Monday 13 October 2003

A double Ozu retrospective

Through some mysterious serendipity, whilst I was in the midst of writing an entry about Ozu Yasujiro’s films a trackback from Kerim alerted me to the Ozu festival, a special event of the 2003 New York Film Festival, being held at the Lincoln Center. Oh to be in New York, because this is the real deal:

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu, the New York Film Festival will present a complete retrospective of Ozu’s extant works. Universally regarded as one the greatest film directors, Ozu’s work was discovered outside of Japan much later than that of Kenji Mizoguchi or Akira Kurosawa. Although the winner of more Kinema Junpo “Best Film” awards (the Japanese Oscar) than any other director, his work was never deemed suitable for export as it was assumed that audiences would consider it “too Japanese.”

Ozu directing Dragnet GirlThe thirty-six films in the festival represent about two-thirds of the fifty-three feature films Ozu directed (he also made a documentary about the Kabuki theater in 1935). His first feature was Zange no yaiba (Sword of Penitence) in 1927; his last was Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon), completed in 1962. Ozu died the following year on his birthday, December 12.

[The photograph shows Ozu directing Oka Jōji and Tanaka Kinuyo in the 1935 melodrama Hijōsen no onna (Dragnet Girl).]

I’ve seen all the films Ozu made from 1941 on, plus a couple of earlier ones—about half of those being screened at the Lincoln Center. Had I learned about the festival a week or two ago, rather than in the last couple of days, I would have felt heartsick at being so far away since Ozu is, unequivocally, my favorite filmmaker. On each of my recent trips to Japan, I’ve inquired about whether any of Ozu’s films have been released on DVD and have invariably been disappointed.

But on Friday my prayers were answered: I was taking another look at Kurt Easterwood’s account of the Ozu 100-year Centennial Exhibition at the Kamakura Bungakukan earlier this year and noticed that Kurt points to a page of information about a series of Ozu DVDs scheduled for release by Shochiku, the studio for which Ozu made most of his films. (I have no idea how I missed this the first time I looked!)

Ozu Yasujiro, DVD Box Set OneA quick check at Amazon Japan revealed that the first box set was released on September 25, with another three to follow at the end of October, November, and December. I ordered the first box set immediately.

The 24 DVDs include all the surviving films Ozu directed for Shochiku, the production company for whom he made almost all of his films. According to the most comprehensive book in English on Ozu, David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, “no script, negative, or prints [are] known to exist” for two films made in 1929: Wasei kenka tomodachi (Fighting Friends—Japanese Style) and Tokkan kozō (A Straightforward Boy). Yet these are both on the fourth box set (although only A Straightforward Boy is being shown in New York). Evidently prints must have been discovered after Bordwell’s book was published in 1988.

None of the films on the DVDs appear to be subtitled in English (and they are not listed on Amazon’s US, British, or German sites); yet subtitled versions exist for all of those I’ve seen—whether silent or talkies. Perhaps Shochiku still regard Ozu as “too Japanese” for Western audiences to appreciate, though I think it’s more likely that the cost of subtitling the remaining films together with the added cost of producing multilingual DVDs were probably the main considerations. The alternative, to offer a mix of films with or without subtitles, would probably only give rise to complaints that all the films should have been subtitled.

Ozu YasujiroThe fact that the Criterion Collection offers only two Ozu films on DVD (Tokyo Story and Good Morning) and none by Mizoguchi or Naruse—compared to eight by Kurosawa—is the best evidence that it’s not just the Japanese who regard Kurosawa as far more accessible for Western audiences than Ozu and his contemporaries.

The Film Festival introduction to Ozu’s films correctly points out that “the director considered too Japanese for foreign audiences was in fact steeped in foreign, especially American, pop culture”, adding that Ozu’s work “has been cited as having a major influence on the films of artists as diverse as Jim Jarmusch (USA), Abbas Kiarostami (Iran), Aki Kaurismaki (Finland), and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taiwan). The latter assertion, although commonly made, needs to be taken with a grain of salt (Jim Jarmusch’s films, for instance, resemble Ozu’s to about the same degree as Woody Allen’s films are like Kurosawa’s).

