Monday, October 10, 2011

On the Retrospective Yasujiro Ozu, 2003 in Berlin






To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest masters of cinema Yasujiro Ozu, the Berlin Filmfestival screened 8 of his films. For those who live in Berlin, it was just the appetizer because the cinema “Arsenal” presented after the Filmfestival the complete survived work until end of March.
The International Forum participated with 4 films, “I was born, but...” (Umarate wa mita keredo, 1932), “The Story of floating Weed” (Ukigusa monogatari, 1934) (two silent films with live music performed by Mrs. Eunice Martin on piano) one of his most famous films “Late Spring” (Banshun, 1949) and my absolutely favourite one “Early Summer” (Bakushu, 1951). The Retrospective screened three films, “Early Spring” (Soshun, 1956),  “Equinox Flower” (Higanbana, 1958) and “Good Morning” (Ohayo, 1959). The Panorama participated with “Late Autumn” (Akibiyori, 1960) and his most famous masterpiece “Tokyo Story” (Tokyo monogatari, 1953) got even a Gala screening at the Berlinale Palast introduced by Wim Wenders. For me as a real fanatic admirer of Ozus work -  it was the paradise. The production company of Ozu, the Shochiku Ltd. made new prints. Unfortunately, I was not very satisfied with the new prints. There are still worries about the condition of the film negatives. Some of Ozus films don't even have an original negative any more. Some prints are made from inter negatives.
Some screenings of films by Ozu were completely sold out. As much I feel sorry for the people who don't live in Berlin, New York, Hongkong or other cities (where the retrospective with all 36 survived films will take place). I appreciated the 8 films as a good gesture. And films by Ozu among new films from all parts of the world provoke always interesting comparisons. These films are still very fresh and they confirm again Ozus leading role in the history of modern cinema. I appreciated as well that all silent films by Ozu were screened with life music (Eunice Martin played the music for all his silent films). It emphasized the freshness of the young Ozu. 
A special round table discussion between Ulrich Gregor (the former director of The International Forum of Young Cinema), Mariann Lewinsky (a swiss author who wrote a book about early Japanese cinema), Gertrud Koch, a filmprofessor in Berlin and the japanese director Yoji Yamada (whose film “Twilight Samurai” was in the competition) took place at the Berlin Filmmuseum.
By the way -  I would like to express a shy wish for the Berlin Filmfestival 2005: A homage to the 80th. birthday of another great master from Asia, the Bengal filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak!

2.

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) - The Poet of Everyday life

For 20 years, the work of Yasujiro Ozu has inspired and enriched my life but also my love for cinema. I have seen every film and fragment by him which has survived. But as much I have read about his work - I always come back to his films. Ozu remains for me a phenomenon. Some of his films I saw again and again - and I admire them like I did at the first time.
They say his films are the simplest which are ever made. I am not sure if simplicity is the right expression because these films tell so much about ordinary people in the Twentieth century and about every facet of human behavior.
They say Ozus theme is the Japanese family and its disolution. That may be true but it is a commonplace because his films tell as well about:
the changes in relationships between man and woman or children and parents, the weakening of the father as an authority, the increasing self-consciousness of young woman, the changes in Japan between 1927 and 1962; contradictions between westernized fashions, architecture, life style and traditional japanese culture - but also about the most important -  life and death.

When I first discovered the films by Ozu, I was still a young cinephile who knew very few about japanese films. At this time I lived in two different worlds. I earned my living as a factory worker. My social roots are one of these typical coal miner families which you could find in the biggest industry region in the west of Germany called “Ruhrgebiet”. On the other hand I was still obsessed  in cinema as another wonderful world  - an opposition to my boring every day life. Ozu brought these worlds together. It was the first time in my life that someone dealt exactly with this kind of life I wanted escape from.
At first, these films were for me the recognition of the world I lived in. His families may be specific japanese but I recognized a lot from my own one.
Ozus families are a warm institution where its members shall be protected against the coldness of an anonymous society - but on the other hand - they are as well a mirror of a whole society´s oppression and contradictions.

At first, Ozu was a pioneer with an ability to transform influences from American cinema into his own personal style in a breathtaking short time.
Between 1927 and 1930, he made gangster films, melodramas and nonsense comedies inspired by early Hollywood cinema he admired so much. Like a lot of young japanese intellectuals, he applauded these new influences from the west. A normal reaction of people whose country was isolated for centuries. 
At the beginning of the Thirties, Ozu was among other great talents like Mikio Naruse, Hiroshi Shimizu or the old master Yasujiro Shimazu involved in a new cinematographically current called “shomingeki-film”. The shomingeki (what means “films about ordinary people” began as a genre of the industry but Ozu and his colleagues used it for their ideas about a new realism in cinema. They wanted to avoid the stereotypes of early japanese cinema and their intention was to create realistic images of women and men in their every day life. In all respects - I consider this "shomingeki"-movement as the most sucessfull realism movement in the history of cinema. But more interesting is the fact that the "shomingeki" is not rooted in any ideology like the Italian Neorealism (which was often compared with the much older japanese shomingeki-realism). The "shomingeki" film was even more radical in its avoiding of dramatisation and much more successful in aspects like the relationship between man and woman.

