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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