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The quietude and lack of pretense in Yasujiro Ozu's idiosyncratic films continue to draw me to his impressive body of work, which gratefully continues to be restored by the Criterion Collection. From the stationary, tatami-level camera angles to the selective re-use of his familiar ensemble cast, Ozu displays an unforced cinematic style unique in its deliberate pacing and elliptical narrative structures. As it should be, his most acclaimed work is the "Noriko" trilogy - Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and the extraordinary Tokyo Story (1953) - which has been given deluxe DVD treatments by Criterion in individual packages in the past few years. His career continued until his death in 1962, and this box set from Criterion's subsidiary Eclipse celebrates five of the films he made after "Tokyo Story". Because there are none of the extras to be found in the previously released DVDs, neither an informative commentary from a film scholar nor a historical documentary, the films are left to stand on their own albeit with English subtitles. They represent a solid collection from a master, but I also think they are best appreciated after seeing the "Noriko" trilogy or his other masterpiece, 1959's Floating Weeds where you get in-depth orientations into Ozu's filmmaking style.
The set begins with 1956's "Early Spring" (****), a penetrating, unusually mature study in infidelity in post-WWII Japan. Ozu places his focus on Shoji, a young, inconsequential white collar worker suffering from weariness about his job and childless marriage to Masako. He starts to spend more time with his colleagues and less with his pragmatic wife. One of his co-workers is an independent-minded stenographer who has been affectionately named "Goldfish". A seemingly innocent flirtation leads inevitably to a full-blown affair. Even more than his more famous films, Ozu spends a lot of time on establishing shots to highlight Shoji's mundane existence, and the net effect is more insinuating in terms of defining his boredom and dead-end career. Ryo Ikebe and Chikage Awashima (the feisty best friend regaling in her freedom to be single in "Early Summer") play the young couple affectingly, though Keiko Kishi easily steals her scenes as the ambitious Goldfish.
The darkest of the five films is 1957's "Tokyo Twilight" (****1/2), which showcases Ozu's craftsmanship encased in a Douglas Sirk-like melodrama about two sisters leading lives of quiet desperation in spite of the earnest though clueless efforts of their father. With her baby daughter in tow, patient older sister Takako has just left her errant, self-absorbed husband. Petulant younger sister Akiko keeps searching for a boyfriend amid her social circle, a group of sarcastic slackers who spend all their time playing mah jong and gossiping. The sisters' bad choice in men can be sourced to not only a guilt-ridden father but a mother who deserted them long ago. She comes back to town followed in quick order by the inevitable consequences. Shorn of her usually sunny exterior, the legendary Setsuko Hara lends intense, complex melancholy to Takako, while Ineko Arima portrays Akiko with a hedonistic fury worthy of Louise Brooks. As the absentee mother, Isuzu Yamada has a few powerful scenes, while Ozu regular Chishu Ryu plays the father in his typically poker-faced manner.
A comparatively lighter tone can be found in Ozu's first color film, 1958's "Equinox Flower" (****1/2), which explores a favorite theme of the filmmaker's, the bond between a father named Hirayama and his daughter Setsuko. True to her contemporary nature, she makes an impulsive decision to marry, even though Hirayama had always expected that she would seek his approval beforehand. Reflective of prevailing customs, he is presumptuous enough to think he would choose her husband. At the same time, in contrast, he provides advice to others to follow their own hearts. The hypocrisy gradually dawns on the well-intentioned father in slow, uninterrupted takes, as Setsuko quietly rebels. Shin Saburi effectively manages to convey both the comic confusion and dawning revelation of a man caught in a generational transition, while Ineko Arima returns with a sunnier persona as Setsuko.
1960's "Late Autumn" (****) is really a variation on his classic 1949 father-daughter drama, "Late Spring". He goes further with this parallel by having Setsuko Hara, who played the daughter in the original film, play the mother Akiko in this one. This time, the character of Akiko has such an easy sisterly bond with her daughter Ayako that neither has an interest in dating or marriage. While Akiko's situation is accepted by society, Ayako's single status is a point of consternation, especially for three friends of Akiko's late husband, all of whom express feelings of unrequited love for the unavailable Akiko. Lending her remarkable sense of pathos, Hara provides her trademark stillness and quiet warmth as Akiko. Yôko Tsukasa is pretty and affecting as Ayako, while Mariko Okada provides an uninhibited spirit as Ayako's friend and colleague Yuriko. Shin Saburi, Nabuo Nakamura and Ryuji Kita play the matchmaking trio almost like a Shakespearean comedy troupe.
The last film of the set, 1961's "End of Summer" (****) has Setsuko Hara and Yôko Tsukasa of "Late Autumn" return as sisters Akiko and Noriko, both in search of husbands. They are the daughters of Manbei Kohayakawa, who seems to be going through his second childhood as his sake brewery flounders into a financial abyss. When Manbei takes up with his old mistress, the family is thrown into chaos as Ozu melds both comic and tragic elements into the deliberately paced story. Fittingly, the story's rueful last act echoes the poignant ending of "Tokyo Story". The rubric of change and resistance within a family is explored in depth and within the elliptical structure that is the filmmaker's trademark. Ganjiro Nakamura (the aging kabuki actor in Ozu's "Floating Weeds") plays Manbei with surprising subtlety, while Hara and the rest of the ensemble cast complement him impeccably.
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THE SET: I've seen the complaints about less-than-pristine picture quality and the three-sided piece of paper that constitutes the "box." Look, we're being handed five rarely-seen films by Yasujiro Ozu! Complaining about the packaging or minor picture imperfections is like receiving a fortune in rare pearls and griping that they come in a paper bag and still smell faintly of sea water. Get over it.
EARLY SPRING (5 stars): This is my favorite of the lot, demonstrating what Ozu does best: it presents a clearly-stated theme, and then slowly lets "secondary" characters take over the narrative from an unexpected direction. Seemingly, this is about the gray, monotonous life of the "salaryman" in post-war Japan. It does illustrate that life, but to see this as a sort of Asian MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT is to miss the point. Ozu's films pivot on what is off-camera, or on what is NOT being acted on the faces of those on-camera. Before launching his corporate slice-of-life, Ozu reveals whom to watch from the first face we see--that of Masako (Chikage Awashima), lying on her futon, sleepless as the day dawns. Over the course of the film, we learn what her anxiety is about. We hear competing views on how to survive a failing marriage. Most viewers will long for her to dump her selfish husband, Shoji. We will see her confront him firmly, but with astonishing decorum. This, keep in mind, is in the context of a film where Shoji has roughly double the screen time of Masako. That's what you get with Ozu. The real story is often just out of frame.
TOKYO TWILIGHT (3.5 stars): Kudos to the veteran writer/director for trying to break out of his accustomed style of domestic drama. I forget who said, "The greater the success, the closer it verges on failure," but this is somehow the inverse of that. It is a failure that verges tantalizingly close to brilliance. TOKYO TWILIGHT is a movie with BIG PLOT POINTS, on a scale I do not recall seeing in any other Ozu film. The center of all the turmoil is Akiko (Ineko Arima), who is bereaved more than once, strives to pay gambling debts, is jilted, has an abortion, learns her "dead" mother is still alive, and is hit by a train. Arima's flat-footed portrayal of Akiko is what makes this worth watching, and it has close-ups of her that stayed in my mind's eye for weeks. Still, the film is testimony to the fact that in Ozu's world, the cataclysms that result from small human missteps are more interesting to watch than conventional, "big" dramatic contrivances. However skillfully done, it is the latter we find here.
EQUINOX FLOWER (5 stars): Of the five films on offer in this set, EQUINOX FLOWER and THE END OF SUMMER are the two whose pivotal characters are men. Tellingly, these two films also happen to be comedies. Wataru Hirayama (Shin Saburi) is a garrulous, masculine version of the quietly conflicted female characters played by Setsuko Hara in other Ozu films. Hirayama talks a good talk when it comes to encouraging young people to marry for love, but when it comes to his own daughter (Ineko Arima, again), he wants complete control--and sees no contradiction between his words and deeds. It is the perfect set-up for a comedy based on the interaction of those with vastly different assumptions. Ozu's comedies draw from our recognition of universal foibles, and this is one of his best. He makes us see exaggerated versions of ourselves and when we laugh, we are also quietly gaining self-awareness.
LATE AUTUMN (4.5 stars): Superficially, this is a remake of LATE SPRING, with a marriageable daughter reluctant to abandon her widowed mother, Akika (Setsuko Hara)--in the earlier film, the elder parent was a father. Still, the two works have different literary sources, and the shuffling and reshuffling of seemingly minor details is what propels the best of Ozu's work. Yoko Tsukasa, as Aya, the daughter, conveys her filial devotion and her sadness quite skillfully. However, she is not in an enviable position having to play opposite Hara, whose brilliance lies in playing both the surface and the subtext in such a way as to make us think we alone know her true mind. Ozu doesn't completely succeed in turning this "mismatch" to the film's advantage, since the actions of Aya are its lynchpin. What he does instead is pursue a strategy like that of EARLY SPRING. What seems to be a straightforward story about finding a match for a young woman becomes something much more profound--a treatise on how shared bereavement is sometimes more precious than young love.
THE END OF SUMMER (5): Only Ozu could create a delightful family comedy that ends with a shot of crows perching on gravestones. Where is Banpei Kohayagawa, the family patriarch, going when he excuses himself mid-sentence and struts happily out into the street? His family soon learns, to their great consternation, that he has resumed the same affair that had once disrupted their family when their late mother was alive. Michiyo Aratama, as Fumiko (the eldest daughter), turns in one of the great comic performances in all of Ozu. Here's a sample of dialogue. Hisao: "At this point, Father's personality isn't going to change." Fumiko: "I'll yell at him until it does!" This was Ozu's penultimate film, but in its light-hearted depiction of the natural continuum between life and death, it feels like it would have been perfect as his last word.
The late films of Ozu show the director leaning more in the direction of the needs of younger characters, and being more pliable in giving us scenes that are conventionally gratifying. He never panders in this respect, but instead holds out these moments as a loving gift. In the five films of this set, we see several successful examples of women's resistance to male-dominated values; we see a much more expansive definition of "family"; and, we get a great deal more story exposition than we may be used to. Finally, we are privileged to see two things I don't recall in any other Ozu movie: a man getting down on his knees and happily helping with the housework, and a woman, destined to marry, actually dressed in full bridal array at movie's end.
Enjoy these now. If you wait for a perfect restoration of these movies, you may never see them, and that would be tragic.