Friday 12 December 2003

Beauty, sadness, and existential choice

From Donald Richie’s Ozu:

It is here that morality enters into the Ozu film. What Ozu is saying is not that the old way is the best way, or that youth must have its fling, or that you come into the world and leave it all alone—though all these thoughts have their places in the Ozu universe. Ozu is saying, rather, that within the given constraints, one forms one’s own character by consciously deciding upon this course or that. One does not delve into oneself, find there a character already formed, then recognize it as one’s own. Rather, out of the inchoate material of human nature one forms a single human being, inconsistencies and all.

Morality exists that one may have a guide through the labyrinth. Ozu’s morality, like that of most Asians, is simple. You act in a way that is consistent with nature, for you observe your kinship with other beings and perceive that you are a part of the nature around you, neither its slave nor its overlord. You observe the laws of your civilization until the point at which they seriously interfere with your own well-being, and then you make a compromise. You behave like the guest in this world you truly are.

You are a transient in a transitory world. With a feeling that goes far beyond the demands of good breeding, you gently celebrate (mono no aware) those very qualities which threaten (and eventually extinguish) your personal entity. You do so because you are part of this world and you know its rules, and you accept them. They are right because they are.

To achieve this relationship with the world, you learn to choose. We watch the people in an Ozu film choosing and deliberating over and over again, usually in the knowledge that in choosing one forms one’s character. You are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself. In choosing, you not only create self, you transcend it. You are, in a way, the self you always were, but the awareness of alternatives brings awareness of the most important fact of human life: there is no immutable inner reality, no inner person, no soul. You choose what you will become.

Here, perhaps, is the reason why Ozu’s characters have, as has been mentioned, no past. They may refer to times past, but we never see them. Ozu is one of the very few directors who never once in his entire career used a flashback. A person’s past has done its work, but it is not interesting. Of his people you may truly say what is important is not what life has done to them, but what they do with what life has done to them.

One understands, then, Ozu’s dislike and distrust of plot. Plot is possible only if it is agreed that a character is a certain kind of person with a certain kind of past who will therefore predictably do certain kinds of things and not others—that he is, in short, limited in a way people never are, before death. One understands also why inconsistency of character is so important to Ozu: it is a sign of life because it is a sign of choice. Choice is important to all of Ozu’s people, as it is to all of us, which is one of the things that makes them so lifelike. What is involved, one must add, is nothing so sweeping as absolute free will. The freedom of Ozu’s characters is, from the first, restricted. They are after all, human, which implies certain constraints; they must live together, another constraint; and they are part of a larger society, yet another constraint. They are offered not the à la carte menu, but the table d’hôte. Limitless choice exists no more for them than it does for anyone, but the range of choice is wide enough to be meaningful, to let Ozu’s people form their own character.

And this, finally, is what the Ozu film shows us—character being formed through choice.

Today, as Michael Kerpan points out, is the 100th anniversary of Ozu’s birth and the 40th anniversary of his death.

Earlier in his book on the director, Richie describes the central pleasure that comes from watching one of Ozu’s films:

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.

The other—equally important though less obvious—characteristic of the Ozu film is its emphasis on existential choice. It’s difficult to conceive of anything more at odds with contemporary Western society’s willingness to concoct excuses for all kinds of bad behavior than the notion that you are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself.

Those of us who agree with Richie that “there is no immutable inner reality, no inner person, no soul” could do infinitely worse than follow a morality based on an appreciation of the transient beauty of everyday life and the need to accept responsibility for both our choices and the consequences that flow from them.

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Comments

I love the line "You are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself," Jonathon.

I guess tomorrow's entry at my blog will be a more relevant comment on this entry as a whole, though I suspect it would also fit in with iTunes diagnosis of my personality :-?

Posted by Loren on 16 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Loren, I love that line too. It doesn't matter what we say, or what we wish, or what we intend. The only thing that counts is what we do.

I look forward to reading your entry...

Posted by Jonathon on 16 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I saw my first Ozu film last night, 'Floating Weeds', on BBC Four. Seems they had been having something of an Ozu season, but we only got a digital decoder installed last week and so I didn't find out until yesterday, the last day. But at least I saw one, and I quite liked it. I did think some of the performances were wooden, but maybe I'm being too harsh; I'd have to see more to make a proper judgement.

Posted by MacDara on 17 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Richie obviously has a deep appreciation of Ozu and I'll have to read more of him. I don't quite understand the point about plot; I thought plot was a chain of events that characters instigate and respond to, and I don't see why it implies that "a character is a certain kind of person with a certain kind of past who will therefore predictably do certain kinds of things and not others." And I certainly wouldn't want to perpetrate a sentence like "Ozu's morality, like that of most Asians, is simple," no matter how much it's explained in context. But these are quibbles. I too agree that you are the sum total of your choices, and it's very well put.

Posted by language hat on 17 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The best book in English on Ozu the film maker is David Bordwell's "Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema". Another very good book, if you can read French or Japanese was written by Shigehiko Hasumi (a French translation of the Japanese original was issued a couple of years ago by Cahiers du Cinema).

As much as I admire Richie overall, I find that he has a tendency to over-simplify -- not just Ozu but Japanese cinema (and perhaps overall culture). He is a tremendous source of anecdotes, however -- and his insights are worth considering - as a starting point.

As to the liveliness of the acting in "Floating Weeds" -- the acting in this is about as lively as you get in late Ozu -- and it stars some of Japan's very best actors and actresss -- giving some of their best performances. There is a lot of emotion to be found in the films of Ozu (and his great contemporary Naruse), but very little in the way of histrionics. One has to re-calibrate one's reading of emotions in order to properly appreciate the films of most of the classic Japanese directors.

Posted by Michael Kerpan on 17 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

With regard to my statement on the liveliness of the acting in 'Floating Weeds', I should have been more clear.

From what little Japanese cinema I've been exposed to, emotional subtlety is common, so I apologise if I appeared to make a universal criticism (that's what happenes when you type before you think).

I should have pointed out the one specific performance that got my goat, that of the nephew/son of the troupe master, which to me outdoes even Keanu Reeves on the petrification scale.

Posted by MacDara on 17 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Hiroshi Kawaguchi, the troupe leader's illegitimate son, was an experienced actor by this point (desite his youth) -- and had actually starred in some significant films. It's been a while since I've watched the 1959 version -- and he is not the character I am most interested in when I DO watch the film. ;~} I suspect he was supposed to act in the way he did -- and it may have had connotations (arising from the youth-oriented films of that day) that we no longer pick up on.

By the way, Shochiku has now released Ozu's earlier (mid 1930s) silent, black and white version of the same scenario (Story of Floating Weeds) on DVD -- and it looks quite stupendous. It seems that this is Ozu's best-preserved early film. It has a cast that it is equally fine -- and a much more somber tone overall (despite lots of little humorous bits). So keep you eyes peeled for this earlier version -- which has some of Ozu's most striking b&w cinematography.

Posted by Michael Kerpan on 17 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"You are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself."

Close, but let's not hand out the cigars yet.

"You are what you do" - both verbs in the present tense, good. True.

"Nothing more nor less?" Probably nothing less, but maybe something more. False, see next.

Sum of actions and choices = total of yourself. False. Focuses exclusively on the past, effectively negating the first premise. Omits the future case, without which "choice" in the present is meaningless. So to the extent that one still "is" (i.e. alive) and still has a future in which to cast choices, the "sum total" (i.e. "what you are") is an indeterminate quantity.

Which is something we can be a little grateful for, I think.

Posted by Dave Rogers on 17 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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

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