A second aspect was Ozus intelligence to transform new foreign influences into his own system of signs. “Tokyo Chorus” (Tokyo no gassho, 1931) is for my side, his first "shomingeki". It is about a young employless office worker and how this social problem affects a whole family. But like his following films “I was born, but...” (Umarate wamita keredo, 1932) and “Where are now the dreams of our youth” (Seishun no yume imaizuko, 1932), these films are as well brilliant comedies about social injustice. 1933 was a remarkable year in Ozus career. He made three excellent films with “Passing Fancy” (Dekigokoro), the most beautyful of his social comedies, his finest gangster film “Dragnet Girl” (Hijosen no onna) and “Woman of Tokyo” (Tokyo no onna) which seems to be an almost prophetic work about the formal perfection of his postwar films. In this one year, I see three different lines in Ozus development: his sensitiveness for his characters and their social environment, his Godard-like passion for experimenting with genre patterns and his talent to create a cinema with own rules. Six years after he began to make films - Ozus work has already an enormous richness. My personal favorites from the Thirties are “An Inn in Tokyo” (Tokyo no yado, 1935) his last silent film and “The only Son” (Hitori musuko, 1936) his first sound film. Both films are incredible sad. Their images about social life in Japan is very pessimistic. Made in a time when Japan became the biggest military power in Asia and when the japanese nationalism was increasing - these images about social reality were obviously not conform with the dominating political ideology. What I know about the militarisation of Japan at that time and what I see from the poverty in some films by Ozu (and other directors of that time) - is for me a contrast. The fact that films about ordinary life were not very “useful” for a country which was still preparing the war proofs again that the "shomingeki" film has some elements of natural resistance against ideologies.  Ozu made only three films between 1937 and the end of the war. Even though handicapped by censorship (several projects were refused), Ozu didn´t make propaganda films.
In his last film “An Autumn Afternoon” (Samma no aji, 1962) a character played by Chishu Ryu will say: “ It is good that Japan lost the war, isn't it.”
When his first postwar films “Record of a tenement Gentlemen (Nagaya shin shi roku, 1947) and “Like a Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, 1848) presented in a clear way the results of the war with all its material, social and psychological destruction, evokes in me the feeling that always the same people are paying for the war - in what country ever. The end of war meant for Ozu as well to continue with his films about non-pathetic everyday life.
And he continued - now with full artistic freedom and without being bothered by censors - with one of his most beautiful films “Late Spring” (Banshun, 1949). From now on he will focus on the family.
But for me - here begins a paradoxon.
In all these films he made until his death, he was reducing his cinematographically elements: using only simple cuts without any fade; very few and later even no camera movement; always using the same objective (50 mm); often the same location, the same factory and mostly very likely plots.
They called him a “minimalist”.
But how he was able to create such deep insights into the human characters, their hopes, their longings - remains for me one of the great mysteries of cinema. After reading so much theoretical and formal excursions about his work - I didn´t find all the important answers I was looking for.
Probably these answers can be only found in ourselves. When I saw some films by Ozu several times in different periods of my life, my point of view changed. The mother´s death in “Tokyo Story” (Tokyo monogatari, 1953) touched me at the first time through its authentic kind. I knew that it can happen: the telephone is ringing and you are told that a person close to you is seriously ill or has passed away. It begins with a shock and you need some time for realising what happened. After my mother´s death, I saw this film from a different perspective. Now the film is not telling any more what I can imagine - it tells for me a truth which I can proof with my own life experience.

Every moment in a film by Yasujiro Ozu is ordinary, non-dramatically but what it evokes in ourselves is extraordinary. And what means “minimalism” if you feel the incredible big love from Ozu for his characters?
An old employer complains in “Early Spring” (Soshun, 1956) about his working life or the father in “Late Spring” remains alone in his absent daughter´s room. In their loneliness, their mourning - these people apear in a strange beauty.
Reunions, separations, marriages, funerals - Ozu reminds us in the most essential things in life and in his films these moments become unforgettable. How often his films helped me in very dark and sad moments of my life. And there is no possibility anymore to thank him for his heartwarming and compassionate poetry!

At the end I would like to mention the film by Ozu I love deepest: "Early Summer” (Bakushu, 1951). I saw it again during the Berlin Filmfestival. It is a very gentle film, less sad than “Tokyo Story” or his incredible dark and depressing “Tokyo Twilight” (Tokyo Boshoku, 1957). 
There is a family of different generations who live together. Soon they will be separated in different directions. In its wonderful episodical narration which doesn't focus on a single plotline, “Early Summer” seems to be a very experimental work. Its poetry reminds me in a family photo map where every single picture is like a little story of a memory. At all - this film is structured like a  memory of a whole human life. I laughed a lot - but suddenly an old couple is looking to the heaven where a balloon is flying in the endless air. What a magical moment!
At the end still a smile on my face and the heart full of love for these characters - the film evokes in me a strange melancholia for the mortality of these wonderful people.
This is a real miracle of cinema and Ozus work is one of the greatest wonders in the last century.
After his long desease of throat cancer, Ozu died on his sixtieth birthday on December 12, 1963. At that time he was almost unknown outside of Japan. Later more and more cinephiles, filmmakers and critics realized that his heritage (all his survived films) are the most valuable gift in the history of cinema. I do agree with Wim Wenders who has said that Ozus work was one of the reasons that cinema was invented. 

Rüdiger Tomczak
(first published in CELLULOID, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2003

 

 

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