I always tell people that I don’t make anything besides tofu and that is because I am strictly a tofu-dealer.
– Yasujiro Ozu
In the book Ozu, Donald Richie examines Yasujiro Ozu’s films by following the common steps for constructing a film: the script, shooting, and editing. Of the three elements, Ozu places primary importance in the script, where every action and mise-en-scene is meticulously storyboarded, and dialogue is precisely composed with no room for improvisation.
A distinctive style in Ozu’s films is the relative autonomy of individual scenes. Ozu approached the script as a series of episodic modules that may be rearranged and interchanged to suit the themes that he wanted to convey and to maintain the pace of the film. Hence, commonality of events are often found among Ozu’s films: a parent encouraging a child to marry; children showing discourtesy to their parents; an older man is unable to cope with his retirement. Although Ozu’s films are reserved and “formal” (Richie uses the Japanese word, enryo), his approach was hardly formalistic. Richie amusingly describes Ozu’s screenwriting retreats with longtime collaborator, Kogo Noda:
Their method of work was always the same: to go someplace and stay up late drinking until the ideas began to come.
In fact, Ozu and Noda often judged the success of their script by the amount of alcohol they had consumed during its creation. An entry in Noda’s diary punctuates the completion of the script for Tokyo Story as: “Finished, 103 days; 43 bottles of sake.”
Ozu’s precision in script writing does not extend to his shooting philosophy. Richie notes that Ozu often sacrificed continuity in favor of composition, rearranging furniture and props in between takes in order to achieve the desired image. In Tokyo Story, a close inspection of the aging couple sitting on a sea wall at Atami actually reveals that they have exchanged places in between shots.
Richie briefly postulates on Ozu’s stationary, low camera as a familiar Japanese viewpoint when seated from a tatami, and suggests that the distinctive position is conducive to reflection. Richie also compares Ozu’s approach to acting to the rigorous style of Robert Bresson. Specifically, Ozu did not subscribe to method acting, and expected his actors to deliver their lines without emoting. On Ozu’s instructions for There Was a Father, Chisyu Ryu remarked:
Ozu told me to stare at the end of my chopsticks and then stare at my hand and then speak to my child. The simple act of doing these things in that order conveyed a certain feeling. Ozu did not explain the feeling; the actions came first. He told me what to do and let me discover the feeling.
Ozu did not rely on editing in order to stylize or shape the final course of the completed film. Rather, Ozu faithfully followed the script and filmed the scenes in sequence. There are few extraneous scenes shot during the course of filming. His use of “pillow images” (shots of nature or the characters’ surroundings) and extended shots of inanimate objects are not used in order to camouflage discrepancies in continuity, but to reinforce the statis and “even” tone of the film.
Donald Richie presents a fascinating, sincere, and reverent portrait of Yasujiro Ozu, often called the “most Japanese director”. By characterizing Ozu’s style as a reflection of Japanese ideals, Richie refutes the stigma of being “old fashioned” often associated with his films. Rather, Ozu’s films achieve a higher level of human understanding and inner peace – an enlightenment beyond the mundane inner workings of existence – a state of transcendence.
Acquarello, 2001 [reprinted]