Few filmmakers outside the avant-garde have developed a personal style as rigorous as Yasujiro Ozu. While his films are in a sense experimental, he worked exclusively in the mainstream Japanese film industry, making extraordinary movies about quite ordinary events. His early films include a ghost story, a thriller, and a period piece, but Ozu is best known and admired for his portraits of everyday family life shot in what one critic has called a most "unreasonable style."
Ozu's early fascination with cinema soon turned into an obsession; as a student he reportedly went to great lengths to skip school and watch movies, usually Hollywood fare. His own filmmaking career began with his entry in 1923 into the newly formed Shochiku Studios, where he worked as an assistant cameraman and an assistant director. He directed his first film in 1927, and over the next four years directed twenty-one more.
The years 1931 to 1940 saw some of his greatest films, and he received the Best Film award from KINEMA JUMPO three consecutive times, for "I Was Born, But..." (1932), "Passing Fancy" (1933) and "A Story of Floating Weeds" (1934). During the war, he directed two relatively successful films before being sent to Singapore to make propaganda pictures. There, he had the opportunity to screen captured prints of American films; later he would comment: "Watching "Fantasia" made me suspect that we were going to lose the war. These guys look like trouble, I thought."
Upon his return to Japan, he directed several unexceptional films before returning to form with "Late Spring" (1949). From this point onward, Ozu scaled down his output to about one film a year, while maintaining the high standards he had set during the thirties.
The most distinctive aspect of Ozu cinema is its self-imposed restraint. The elements of his unique style were in place by the mid-1930s and are deceptively easy to list. They represent a range of "unreasonable" choices, which the director continually refined (or reduced) throughout his career. Ozu's signature feature is his camera placement, which is usually (but not always) close to the ground. Its position is actually proportional: the height can change, as long as it stays lower than the object being shot.
Ozu also developed a curious form of transition, which various critics have labeled "pillow shots" or "curtain shots." Between scenes, he would always place carefully framed shots of the surroundings to signal changes in setting, as well as for less obvious reasons. Basically a hybrid of the cutaway and placing shots, these transitions were considered unusual for extended length; they sometimes seem motivated more by graphic composition and pacing than by the demands of the narrative.
Ozu's most radical departure from classical style was his use of 360-degree space. By convention, Hollywood style dictates that the camera should stay within a 180-degree space to one side of the action. This is to provide proper "screen direction" and a sense of homogenous space. Ozu's camera, on the other hand, orbits around the characters. Furthermore, this 360-degree space is broken down into multiples of 45 degrees, into which the camera angles generally fall. This produces a number of unusual effects, but Ozu's stories are so engrossing that they don't disrupt the story.
One effect of jumping over the 180-degree stage line is that actors facing each other seem to look off in the same direction. Ozu's response to this was to place characters in identical positions between (as well as within) shots. He favored a sitting position with the actor's body "torqued" to face the camera. Frustrated actors found their bodies treated as objects to be carefully manipulated within the frame, their lines to be delivered with a minimum of emotion and movement.
Ozu pushed this "graphic matching" between shots to notorious extremes: it is not unusual to see props such as beer bottles moved across tables or closer to the camera to preserve their size and screen position from shot to shot. Any effects that interfered with composition were cast away; Ozu never used a zoom and only one dissolve (in "Life of an Office Worker," 1929). He also subordinated camera movement to composition; he never used pans because they disturbed his framing. The few Ozu tracking shots were designed to maintain a static composition (by moving along a road with a character, for example). When Ozu began shooting in color (with "Higanbana," 1958), he did away with camera movement altogether.
While Ozu's films are not flashy, they are exceedingly complex. An essay this brief cannot begin to suggest the extent to which all these stylistic features are systematically choreographed. The permutations of form and variation become so minute they are visible only on close, multiple viewings.
The motives for Ozu's style have been the subject of rigorous debate. Because he was thought "too Japanese" for foreigners to accept or understand, for many years his films were not exported. When critics in the West finally discovered his work, his "unreasonable style" was usually explained in thematic, anthropomorphic and even religious terms. His low camera, for example, was described as the point of view of a child, a dog, a god or a person sitting Japanese style. Some critics attempted to explain the Ozu style through questionable comparisons to Zen Buddhism. Marxist critic Noel Burch, on the other hand, felt Ozu exemplified a rejection of Hollywood style and its ideological baggage. To date, the most convincing explanation has been offered by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, who suggest that in Ozu's cinema questions of style may be detached from theme and narrative. Ozu's films feature a playful, overt narration in which stylistic features do not have to mean anything and can be appreciated for their own sake.
Despite their restraint, Ozu's films, with their families in the throes of marriage and death, are among the most touching of melodramas. As important and influential as Ozu was, no other filmmaker has ever adopted his style, leaving his 53 films quite unique in the history of cinema. Ironically, the influence of Ozu's visual style may be more readily noticeable in a number of non-Japanese filmmakers, including Wayne Wang, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, who called Ozu's films "a sacred treasure of the cinema."