Contemporary directors who claim to be influenced by Ozu always remind me of the period Ozu spent in Singapore during the war: coopted by the Imperial Army to make propaganda films, instead Ozu spent most of his time watching American films that the Japanese military officials had confiscated. According to Donald Richie’s study of the director, simply titled Ozu:

The film that most impressed Ozu was Welles’s Citizen Kane. “If you give Chaplin 62 points, this film gets about 85.” He looked at it again and again. It was apparently the technique of the film that most interested him, and according to Yoshimura [another director] he kept shaking his head in wonder over this effect or that. Thereafter, whenever asked about his favorite foreign film, he always said Citizen Kane, though it is impossible to imagine a picture more antithetical to his own.

For diehard Ozu fans, I’ve listed the contents of each of the box sets in the table below—some of the Japanese titles have links to reviews at Strictly Film School (to which Kurt Easterwood pointed).

DVD Box Set One
東京物語 Tokyo monogatari Tokyo Story 1953
彼岸花 Higanbana Equinox Flower 1958
お早う Ohayō Good Morning 1959
秋日和 Akibiyori Late Autumn 1960
秋刀魚の味 Samma no aji An Autumn Afternoon 1962
DVD Box Set Two
晩春 Banshun Late Spring 1949
麦秋 Bakushū Early Summer 1951
お茶漬けの味 Ochazuke no aji The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice 1952
早春 Sōshun Early Spring 1956
東京暮色 Tokyo boshoku Tokyo Twilight 1957
DVD Box Set Three
出来ごごろ Dekigokoro Passing Fancy 1933
母を恋はずや Haha o kawazuya A Mother Should Be Loved 1934
浮草物語 Ukigusa monogatari A Story of Floating Weeds 1934
東京の宿 Tokyo no yado An Inn in Tokyo 1935
一人息子 Hitori musuko The Only Son 1936
淑女は何を忘れたか Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka What Did the Lady Forget? 1937
戸田家の兄弟 Toda-ke no kyōdai The Brothers & Sisters of the Toda Family 1941
父ありき Chichi ariki There Was a Father 1942
長屋紳士録 Nagaya shinshi roku Record of a Tenement Gentleman 1947
風の中の雌鳥 Kaze no naka no mendori A Hen in the Wind 1948
DVD Box Set Four
若き日 Wakaki hi Days of Youth 1929
和製喧嘩友達 Wasei kenka tomodachi Fighting Friends — Japanese Style 1929
大学は出たけれど Daigaku wa deta keredo I Graduated, But… 1929
突貫小僧 Tokkan kozō A Straightforward Boy 1929
朗らかに歩め Hogaraka ni ayume Walk Cheerfully 1930
落第はしたけれど Rakudai wa shita keredo I Flunked, But… 1930
その夜の妻 Sono yoru no tsuma That Night’s Wife 1930
淑女と髯 Shukujo to hige The Lady and the Beard 1931
東京の合唱 Tokyo no gasshō Tokyo Chorus 1931
生まれてはみたけれど Umarete wa mita keredo I Was Born But… 1932
青春の夢いまいづか Seishun no yume ima izuka Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? 1932
東京の女 Tokyo no onna Woman of Tokyo 1933
非常線の女 Hijōsen no onna Dragnet Girl 1933
鏡獅子 Kagamishishi Kagamishishi (Kabuki Documentary) 1935

Three films for which prints are available are not included in the box set edition because Ozu made them while on loan from Shochiku to other studios.

Films Made for Other Studios
宗方姉妹 Munekata shimai The Munekata Sisters Toho/
浮草 Ukigusa Floating Weeds Daiei 1959
小早川家の秋 Kohayakawa-ke no aki The End of Summer Takarazuka/

It’s frequently been a source of amusement amongst Ozu’s Western fans that so many of his later films have similar English titles: Late Spring, Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, The End of Summer, An Autumn Afternoon. Yet, of the six films I’ve listed, only two have English titles that match the original Japanese: Late Spring (Banshun) and Early Spring (Sōshun).

Of the other four (which I’ve highlighted in red), Akibiyori (Late Autumn) actually means “fine autumn weather”; Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon) means “the taste of Pacific saury” (a fish that is commonly served broiled in Japanese drinking places); Bakushū (Early Summer) means “wheat harvest”; and Kohayakawa-ke no aki (The End of Summer) means “the autumn of the Kohayakawa family”.

I imagine that whoever gave the films their English titles realized that “the taste of Pacific saury”—though immensely evocative to the Japanese—would be meaningless to a Western audience. However, it’s just as doubtful that “the flavor of green tea of rice” would conjure up for a non-Japanese Ozu’s intended sense of taking pleasure in simple, everyday things. Perhaps the goal was that the English titles convey the elegiac mood of Ozu’s later films.

Ozu’s career spanned the period in Japanese history that most interests me, the Thirties through the Fifties: the rise of Japanese militarism, the catastrophe of the Pacific War, and the post-war reconstruction. The first DVD box set should arrive within the next few days. Though seeing the sound films without subtitles will present a formidable challenge to my Japanese listening skills, I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Ozu’s world over the next few months.

(In his post on There Was a Father, which alerted me to the Ozu retrospective, Kerim admits to loving the film yet being “troubled by its moral ambiguity”:

In a very real sense the film’s power comes from its moral ambiguity. After the fact, such ambiguity itself in face of the horrors of Japanese wartime aggression (something which Japanese have yet to come to terms with) seems inappropriate, but it certainly makes for a powerful movie. Nor do I think anyone would compare Ozu to Leni Riefenstahl.

Though it’s been a few years since I saw There Was a Father, I don’t recall being struck by any sense of moral ambiguity. I do remember that not long after I saw the film I read—and could not disagree with—Donald Richie’s assessment that “this is one of Ozu’s most perfect films”. Needless to say, there’s lots I could write on the subject of Ozu and fascism, but I’d prefer to save those thoughts for another essay.)

Permalink | Technorati


Oh, I want to see Ozu's films so badly, but I really don't think my terribly childish Japanese ability would stand up well without subtitles. I love the title 'Ochazuke no aji'. The beauty of Japanese art always makes me think of the quiet rustling made by layers of soft paper.

Posted by tara. on 12 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This is the first thing I can remember that's really made me wish I knew Japanese. I saw a lot of Ozu some years ago at a Film Forum retrospective, and I'd love to have the movies on DVD -- but I'm afraid the lack of subtitles would make it a frustrating experience. Maybe if we ask Criterion very nicely they'll do more Ozu?

Posted by language hat on 13 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm looking forward to that post on Ozu and fascism!

Posted by Kerim Friedman on 13 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

In fact, a Hongkong company, Panorama Entertainment, is realeasing Ozu's films on DVDs. (They are the same prints as Shochiku's DVDs, execpt they have optional Chinese and English subtitles and they are not in box sets). I bought them in Toronto's China Town. (They are Zone 3 DVDs though).

Posted by Bryan Pang on 26 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

According to Donald Richie's review of Vol. 1 of the Shochiku series (from the Nov. 16 online edition of Japan Times), Criterion is planning on releasing the two "Floating Weeds" films and "The Only Son" in 2004.

I am still waiting to see a detailed side-by-side comparison of the Shochiku and Panorama releases. (For instance, do they use the same bit rates, etc).


Posted by Michael Kerpan on 27 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've just checked the Yahoo Ozu group where Nick Wrigley has this to say about the Panorama releases:

"In the first few minutes, when talking about altering the trousers by "chopping off the legs" this is translated as "ship off the legs". When you're constantly having to backtrack to work out exactly what was MEANT it makes it a very mixed experience.

"The images are on the whole, really nice (compression and motion problems aside) but the subtitles are killing it for me.

"LATE AUTUMN was bearable, LATE SPRING looks similar - but AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON was a carwreck."

I think I'll stay with the Shochiku series -- not having any subtitles strikes me as preferable to subtitles whose meaning one must continually question.

Posted by Jonathon on 27 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I can get by without subtitles on most of the films (the ones I know by heart, at least), but I must say they would have been awfully handy when watching/listening to the extremely wordy "Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family".

Posted by Michael Kerpan on 28 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This is coming really late as I've just found this page, but if you're in Northern California, the UC Berkeley Pacific Film Archive is just wrapping up its Ozu film festival through this sunday, Dec 21.

I just saw my first Ozu film Soushun, "Early Spring". I hope to see more this weekend.

Posted by Chris on 20 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour