March 29, 2016

Ozu's Eye: The Transcendence of the Ordinary

The camera lingers, still and quiet, for many seconds, on a simple hanging lamp. A gong sounds.....

....and the view swings outward to women walking down a street. These are the opening scenes of Yasujiro Ozu's 1936 film The Only Son. They tell us that this will be a tale of ordinary people that has large and tragic dimensions:
"Life's tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child."
Ryunosuke Akutagawa, quoted as the epigraph for The Only Son

I haven't watched an Ozu film in a while, so I was again struck by his remarkable sensibility, one that sees the common objects of the world in a way as to make them characters in the drama; they expand our understanding. Ozu demands that we pay close attention to the world he shows us. Several years ago I wrote a post about a beautiful later color film of his, Floating Weeds, which you can read here. The Only Son begins in a provincial town, whose main product is silk; the mother of the story works at spinning silk. These wheels are protagonists, as we see them change over the years into more industrialized machinery.

Ozu uses a very low camera angle, so the figures in the film achieve a monumentality within their everyday lives and stories. We are almost always aware of them as part of an environment, composed in such a way as to emphasize their feelings. The widow O-Tsune has just told her young son, Ryosuke, that she will sacrifice so that he can continue his schooling and become a "great man". His stance, facing away from us, leaning against the wall, shows a deep ambivalence and sadness in leaving his mother.

Years later O-Tsune goes to visit her son in Tokyo, who is living very modestly with a wife and newborn son. She sits in his house, framed by everyday objects and a glamorous image of Marlene Dietrich (?....she and her son go to see a German film within this film). The bowed sadness of O-Tsune is heightened by these surroundings.

 Sometimes with scene changes, Ozu first focuses on industrial objects in the landscape....

....or shows us a mixed scene of industry alongside a house, with plants, and laundry hanging. His fixed camera shows us this shirt blowing in the wind, the pipes and tanks behind it, and soon two figures––those of O-Tsune and Ryosuke––move across the still image, an image of jarring contrasts.

Ozu loves laundry: he returns to this scene several times, and lets the camera linger. What is it about household items hanging outdoors that is so poignant? a metaphor for the tenuous and fleeting nature of life?

Back at home, O-Tsune is a small, elderly worker amid baskets that are like human sentinels, all dwarfed by mute buildings.....

.....and lastly we see, as a symbol of her life, a courtyard leading to a closed gate. Ozu touches deep feelings with reticence, making them all the more touching.


  1. I'll bring popcorn.
    I want to settle into that.
    Just for a while.

  2. I have spent a lot of time in Japan, and studied the culture and history in college. The juxtaposition of modern, industrial, outside culture with the contemplative nature of the culture is its exquisite beauty. One might be in a cacophonous club, dressed to the nines, fashionistas and Sumo wrestlers in yukata all around, and someone will peel an orange, leaving the results set on a small plate, having formed it into the shape of a flower blossoming. Or you might meet a disco queen who is also a master of Tea Ceremony, it is ikebana and neon, all at once and, as such, the highest civilization on Earth

    1. That's wonderful to hear about, Seth, thanks. I'm currently reading The Unknown Craftsman, which gives an idea of the aesthetics, as does the essay In Praise of Shadows.

  3. Here, by the way, is a lovely new house in Nagiita, Japan, linked here:

    1. The house is a beautiful hybrid of Western and Japanese sensibilities.

  4. This post (thank you!)reminded me of a wonderful short video about a Japanese farmhouse--minka--and the beautiful relationship surrounding it. Here is the link: