Previewing Sacred Cinema: A Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective

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“If there is one thing in Ozu criticism that has always bothered me,” the critic Bill White begins, “it’s the allegation that he shoots from a low angle. This is simply not true.”

Ozu’s angles, low or not, will be on display over 36 nights this winter. From February 3 to March 10, Northwest Film Forum in Seattle’s Capitol Hill presents “Sacred Cinema,” a major retrospective of some 27 films by the Japanese writer-director Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963). The movies being shown span a thirty-two year period in Ozu’s filmography. At least three of them have never before been screened theatrically in these parts, and as if Seattle premieres weren’t reason enough to attend, take note that only a handful of Ozu works are commercially available on VHS and DVD.

But to return for a moment to the Seattle PI’s Bill White, whom I’ve interrupted in the midst of a valid point: “The elevation of Ozu’s camera is lower than a Westerner would have it because the furnishings of the Japanese household are set at a lower level that those of the Westerner. Were you to shoot a Japanese family at their table at the same elevation as an American family, you would only get the tops of their heads. This is so obvious, yet critics and scholars continue to go on about the low angle camera. There is no low angle! Ozu shoots straight on, with the characters in perfect composition from head to toe.”

And indeed, Ozu’s compositions can be as surprising as they are beautiful. The 1947 Record of a Tenement Gentleman (besides having an ambiguous Local Hero-like title that applies to no one in particular) opens on the exterior of a house after dark, an image accompanied by a ticking clock we never see. A middle-aged man invokes the moon in a passionate speech directed at a listener whom the camera refuses to reveal. It’s a break-up speech, and the man expresses sorrow to his loved one for “…stabbing you in the back.” A neighbor drops in, catching the speaker up short: he’d been talking to himself, and not rehearsing a speech to give, but reliving one given an indefinite age ago. In an earlier work, the 1936 The Only Son, an educated young man of thwarted ambitions (he tutors night school students in geometry) spies a flashing neon letter “B” framed outside his classroom window. The sight of it doubly torments him: the fluorescent “B” stands for the night life his teaching demands won’t let him enjoy, just as its persistent shining reinforces his own status as somewhat less than an “A.”

The Ozu retrospective marks “an extremely rare opportunity to see these films,” states Jaime Keeling, the program director at Northwest Film Forum. Figuring Ozu as “kind of the last frontier of the great cinematic masters,” Keeling continues: “His films didn’t appear in the U.S. until the 1970s and, of course, only on the art house circuit in major cities. I’m really excited about watching these films on the big screen because they do something I think most viewers, especially Americans, will be surprised a film can do—that is, to transcend cinema. I think people will become hooked on these movies.”

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Ozu’s primary subject as a filmmaker was how families change over time: children marry; parents grow old and face life alone. The critic John Simon called Ozu, “the most haunting filmmaker I know.” “He insinuates himself ever deeper into our consciousness,” Simon wrote in 1973, “touching us a little here, amusing us a little there, making us face up to ourselves everywhere.”

Perhaps no better example of Ozu’s gentle lacerations into the familial psyche can be found than 1953’s Tokyo Story (February 4-9). Widely regarded as the director’s greatest achievement, Tokyo Story tracks an elderly, out-of-town couple who are unwanted guests in the homes of their self-centered adult children. The climactic scenes, which involve a sympathetic daughter-in-law named Noriko, played by the beautiful Setsuko Hara, are as poignantly and masterfully acted as anything in movie history.

tokyoComments Bill White: “One of the many things that draw me into Setsuko Hara is a smile that conceals an otherwise unbearable sorrow. She is one of the very few actresses in the whole of cinema whom I have fallen in love with. And that love, for me, is the entrance into Ozu’s world. The viewer who loves Noriko will have feeling for all the characters of Tokyo Story.”

Although disintegrating families dominate, there are yet a few curves in his canon. “Early in Ozu’s career,” Keeling recalls, “he was highly influenced by American cinema and he made a few gangster/noir genre flicks, which will surprise those accustomed to Ozu’s later work. My favorite of these rare gems is the silent film That Night’s Wife from 1930.”

Ozu’s silent films (he kept on making them long after Al Jolson warbled “Mammy” on-screen in 1927) play a major role in “Sacred Cinema.” Keeling has programmed ten Ozu silents, and each one will feature the world premiere of an original score commissioned from some of Seattle’s most musically adventurous denizens. Indie rocker John Atkins (formerly of 764-HERO) will perform at the February 13 screening of 1933’s gun-moll fantasy Dragnet Girl. Also creating soundtracks will be Wayne Horvitz, the Aono Jikken Ensemble, and the koto and cello duo of Elizabeth Falconer and Lori Goldston, among others. Notes Keeling: “All of these musicians have their own styles, and we’ve given them complete artistic freedom. Plus, we’ll record the scores live so that they can be played to future screenings of the silent films, maybe even included on a future DVD release.”

lovedKoto master Elizabeth Falconer resided in Japan for 12 years. “Watching Ozu films is like stepping into Japan again,” she muses. “Even though the movies were made decades ago, the essences of so many important cultural elements are there. Restraint, the frustration of working within a fairly rigid society, the obsession with being ‘modern.’ And yet these qualities are so warmly depicted. They make me feel nostalgia for a Japan I didn’t know firsthand, but is still as much a part of Japanese society as the Wild West is to American society’s thinking.”

Falconer and cellist Lori Goldston will open the Ozu series on February 3 with the comedy I Was Born, But… and close it on March 10 with Passing Fancy. I asked them how they approach composing scores for significantly older films, especially ones in which they aren’t collaborating with the filmmaker in quite the usual sense.

Falconer: “This is the kind of thing that evolves and evolves, because there are so many ideas to work with. My instrument is old, and for Japanese listeners, it sounds like the past, even if I’m playing something contemporary. I try to incorporate a style similar to music that was being played around the time of the films…I think we try to match the ‘mood’ of the scenes, the overall feeling of the film.”

Goldston: “With silent films, I generally try to follow the narrative in a broad way, as opposed to following each little twist and turn. I always try to remain at the service of the film, and not fight with or upstage it. Ozu’s films have a simplicity and clarity to them that’s nice to work with, and also a delicate quality that makes it a little tricky…even with accompaniment, the pace and visual language of silent films are often challenging to modern audiences.”

Falconer: “Since there’s no dialogue ‘distraction’ for the viewer, the music can play a more noticeable role. Lori and I want to support the film in this way—but also let the film speak for itself. My husband John, who plays shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and I will be improvising for A Mother Should Be Loved (February 27). We requested this movie sight unseen, based on the title and description. I think it fitting that a mom and dad should play together for this one.”

Speaking of “sight unseen,” how much of Ozu studies should the casual moviegoer invest in? Should reading the tomes of Ozu historian Donald Ritchie be a prerequisite to watching these movies? Absolutely not, argues Bill White.

“I think it best for people to discover the filmmaker’s world for themselves. Watching your first Ozu film is like walking into a stranger’s house. When you leave, maybe you know something about the people in that house that you didn’t know before. You don’t need someone else to tell you what you may find there. So much critical baggage comes with the great directors that first time viewers may have trouble seeing the films through their own eyes.” – NPT

This article originally appeared in the Vashon Ticket, January 2005.

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