Sunday 26 October 2003

Immersion Japanese (DVD style)

Ozu Yasujiro, DVD Box SetThe first Ozu DVD box set, which arrived last week, turned out to be everything I’d hoped for and more. Six DVDs—Tokyo monogatari, Higanbana, Ohayō, Akibiyori, and Samma no aji, plus a bonus disk (Tokuten disuku)—as well as a lavishly illustrated booklet.

The box itself is covered with coarse-woven fabric, reminiscent of the background that forms the background to the opening titles of so many of Ozu’s films.

Main title for Ozu's Tokyo monogatariAs soon as I unwrapped the package I popped Tokyo monogatari into the DVD player: the distinctive opening titles combined with Saito Ichiro’s theme music prompting an intense nostalgia.

As for many other Western viewers, this was the first Ozu film I ever saw. I never tire of watching Tokyo Story—usually regarded as Ozu’s masterpiece—even though Banshun (Late Spring) remains my favorite. Tokyo Story is lovely to look at despite the fact that, as David Bordwell explains, “it does not survive in good condition: the original negative was destroyed by a laboratory fire, and the internegative struck from positive prints does not render the chiaroscuro that Ozu and [cinematographer] Atsuta sought”.

Natsuko, who doesn’t admire Ozu’s films, asked me recently what is it about them that I love so much? And how is it that I can watch the same films over and over again? I said something along the lines of “one can never grow tired of seeing the beauty and sadness of everyday life depicted with unflinching honesty”. What I struggled to convey to Natsuko, Donald Richie expresses with great economy in the preface to his book on the director:

What remains after an Ozu film is the feeling that, if only for an hour or two, you have seen the goodness and beauty of everyday things and everyday people; you have had experiences you cannot describe because only film, not words, can describe them; you have seen a few small, unforgettable actions, beautiful because real. You are left with a feeling of sadness too, because you will see them no more. They are already gone. In the feeling of transience, of the mutability and beauty of all life, Ozu joins the greatest Japanese artists. It is here that we taste, undiluted and authentic, the Japanese flavor.

Ozu Yasujiro, Tokyo monogatari, DVDRichie also points out that “Ozu’s method, like all poetic methods, is oblique”. Ozu offers a severely constrained vision of the world in order to transcend those constraints; his films are suffused with human emotion because they are so rigorously constructed; time is stretched in an Ozu film because his movies are longer than average even though they contain hardly any “story”. The cumulative effect of these formal strategies is that “technique restricted comes to make us see more, [while] tempo slowed comes to make us feel more.” The end result is that we are gradually drawn into the film and “invited to infer and deduce” its meaning which, because of the almost non-existent “plot”, resides in the characters and their behaviour. And so

…we are often given that rare spectacle of a character existing for himself alone. This we observe with the delight that precise verisimilitude always brings, and with a heightened awareness of the beauty and fragility of human beings.

This effect is not at all diminished by the lack of English subtitles. Firstly, I understand more of the Japanese than I expected to. And, perhaps more importantly, I’ve adopted the same strategy I use whenever I spend time with friends in Japan. Instead of worrying about the meaning of every word of a conversation, I content myself with absorbing the essence of what’s being said—which is much easier for them, since they don’t have to continually make allowances for my lack of fluency. As long as I behave as though I know what’s going on—which I usually do—they mostly talk to me as they would to another Japanese.

And since I’m no longer concerned with reading the subtitles I can pay closer attention to other aspects of the film and its characters. It’s strange that although I’ve done this with conversational Japanese (and now with watching films without subtitles), it wasn’t until I encountered Alaric Radosh’s advice that I realized I could apply the same strategy to reading:

When you read easy, don’t look up unfamiliar words. I mean, you can look them up occasionally when you just have to know. But, for the most part, skip those words, like you did when you were a kid reading in your native language. When you do look them up eventually, you will only understand them and remember them all the better for having become familiar with them beforehand in this way.

(I can’t begin to explain what a difference Alaric’s approach has made to my Japanese reading. Whereas I used to be fixated on learning kanji and vocabulary, I now spend much of my study time actually reading and am amazed at how many words I recognize in context, words that I would probably not have recognized in a vocabulary list.)

Bokuto kidan DVD coverWhen I was ordering the first Ozu Box Set, I thought I’d check whether Toyoda Shirō’s 1960 film version of Nagai Kafū’s Bokutō kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River) had been released on either DVD or VHS.

Toyoda, who never achieved the reputation or critical regard accorded his contemporaries Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi, was a member of the jumbungaku movement, a group of directors with an interest in filming serious works of literature. In addition to Bokutō kidan, Toyda adapted Mori Ogai’s Gan (The Wild Geese) and Kawabata’s Yukiguni (Snow Country) for the screen.

Toyoda’s Bokutō kidan was not available but, much to my surprise, Kaneto Shindo’s 1991 version has been released on DVD. I couldn’t resist and added it to the Ozu order. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet since I have a huge backlog of movies to watch: four Ozu movies, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, two versions of The Loyal 47 Ronin, and Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies (recommended by Language Hat). And it’s the end of the month, which means that the second Ozu Box Set has just been released.

I’ve stopped eating out, I’ve given up drinking, I no longer go to the cinema, and I’ve abandoned any hope of buying a new laptop (Macintosh or PC). All my spare cash is going towards Ozu DVDs. And I’m not sure where this is going to stop because I just discovered that there’s a Kurosawa Masterworks DVD Triple Box Set. Though, since I taped a dozen or so Kurosawa movies when they were shown on SBS, I might forget about Kurosawa and hold off for the Mizoguchi and Naruse Box Sets. That way I could look forward to drinking a couple of beers on New Year’s Eve, while I’m watching a film from the fourth (and final) Ozu Box Set.

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Comments

umarete wa mita keredo is one of my favorite movies. i am always cheered by it and often contemplate carrying a wooden geta in my backpack for special occasions... i spent much time in kyushu, miyazaki, this year and already miss it. although this looks south of your travels. happy ozu watching!

Posted by tanya on 28 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Just wanted to remind everyone that today is Ozu's 100th Birthday (and the 40th anniversary of his death). Watch an Ozu film to celebrate (preferably with family and friends). ;~}

By the way, Volume 3 of the Shochiku has a lot of wonderful stuff. Of the ten films included, "Story of Floating Weeds" is in the best condition -- and looks absolutely gorgeous. Everything else looks better than any prior versions available -- but some of my favorites remain terribly tattered. ""Tokyo no yado" (Tokyo Inn) looks like it barely escaped the throes of the cinematic grim reaper. Just the same, it might be my favorite film.

Posted by Michael Kerpan on 13 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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

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