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Peeling an Orange and a Sentimental look at Yasujiro Ozu by Sharad Raj

 


Chishū Riyũ in Late Spring(1949)


“If I go to lonely island with only one film it would still be Tokyo Story”, Aki Kaurismaki

 

“Ozu is my only master,” Wim Wenders

 

From academics like David Bordwell, Noel Burch, Tadao Sato to modern masters and makers like me we all doff our hats to the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu. His mastery can neither be disputed nor can I add anything more than what has been written and studied about him already. Neither am I competent to do that. Hence this is a very personal homage to Ozu.

 

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the surrender of Japan may have ended the war on Spetember2, 1945 but it was not the end of time. In fact, the beginning of a new era; a new temporality. Japanese society that had started to adopt western ideas since the Meiji Restoration period of the 19th century was stunned and devastated by the American bombings and started to rebuild a “new Japan”, almost immediately. Remanent of feudal agencies were soon converted into wage-labor-production equation, ushering a period of industrialization, urbanization and accompanying westernization, making Japan the second largest economy after the United States until China took over. And now Germany in 2023.

 

The cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, the greatest Japanese filmmaker, in my view also embarked on a new course. Pre-war Ozu films were hugely inspired by American films but all that was to change.

 

Historical processes took over human lives and societies, and most importantly families. The war may have ended but what started was disintegration of another sort, that of family units with migration becoming the cornerstone of urban development. Closely after 1945, was Indian independence in 1947, and an impoverished India too started the process of rebuilding, industrialization, and thereby westernization. There in lies the similarity between these two Asian countries and why Ozu resonates with us so much. Machines and technology were not the only imports from the west, whether it was Japan or India or any post-colonial and post-war country for that matter.


YouTube link of Late Spring


The imperialists may have left their colonies but were waiting for time and history to allow them to re-enter former colonies and feudal societies like Japan in another form, much like the ‘old wine in a new bottle’. History was simply bidding time before it would allow the tentacles of imperialism to spread in the form of global Capitalism.

 

These changes had consequences. And Ozu’s films are a testimony to that. Rapid industrialization, urbanization and the disintegration of the Japanese family became Ozu’s world. The new was replacing the old and ushering in changes and alterations in traditional structures. Isolation, alienation, and loneliness permeated economic growth. The nature of that growth notwithstanding. As Shukichi Hirayama (Chishû Riyû) says in Ozu’s timeless masterpiece, Tokyo Story (1953), “Children don’t live up to their parents’ expectations. Let’s just be happy that they’re better than most.”

 

Tokyo Story is a moving testament of the changes post-war Japanese society was going through as a result of urbanization.        

 


Chieko Higashiyama & Setsuko Hara in Tokyo Story(1953)


That Ozu’s films and their families were a microcosm of Japanese society is common knowledge and almost all of them were family dramas, but his form, his ‘Japaneseness’, his rigor or ‘riyaaz’ of his form and last but not the least his transcendental world view so beautifully aesthetized by Paul Schrader is what made Yasujiro Ozu a master film artist.

 

YouTube link of Tokyo Story


Steeped in Japanese culture Ozu created a world of his own in his films, that was not merely  a realistic depiction of the world he lived in but his subjective perception of the changing world around him. The question is what can we do about change? Nothing perhaps, so how does one cope with it and all that accompanies change, good or bad? Transcend? As Paul Schrader writes in his now famous book Transcendental Styles in Cinema-Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu. Ozu in his films transcends a crisis or a situation and doesn’t resolve it as is the case in classical Aristotelian analytic-dramatic narrative. Aesthetics apart it makes one ponder on the complex journey of life as we traverse it during our physical existence on earth.

 

For me personally Ozu is way beyond his art and formal rigor. A lot closer to my heart due to the insight into life that he and his art, provides through his characters and shows me the path to live life. Not that form is separate from his world view, his mise-en-scene completely in service of it and inextricably linked to it, still at least this humble homage to him is more about the spirit of Ozu and his films.

 

As it happens to some of us, a realization dawns with the passage of time that we are mere specs in the universe and a small part of the historical processes that govern our lives, whether they are social, cultural, or political. It all boils down to just peeling an orange in the end (Late Spring, 1949)! Doesn’t it? As it is demonstrated in this brilliant dialogue sequence from Tokyo Story between Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and Koyoko (Koyoko Kagawa) towards the end of the film just as the widowed daughter-in-law Noriko is to leave for Tokyo after attending the last rites of her mother-in-law:

 

 

            Koyoko: [after the rest of the family had left]

             I think they should have stayed a bit longer.

            Noriko:  But they're busy.

