What Makes Yasujirō Ozu a Great Filmmaker? New Video Essay Explains His Long-Admired Cinematic Style

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 Sto­ryFloat­ing 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Wes Ander­son & Yasu­jiro Ozu: New Video Essay Reveals the Unex­pect­ed Par­al­lels Between Two Great Film­mak­ers

The Essence of Hayao Miyaza­ki Films: A Short Doc­u­men­tary About the Human­i­ty at the Heart of His Ani­ma­tion

Watch 7 New Video Essays on Wes Anderson’s Films: Rush­moreThe Roy­al Tenen­baums & More

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.

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