How One Simple Cut Reveals the Cinematic Genius of Yasujirō Ozu

Since his death 56 years ago, Yasu­jirō Ozu has only become more and more often ref­er­enced as a locus of great­ness in Japan­ese cin­e­ma. Almost with­out excep­tion, his exegetes explain the pow­er of his films first through their decep­tive sim­plic­i­ty. His movies may look and play like sim­ple mid­cen­tu­ry domes­tic dra­mas, each bear­ing a strong resem­blance to the one before, but with­in these rigid the­mat­ic and aes­thet­ic stric­tures, Ozu achieves tran­scen­dence. In fact, before becom­ing a film­mak­er in his own right Paul Schrad­er ele­vat­ed Ozu into a trin­i­ty along­side Robert Bres­son and Carl Theodor Drey­er in his 1972 book Tran­scen­den­tal Style in Film.

“Per­haps the finest image of sta­sis in Ozu’s films is the lengthy shot of the vase in a dark­ened room near the end of Late Spring,” Schrad­er writes, cit­ing the 1949 pic­ture usu­al­ly count­ed among Ozu’s best. “The father and daugh­ter are prepar­ing to spend their last night under the same roof; she will soon be mar­ried. They calm­ly talk about what a nice day they had, as if it were any oth­er day. The room is dark; the daugh­ter asks a ques­tion of the father, but gets no answer. There is a shot of the father asleep, a shot of the daugh­ter look­ing at him, a shot of the vase in the alcove and over it the sound of the father snor­ing. Then there is a shot of the daugh­ter half-smil­ing, then a lengthy, ten-sec­ond shot of the vase again, and a return to the daugh­ter now almost in tears, and a final return to the vase.”

Some view­ers see the vase as an inex­plic­a­ble inclu­sion, espe­cial­ly at such a charged moment. Schrad­er sees it as sta­sis itself, “a form which can accept deep, con­tra­dic­to­ry emo­tion and trans­form it into an expres­sion of some­thing uni­fied, per­ma­nent, tran­scen­dent.” In the video essay at the top of the post, Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, exam­ines for him­self the place of the vase in Late Spring, in Ozu’s style more broad­ly, and in the body of crit­i­cal work sur­round­ing Ozu’s oeu­vre.

To Puschak’s mind, the var­i­ous read­ings of the vase by Schrad­er and oth­ers “speak to the unique pow­er that Ozu has, that he devel­oped over his long career. His style may appear sim­ple, but is in fact so fine-tuned, so care­ful­ly cal­i­brat­ed, that he has the pow­er to over­whelm the view­er, to launch a thou­sand inter­pre­ta­tions with a sin­gle cut.”

Late Spring fea­tures per­for­mances by Ozu reg­u­lars Chishū Ryū and Set­suko Hara, both of them inhab­it­ing the kind of char­ac­ters for which the direc­tor relied on them: Ryū the good-natured but firm father, Hara the by turns melan­cholic and opti­mistic but ulti­mate­ly duti­ful daugh­ter. These are arche­typ­al Ozu peo­ple, and the vase is an arche­typ­al Ozu object, as much so as the recur­ring red tea ket­tle Ozu enthu­si­asts delight in spot­ting. Those fans will under­stand the appear­ance of the vase as a kind of “pil­low shot,” the term used to describe those visu­al moments in all of Ozu’s pic­tures that have noth­ing to do with plot or char­ac­ter and every­thing to do with rhythm and reflec­tion. They depict ket­tles and vas­es, but also pago­das, clothes­line, street signs, smoke­stacks — things, not peo­ple, but things that, in their con­text, under­score Ozu’s pow­er­ful human­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Video Essay­ist Kog­o­na­da Makes His Own Acclaimed Fea­ture Film: Watch His Trib­utes to Its Inspi­ra­tions Like Ozu, Lin­klater & Mal­ick

How David Lynch Manip­u­lates You: A Close Read­ing of Mul­hol­land Dri­ve

How Ser­gio Leone Made Music an Actor in His Spaghet­ti West­erns, Cre­at­ing a Per­fect Har­mo­ny of Sound & Image

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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