Koyoko: They're selfish. Demanding things and leaving like this.

            Noriko: They have their own affairs.

            Koyoko: But you have yours too. They're selfish.

Noriko: But Kyoko...

Koyoko: Wanting her clothes right after her death. I felt so sorry for poor mother. Even strangers would have been more considerate!

            Noriko: But look Kyoko. At your age I thought so too.

            But children do drift away from their parents. A woman has her own life,    

            apart from her parents, when she becomes Shige's age.

            She meant no harm I'm sure. They have to look after their own lives.

Koyoko: I wonder: I won't ever be like that. Then what's the point of family?

Noriko: But children become like that, gradually.

Koyoko: Then... you, too?

Noriko: I may become like that in spite of myself.

Koyoko: Isn't life disappointing?

Noriko: Yes, it is.

 

Life is indeed disappointing; it seldom turns out to be as we propose that it should. Transcendence perhaps is the only way to cope with the inevitability of whatever happens to our lives. Much like Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and Shūkichi (Chishū Riyū) in Tokyo Story or the father once again presented by Chishū Riyū in Late Spring. Transcendence may be connected to our material condition, but it is our spiritual response to it. Ozu being a Zen follower believed in the material and achieving transcendence withing the material world, hence such emphasis on the physicality of the settings in his films.

 

Osho in India in his interpretation of Zen considers living a transcendental life amidst one’s material existence as a truly spiritual act as opposed to going to the mountains away from the life of a householder, which Osho calls escapist spirituality. Similarly, in Ozu’s films we find characters very much living day to day life yet moving towards a sense of detachment as they traverse life.

 

As Schrader says catharsis is not something Ozu aspires for, hence that stoic answer from Noriko in the end of the movie, “yes, it is,” in Tokyo Story. Schrader refers to the Japanese art of Ikebana and argues that it is absence that gives form to whatever is present, drawing an analogy with the fingers of human hand he says that they get their shape from the empty spaces between them. This, Schrader uses to explain elliptical narrative in Ozu’s cinema: the gaps in them that gives form to Ozu’s narrative structure; and of course, the absence of people: the married daughter, the dead son, or a dead parent. It is here that Ozu impacts the most.




Chishū Riyū & Kōyoko Kshida in Autumn Afternoon(1962)

 

There are tons of family dramas in his oeuvre, but one can never have enough of them, us such is the universality of familial life and experiences in Ozu’s films. The inevitability of life as it happens, something that even a revolution cannot stop. An inherent lacuna in all material philosophies, regardless of the hue they belong to is that they cannot usher change beyond the material. A very important aspect of human life is beyond the realm of scientific materialism. Not to say that it is not important, it very much is, to counter forces of oppression and have a healthy life but may not be enough and the only coordinate of life. It is for this that Andrei Tarkovsky calls for a spiritual revolution. We all reach a dead end. You could be in the best hospital of the world but one day the doctor will say it is over and nothing can be done.

 

Have we been able to stop war? No.

 

Children get married, parents pass away, we practice a vocation, it all carries on like an unending saga in which you play your part and leave the stage. And the cycle will continue. Cyclical is how most easter cultures see life as. Somethings alter, most don’t, and we carry on. Afterall what altered after the mother dies in Tokyo Story or the daughter is married off in Autumn Afternoon or Late Spring? Nothing. So may as well peel an orange. When one sees Ozu at a younger age one is awed by his form and starts to dig deep into the cinematic world of the master. As life happens and one progresses in age one realizes the much deeper significance of Yasujiro Ozu. The permanence of impermanence. And our status as either bystander or visitors.

 

The most telling moment of my life in which I realized the importance of Ozu was when my father told me that all he could see was an angiogram screen that only showed blockages in my heart, and he therefore told the doctor that if my life is going to be impaired in anyway then I should not be saved. I imagined a doting father looking at his son’s angiogram and accepting the inevitable. A moment of transcendence he had attained by becoming accepting of the impending grief. It was much the same when I was at his bedside in his last moments and the doctors said, “the end is near.” We held him, looked at him and waited for him to breathe his last. It is not just death but most things in life that are beyond our control. We either just wait for them or allow them to happen. As Michel says in Robert Bresson’s (another transcendental film artist, according to Paul Schrader) Pickpocket (1959), “It’s all over. There is no turning back now.”

 

This realization is the biggest take away from the art of Yasujiro Ozu. Sadly, one has reached this stage of realization only, so far, and far away from peeling an orange, yet!















Sharad Raj is a Mumbai based independent filmmaker & Senior Faculty at Whistling Woods International and the Editor of Just Cinema.

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