Family Crisis in Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Three Melodramas’

During his prolific career, the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, who died in 1963, largely rejected the traditional stylistic conventions of an internationally-dominant Hollywood system, despite often expressing great admiration for Western cinema; instead, he pioneered a beautiful, unique style of mannered formality, static camerawork, symbolic cutaways and unusual scene transitions. In the process, he also built up a fine body of gentle, poetic work that would subsequently influence many highly-regarded film directors, among them Mike Leigh, Abbas Kiarostami, Wim Wenders and Paul Schrader.

Whilst Ozu’s thoughtful and unconventional techniques are certainly present throughout this handsome three-film DVD set from the BFI, what is interesting about these particular titles – Tokyo Twilight, Woman of Tokyo and Early Spring – is that of all the films in Ozu’s oeuvre, they represent a form of hybridity: each one, atypically for the director, contains elements of conventional narrative storytelling, which appear here in addition to Ozu’s famously unorthodox approach to filmmaking (the latter including characters breaking the fourth wall and looking directly at the audience, the jettisoning of a standard accepted practice that ensures the camera doesn’t ‘cross the line’, and the utilisation of long, still shots containing little movement).

For this reason, the trilogy presented here has been categorised as Ozu’s series of ‘melodramas’ – simply, unlike most of his work, these films are fairly explicit in their displays of overt drama; Ozu relies less on abstraction than usual, and less on the emotional distance he often encouraged between protagonist and viewer (in this context, I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s interesting but flawed Bergmanesque experiment Interiors (1978), which is a similar example of a major director allowing characters to seethe and simmer beneath a controlled veneer, without relying on sensationalism and histrionics to propel the action).

The first of the three films is 1933’s silent short Woman of Tokyo. This impeccably shot drama — made at a time when Ozu was best known for frivolous comedies — centres on Chikako (Yoshiko Okada), a woman who works as a prostitute in order to fund her brother Ryoichi’s studies, something Ryoichi is oblivious to. Upon learning of his sister’s source of income, the film becomes a fascinating, moving and violent study of the dilemma instigated by Chikako’s conflicting moral actions: her altruism, sacrifice and prostitution. In addition to being the first of Ozu’s films to feature his unusual and abstract cutaways, the version on this DVD release features a specially commissioned (and optional) new score by Ed Hughes.

Early Spring (1956)

The second is 1956’s Early Spring, which features the fortunes of Shoji, a young salaried worker who becomes so disillusioned with his mundane job and wife that he embarks on an affair with the office flirt. Whilst Early Spring encompasses familial drama and the fragility of relationships (in line with Ozu’s common theme of examining the dissolution of a family unit), the film once again contains a strong vein of melodrama, including suicide and adultery. Despite the fact that Ozu was keen to use Early Spring to further establish a style of filmmaking whereby – in his words – “nothing at all happens”, commercial considerations and pressure from the Shochiku Studio dictated that he compete with the big dramas being produced in the USA, and the resulting combination of quasi-Hollywood thematics and Ozu’s subtle and suggestive directorial style is fascinating.

The final film is 1957’s Tokyo Twilight, Ozu’s last in black and white and perhaps his bleakest too. Family drama is at the core of the film’s dark narrative, with affairs, pregnancy, abortion and parental dysfunction all represented. Interestingly, Tokyo Twilight features Ozu’s trademark ellipses – a portion of narrative removed, allowing the viewer the space to piece together the missing segment and make sense of the action subjectively afterwards. Whilst ellipses are not an uncommon feature in fiction, Ozu’s ellipses often bravely excise important plot information rather than peripheral detail, and here is no exception.

Tokyo Twilight (1957)

In the half a century or so since Ozu’s death, the language of cinema has changed immeasurably; only a few active directors of Ozu’s calibre would be artistically bold enough to allow a film’s narrative to unfold so gently, utilising such unobtrusive techniques. Many of today’s filmgoers – particularly those used to the rapid pacing of modern cinema – will perhaps find Ozu’s films rather studious and uninvolving, but his exquisite ‘style of restraint’ is both thoughtful and intellectually satisfying.

Watching an Ozu film can be akin to viewing a beautiful tableau (even if this collection sees his actors tackling more dramatic and darker subjects than usual): his characters here still move sparsely within the architecture of a shot, yet visually the films remain gorgeous too, the crisp black and white cinematography recalling the finest of film noir, albeit transposed to a Japanese setting. Perhaps most importantly, Ozu rarely moralises, but rather observes; his unique style of film grammar allows the viewer to interpret and speculate upon the characters’ motivations and emotions, often leaving room for ambiguity and implication. A director such as this — who would never deem to patronise his audience, even when dabbling in Western melodrama — deserves to be cherished.

The extras accompanying this highly recommended DVD set include the aforementioned optional musical score to Woman of Tokyo, and a comprehensive booklet with articles and short essays about each film.

RATING 9 / 10