According to Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu made films of “dignified severity”. He meant it as a criticism. In terms of the films they gave us, the two men could hardly have been more different: you certainly couldn’t confuse the horse chase sequence in ‘The Hidden Fortress’ or the titular ‘Seven Samurai’ running through the tall grass to save the villagers (both conveying an urgency and a sense of speed) with the famous stillness found in Ozu’s work. The most famous examples of his work are slow, small-scale family dramas like ‘Early Spring’ and ‘Tokyo Story’ (though, as Tony Rayns points out in last month’s Sight and Sound, he made many other types of film in his long and prolific career at Shochiku).
Yet Ozu’s films are no less compelling than Kurosawa’s. They delight with their attention to detail. In Ozu’s films, pauses are emphasised, shots linger, often with the camera close to the ground or looking in at the “action” from another room. External shots of trains going by are a common occurrence and seem simply to mark the passing of time and require patience. They are formal, beautiful and poignant: emotional, yet never mawkish or sentimental. Ozu never had wife or family of his own, yet he told stories about families which speak a universal truth, such as when the well-meaning elderly couple of ‘Tokyo Story’ find themselves to be an unwelcome inconvenience when visiting their (now grown up) children, who have jobs to attend to and children of their own to raise. None of the people in these stories are wrong or bad: they just are.
I am writing about Ozu because there has been a lot of attention paid to his work recently. This has partly been due to the fact that this month sees a programme of Ozu films playing at the BFI Southbank (until February 27th) and partly because similarities between Ozu’s work and that of Hirokazu Kore-eda are being drawn in reviews of his new film ‘Still Walking’ (Sight & Sound’s Film of the Month for February). Noted film historian David Thomson has also seen fit to contribute a snobby and pompous article about Ozu versus ‘Avatar’ for the Guardian newspaper. But the piece that caught my attention was a tribute paid to the great man by Mark Cousins during BBC Radio 4’s Film Programme. During the programme, Cousins described not only his appreciation for Ozu, but also his experience visiting Ozu’s grave recently. He describes how the man he sees as the “centre of film history” is represented by a tombstone without a name or any dates, but simply the Chinese character “Mu” which he translates as “emptiness” or “the void”, but which can also be read as “the space between all things”. "Dignified severity" indeed.
Surrounded by tributes of alcohol (like Kurosawa, Ozu was a notorious alcoholic) this grave is somehow the ultimate monument to a man whose films faced the facts of human existence, however apparently bleak, without any need to sugar coat them. He didn’t even want to romanticise his own passing from this Earth. That takes a special kind of dedication to the “truth” so often talked about by artists. Yet Ozu was not a pretentious artist. He was a company man. He was loyal to one studio his whole life and made a great many films (from the silent-era onwards) as a hired gun. He was disciplined and demanding, a perfectionist, but not at the expense of his humility. And whilst his films are not sentimental, they are not without sentiment (‘Tokyo Story’, for one, is a real tear jerker). He was, for me, a real humanist with a deep understanding of, and affection for, life’s smaller moments. He is survived by his films and not by a piece of stone.
Apparently Mark Cousins visit to the grave was made as part of an upcoming documentary on Ozu’s life and work. I, for one, look forward to a closer look at this fascinating 20th century artist if and when it is released. I will keep an eye out.