Themes and Goals
Since the 1960s, Japanese director Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963) has been the object of popular and critical attention by international film scholars and audiences. Ozu is widely considered “the most Japanese” of Japanese directors, but what does “the most Japanese” mean? Do Ozu’s films express the special characteristics of Japanese cinema? If so, what constitutes the cultural specificity of Japanese cinema? Such questions are complicated by the fact that Ozu was an avid consumer of foreign films. The director considered “the most Japanese” was himself steeped in foreign popular culture. In addition to addressing the relationship between Ozu’s body of work and Japanese cinema in general, this unit asks how we might understand his films in relation to global film cultures and international histories of cinema.
This unit explores these and other questions through a close examination of Late Spring (Banshun, 1949), one of Ozu’s best-known films and a critical and popular success at the time of its release. Instructors are encouraged to use the complete film, but an option is also given for showing a single scene that addresses many of the unit’s main themes. The student readings present detailed analyses of the film, Ozu’s work, and Ozu’s place in international cinema studies. The unit also includes discussion questions aimed at helping students understand what the film might tell us about wider questions of “Japaneseness” and Japanese aesthetics.
Audience and Uses
The unit includes a screening of the film Late Spring (either inside or outside of class) and at least one class period of discussion. It can be expanded — through suggested comparative viewings, expanded discussion, and/or lecture—to cover at least two further class periods. The unit can be adapted for either lower level or upper level undergraduate courses in topics such as:
Because academics and critics have so often commented on Ozu’s “Japaneseness” the unit can also be incorporated into courses dealing with nationalism, globalization, and cultural authenticity. As such, it might be used in such courses as:
Ozu Yasujiro: Introduction
Ozu Yasujiro was born on December 12, 1903 in Fukagawa, part of the old downtown (Shitamachi) district of Tokyo. He died on December 12, 1963. Ozu made 54 films (37 films extant) between 1927 and 1962 and started his career at Shochiku Kamata studio, the leading studio producing “modern films” that depicted life in modern, urban, Japanese society. (Shochiku’s films are often characterized as imitations of American films such as the “sophisticated comedies” of Ernst Lubitsch or the crime films of the 1930s). However, the most popular films in Japan in the 1920s-30s were jidaigeki, “period films,” set in pre-1868 Japan. Such period films were detached from the troubled society of interwar Japan, revealing the strict class and feudal systems of the early modern period. Despite Ozu’s early focus on “modern” subjects and his rejection of jidaigeki, he soon earned a reputation (at home and abroad) as “the most Japanese” of Japanese directors, whose films embody Japanese traditional aesthetics. In the 1950s-60s, Ozu’s films were not considered suitable for export and were not released internationally. They were considered too Japanese for foreign audiences. Since the 1960s, when Ozu’s films were introduced to international audiences, film scholars in the US and in Europe have similarly regarded Ozu as the “most Japanese” of Japanese directors and, in general, have argued that Ozu’s films capture and affirm “Japanese tradition” or represent the essence of “Japaneseness.”
The first non-Japanese critics and journalists who saw Ozu’s films tried to understand them by referring to Japanese traditional culture in religious terms. For instance, in one of the first influential books on Ozu published in 1974, Donald Richie explains Ozu’s thematic motif using the traditional aesthetic term “mono no aware,” by which Richie means the transience of things or pathos. In his 1972 book, Paul Schrader similarly sees Ozu as a zen master who made his films based on “transcendental” aesthetics. Influenced also by the auteur theory imported from France, they tended to argue that masters of Japanese cinema, such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Ozu, were able to transparently represent Japanese national character and traditional Japanese aesthetics.
Following the development of film studies as an academic discipline in the United Kingdom and in the United States in the 1970s, film scholars began writing on Japanese cinema from theoretical perspectives. Many of them see Ozu’s films as “very Japanese” in their own ways. For instance, in his 1979 book on Japanese cinema, Noël Burch argues that Ozu draws on Japanese aesthetic traditions in order to challenge what Burch calls the “institutional mode of representation.” Burch regards aspects of Ozu’s film style—such as incorrect eye line matches that may confuse continuity or low-angle camera positions that create a flatness in images—as a refusal of the representational illusionism of the Western bourgeoisie and most particularly of Hollywood codes of realism.
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, who started writing on Ozu in the late 1970s, share Burch’s viewpoint in the sense that they regard Ozu’s films as departures from classical Hollywood continuity narration. They were attracted to Ozu as a test case for a theoretical paradigm they called “parametric style.” For Bordwell and Thompson, the “parametric style” means the presence of particular stylistic features that are not motivated by any story construction; rather, they appear to be dominant structuring devices there for their own sake. Thus, his style exceeds any unitary meaning. Moreover, Bordwell and Thompson argue that Ozu playfully uses non-narrative space, color and props to open up textual space to the free play of meaning. For example, Ozu prefers to include red objects in some spaces of the camera frames. A red kettle or a red label on a bottle of beer do not necessarily signify any specific meaning in the narratives but seem to exist simply as playfully placed objects. According to Bordwell and Thompson, this “parametric” style functions to separate Ozu’s films from the narrational mode of classical Hollywood cinema that demands unitary meaning. One of the problems of this view is a presupposed dichotomy between Hollywood and Japan.
