body of Ozu’s films, and total­ly miss­es the unique­ness and uni­ver­sal­i­ty of each film.

  • Maggie Elfman says:

    This may seem like an odd spot to find you ( and I will have to see these films! ), but, it sounds like you.
    If you are 72, you may be my broth­er. Your name & phone, which I have not had the nerve to dial, kept pop­ping up on my con­tacts yes­ter­day. I took this as a sign or kick in the rear to con­tact you today.
    If you are the one, you are the last of my imme­di­ate fam­i­ly. If not, please excuse me.
    If so, please email me at or
    The past is so far away & the future has become short­er.
    My best to you, Mag­gie

  • cinnamon says:

    Mag­gie, i need to know.. is he your broth­er?
    i am wish­ing you all the best

  • Chris says:

    2016 and still no clo­sure, seems kind of rel­e­vant to Yasu­jiro Ozu’s films.

  • Steven says:

    2020 now, and I have been drawn in too.

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