Synopsis: Noriko (Setsuko Hara) happily looks after her father Professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu). In order to encourage Noriko to marry, Somiya and his sister trick Noriko into thinking that her father is going to remarry. Distraught, she agrees to meet a possible husband. Although she likes him, she resents the idea of her father’s remarriage and hates the thought of leaving him. He has to persuade her that she will have a happy marriage if she works at it. At the end of the film, after Noriko’s wedding, Somiya comes back to an empty house and remains alone.
Late Spring was made in 1949. It was the third film Ozu made after he was repatriated to Japan from Singapore at the end of the Pacific War. With its critical and financial success, Late Spring has been considered to be the film that returned Ozu to the status of master filmmaker after a period of relative anonymity in the immediate postwar period. Late Spring is also the first film of the so-called Noriko trilogy (Early Summer and Tokyo Story are the other two), arguably the best known Ozu films. Setsuko Hara plays characters named Noriko in each of the three films.
Among film scholars and critics, Late Spring is particularly known for one particular shot —the shot of a vase that concludes a sequence set in a Kyoto inn toward the end of the film (see “Close Analysis of a Scene” in the screening section below.) In this shot, Father (played by Chisu Ryu) and Noriko reconcile. In addition to the vase shot, Late Spring is filled with such Japanese traditional art forms as noh drama, a rock garden, traditional tea service, etc. In this sense, Late Spring offers a valuable starting point for discussing Ozu’s “Japaneseness.”
*** Most Important
Introductory reading on film terms and concepts:
**Bordwell, David. Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
**Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro. "The Difficulty of Being Radical: The Discipline of Film Studies and the Post Colonial World Order." In Japan in the World, edited by Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. pp. 338-53.
**Hirano, Kyoko. Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema under the American Occupation, 1945-1952. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1992.
***Miyao, Daisuke. "Translator's Introduction." In Yoshida, Kiju's Ozu's Anti-Cinema, trans. Daisuke Miyao and Kyoko Hirano. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. pp. ix-xx.
Brief reading on Japan's modernity and modernization:
**Iida, Yumiko. "Approaching the questions of Japanese identity and nationalism." Rethinking Identity in Modern Japan: Nationalism as Aesthetics. London: Routledge, 2002. pp. 1-24.
Film Screening and Close Analysis of a Scene
Watch Ozu's film Late Spring (one screening session) and discuss the film (at least one session).
Late Spring (Banshun). Directed by Yasujiro, Ozu, 1949. 108 minutes.
Availability: This film is somewhat hard to find, as it has not yet been released on DVD in the US> It is available on VHS through many unviersity libraries. It can also be purchased on DVD as an import from some commerical internet sites, such as Facets Video (www.facets.org) and Ebay.com.
If the instructor does not have time to show the whole film, he or she can use the scene at the Kyoto inn as a basis for discussion. In that case, the instructor needs to summarize the plot of the film, which is listed in the Instructor's Introduction. See the annotations for the student readings below for summaries of interpretations of this scene. Discussion questions for the scene are included in part C of the "Discussion Questions" section below.
The scene begins with Noriko and her father chatting in the bedroom of the Kyoto Inn (the father is smoking) and ends with a shot of Noriko in bed. The shot of the stone garden marks the beginning of the following scene.
Start time (DVD) -- 1:27:25
*** Most Important
***Thompson, Kristin. "Late Spring and Ozu's Unreasonable Style," Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988. pp. 317-52.
**Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. pp. 3-55.
**Yoshida, Kiju. Ozu's Anti-Cinema, translated by Daisuke Miyao and Kyoko Hirano. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. pp. 60-86.
*Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988. pp. 307-11.
*Richie, Donald. Ozu. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. pp. 135-9, 174-6.
Optional Comparative Screening
Tokyo-ga. Directed by Wim Wenders. 1985. 92 minutes.
A: Ozu and the Question of "Japaneseness"
Discuss the following issues surrounding Ozu's status as "the most Japanese":
In this discussion, the instructor should try to:
In Late Spring, Ozu seems to provide a catalog of traditional art forms: noh theater, shots of a rock garden, depictions of traditional tea service, etc. Can we argue that the presence of these things makes Ozu a traditionalist? How do they function in the film?
For instance, Kakitsubata is the play being performed on the noh stage. The scene included in the film shows the protagonist having turned into a flower spirit and insanely remembering a man whom she once loved.
For instance, how did Ozu conceptualize Japan's postwar Americanization in his films?
Discuss this scene (1:27:25 - 1:29:22 on DVD; see screening section above for visual scene markers) in detail. Focus on whether or not the scene articulates the concept of “Japanese tradition” and how it conveys meaning. In this scene, the heroine Noriko and her father retire for the night. The two lie on the futon next to each other. In medium close up, Noriko apologizes for saying the widow was “filthy” for remarrying but her father has already gone to sleep. She looks left and upward, smiling. In a long shot, the camera settles on a vase and a pattern of leafy shadows on a shoji screen. In a medium close up, Noriko, whose smile is gone, turns her head toward the vase and the shoji.
Compare various scholars’ analyses of the scene (see Student Readings) and discuss. Possible questions include: