60 Years + 60 Photos = 120 YEARS OF YASUJIRO OZU
The Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to hold 60 Years + 60 Photos = 120 YEARS OF YASUJIRO OZU photography exhibition. We interviewed Matt Severson, Director of the Library, for more.
We heard The Margaret Herrick Library will be holding the exhibition 60 Years + 60 Photos = 120 YEARS OF YASUJIRO OZU, could you give us a brief on the exhibition? We would also like to know who planned this exhibition.
The idea behind 60 Years + 60 Photos = 120 YEARS OF YASUJIRO OZU is to celebrate the life and cinematic legacy of Ozu, who I feel is unquestionably one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. As the 120th Anniversary began looming in the horizon (which I felt had a nice numeric playfulness, since he was born and died on the same day, at 60 years of age, December 12th) , I felt I had an opportunity to share my enthusiasm with all who came to visit our library. The photos which were kindly lent to us from both Shochiku and the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute, include personal photos as well as behind the scenes photos from his films, going all the way back to his earliest silent films (we may even have a photo from 1927’s SWORD OF PENITENCE, but I’ve checking to verify this), but also including such masterworks as I WAS BORN, BUT… (1932), LATE SPRING (1949), TOKYO STORY (1953) and AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (1962). We will also have an area where we will have some screen shots of both interiors of his films: the homes that his characters reside in, office interiors and the interiors of bars and restaurants. I also will have a small area devoted to the exterior frames Ozu composed, of landscapes, clothing lines, train stops, monuments, buildings, baseball stadiums, and the streets with various bar and restaurant signs. I really want to give our visitors a sense of what Ozu’s cinema looks and feels like – even if they have never seen one of his films before. Hopefully, they will be inspired to go watch one of his films.
Every year the Margaret Herrick Library chooses an exhibit to highlight materials in our collections. For instance, the most recent exhibit was titled INDEPENDENT VISIONS: WOMEN IN FILM – 1900 to TODAY, and featured images of women filmmakers from around the globe. Also, in addition to the materials that are framed and displayed in our lobby, we also have a video monitor which plays a continuous loop of clips from either related films or interviews with filmmakers who have been interviewed as part of the Academy’s Oral History program. For our upcoming exhibit we will feature clips from original interviews conducted by our Oral History department with the following Japanese filmmakers speaking about Yasujiro Ozu: Joe Hisaishi, Kiju Yoshida, Masahiro Shinoda, Nobuhiko Obayashi, Seijun Suzuki, Shinobu Hashimoto, Tatsuya Nakadai, Teruyo Nogami and Yoji Yamada. We will also have a sister exhibit upstairs in our Special Collections Reading Room, with clippings, photos, letters, and posters relating to the history of Japanese Film History – this exhibit will be arranged chronologically across six large display cases. I’m very excited for this, as I feel it will be a celebration not just of Ozu but also of Japanese cinema in general. While I probably have the biggest say as to what we focus on in our exhibits, I discuss them with the other Library managers, and also seek the counsel of my supervisor, Randy Haberkamp, who is the Executive Vice President of the Academy’s Library, Film Archive and Science and Technology Council.
Ozu's first film, SWORD OF PENITENCE(Shochiku, 1927)
Shochiku, Ozu Yasujiro Shinhakken (Kodansha, 1993), p.216
Photos from SWORD OF PENITENCE? That’s amazing. Interview clips, especially with Seijun Suzuki, Shinobu Hashimoto, Teruyo Nogami will be very valuable. What kind of audience are you expecting? Also, could you tell us which Ozu films you believe are popular in the US?
The audience will be pretty varied, though I expect a lot of American college students, film scholars from around the world, cinephiles, Ozu fans, as well as anyone interested in Japanese film, filmmakers, Academy members, researchers, and frankly all who visit our library will be seeing the exhibit. I’m thrilled that the exhibit will be up for a full year, because since many people will be unfamiliar with Ozu’s work, and I hope that the exhibit may prompt them to seeing some of his films – and ideally, to make some new Ozu converts as a result!
As for your second question, it’s a bit tough: undoubtedly, Akira Kurosawa is the Japanese filmmaker who is most known to American audiences. I suspect that more people have heard about Ozu rather than have actually seen his films. (Or, if they have, they’ve seen TOKYO STORY or LATE SPRING in a film class, but that’s generally it.) However, I have been to many archive and museum screenings in Los Angeles and San Francisco over the past 25 years, and these screenings are generally pretty packed. So – I would say, generally the people that know Ozu, tend to love Ozu, and I think slowly but surely, the rest of the world is catching on. I’ll be very interested in seeing what happens later this year when the BFI releases their latest installment of their once-a-decade list of the Greatest Films of All-Time – which TOKYO STORY was the #1 film ranked by filmmakers from around the world (and in the critics list, it ranked #3, behind VERTIGO (1958) and CITIZEN KANE(1941)). That’s a pretty astonishing feat, especially when you consider that Western audiences for the most part didn’t see TOKYO STORY until nearly twenty years after it was initially released in Japan.
In my unscientific view of which of his films are most popular with American audiences, I would say: TOKYO STORY, LATE SPRING, AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON, EARLY SUMMER (1951), GOOD MORNING (1959), FLOATING WEEDS (1959), and I WAS BORN, BUT… are the ones that are discussed most frequently. I do feel that AN INN IN TOKYO (1935) is a film that is getting increasing attention – it’s an early masterpiece, for sure, and an early example of neo-realism that wouldn’t manifest in Italy for another 8 years or so during WW2.
AN INN IN TOKYO (Shochiku, 1935)
It’s great to hear that AN INN IN TOKYO is gaining attention in the US. It feels that not many of the Japanese have realized its value yet, though being such a masterpiece.
Lindsay Anderson from the UK and Wim Wenders from Germany are known to be great Ozu fans; are there any directors, actors, writers or other famous people from the US who are fans of Ozu? We hear that Paul Schrader and Daniel Raim are Ozu fans, but please tell us if you know of anyone else.
That is a great question: I know of many European and other international filmmakers that are huge fans of Ozu’s work: Aki Kaurismaki, Bela Tarr, Hong Sangsoo, Joanna Hogg, Claire Denis, Mike Leigh, Steve McQueen, Asghar Farhadi and Nuri Bilge Ceylon, just to name a few. But in America, the filmmakers I am currently aware of, in addition to Paul Schrader (who, along with Donald Richie were among the first writers in America to truly champion Ozu’s work) and Daniel Raim, I would add to this list: Jim Jarmusch, whose visual aesthetics are somewhat derived from Ozu’s minimalist style, Barry Jenkins, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker of MOONLIGHT (2016), Ira Sachs, an independent filmmaker who might be best known for KEEP THE LIGHTS ON (2012), and also, we have to add the wonderful actress, comic, writer and producer Julia Sweeney, who was formerly on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s. Julia is a massive fan who I am friendly with – she and I both have the same Ozu poster framed on our walls: which is a blow up of a drawing that the incredibly talented Chris Ware drew in tribute to Ozu and TOKYO STORY in 2013. Chris Ware wrote this about this drawing, titled “Family Affairs”: "I've lived a very lucky life, not hard at all. Certainly there has been some difficult stuff - illness, death, disappointment, heartbreak - but nothing most everyone hasn't experienced. The truth is that life is sad, for lack of a better word, but it's also something else: a sensation we rarely feel because as adults we spend most of our time and effort trying to figure out how to dull and tamp down: it's sort of a combination of tenderness, empathy, vulnerability and anger. We probably feel this most intensely as children and especially as adolescents, but the sensation is still always there humming underneath everything, and in moments of extreme emotion comes to the fore; these are the times as adults when we feel "life" most deeply. The film "Tokyo Story" by Yasujiro Ozu captures and sustains this feeling beautifully of any artwork I can think of." -- so I guess we should add Chris Ware’s name to this list! Finally, I want to point to director Wes Anderson (RUSHMORE(1998), THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS(2001), FANTASTIC MR. FOX(2009) and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL(2013)). Now, I cannot find any place in print where Anderson discusses Ozu – but, visually there are so many striking parallels in their work, it’s difficult to imagine that Ozu is not a major influence. I’m attaching a short video that compares the work of both directors.
We are pleasantly surprised and honored that you could give us so many names of directors, actresses and artists. Hopefully they too will come to the exhibition.
Now, we would also like to ask you for some personal opinions. Which Ozu films do you like and what are your reasons?
When I was younger and first discovering the world of Ozu, I was most drawn to his early work. I loved his humor how unique and playful the formal qualities of I WAS BORN, BUT…, WALK CHEERFULLY (1930), WOMAN OF TOKYO (1933), PASSING FANCY (1933), AN INN IN TOKYO and WHAT DID THE LADY FORGET (1937). I was also quite taken with RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN (1947), and the touching and comic performance of Choko Iida and her relationship with the young orphan.
Though I was quite taken with Setsuko Hara and her performances in LATE SPRING, EARLY SUMMER and TOKYO STORY, it took me a few years for those films to truly open up for me – probably because I found them more stylistically formidable, and now I watch them repeatedly year after year. I do think that those three films comprise the bedrock of Ozu’s mature style. LATE SPRING I find almost unbearably heartbreaking. TOKYO STORY might be my single favorite film of all-time – though it may seem like cliché, but I never tire of it. And now as I have aging parents, I relate to this film very profoundly.
Ozu has a natural gift for working with children, and the films with Tokkan Kozo are very special. We must mention the young boy in RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN, and also the boys in EARLY SUMMER and TOKYO STORY. – and of course the brilliant and touching comedy of GOOD MORNING which I think is a comic masterpiece. It’s a great “first film” to show people who have never seen an Ozu film before.
Finally I am quite obsessed with Ozu’s use of color: in particular the color of EQUINOX FLOWER (1958), GOOD MORNING, FLOATING WEEDS and AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON. Ozu’s final film I would rank as highly as TOKYO STORY. It has a melancholy grace to it and a quiet profundity. And in addition I love the musical sequence in AUTUMN AFTERNOON of the two old war comrades in the bar with their hands to their heads, listening to the War March, along with the bar mistress. It’s funny and sweet and tinged with sadness – I frequently tell people: “it’s one of my favorite musical sequences in the history of film – along with Gene Kelly in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)!
It is impressive that you noted what a gem Iida was. We feel what lies at the core of Ozu’s films, is how interestingly and charmingly he depicts characters such as Iida.
In the past, you mentioned that there are similarities between Ozu and Hitchcock - we are surprised as we had also thought they were similar. In what ways do you think they are similar, and what ways would you say they differ?
Yes, I do think there are several aspects to Hitchcock’s and Ozu’s work, though at first, the similarities may not be obvious. Clearly, in terms of genre and tone, these are filmmakers with very different focuses: Hitchcock, who is interested primarily in the suspense genre, and enjoys finding ways to manipulate his audiences’ reactions; Ozu, who over the course of his career continued to radically rework similar narratives driven by small intimate family dramas that are worked out against a backdrop of “lasting and circular natural motifs,” such as landscapes/seasons, which leave one with a melancholy sense of the essential transience of our lives. So, given their differences, what are their similarities? Well, for starters, even though Hitchcock had a longer life and career, and Ozu’s life and career were cut short at the age of 60 by throat cancer; both directors got their starts during the silent era and had similar arcs over the course of their esteemed careers, arguably producing their most esteemed and lasting works in the 1950s and early 1960s. Both directors worked with a shifting group of performers and technicians again and again throughout their career, which resulted in a stylistic continuity that makes their works thematically and aesthetically easily distinguishable from other directors. Both directors worked their screenplays out in advance (which included a breakdown of camera shots via storyboarding) that when they shot their films, there was no room to improvise or second guess how to shoot the sequence. Hitchcock admitted that “half the work of direction should be accomplished in the script.” – and this results in what he says is “the mechanical process of setting up the action so that the actors can move in and bring their emotions to bear, not spontaneously, however, but under his strict supervision". It is the director who is in charge, controlling every movement of the actor, and you can see that both Hitchcock and Ozu were both so precise with their actors (Hitchcock infamously referred to actors were like “cattle”), that you see them rigidly telling their actors where to look what to do with their hands and bodies in order to work for each of the shots they have laid out in advance. When we met with Kyoko Kagawa in July, she mentioned how specific and rigid Ozu was in his instructions to each of the actors, which took her some time to get used to. I feel it is in the rigidity of their direction with the actors that I see the most similarities, as both directors were so focused on their individual mise-en-scene, even though their styles are quite different from one another. But there are other similarities, too: both directors made innovative use of color in their films that separate their later works from their peers, and both use the color “red” interestingly. Also, both directors remade their earlier films: Hitchcock made two versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH in 1934 and 1956, and his 1935 spy film, THE 39 STEPS, which featured a man being confused for another spy and is chased across the country, would be reworked in SABOTEUR (1942) and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). Ozu made two versions of THE STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS in 1934 and 1959. Ozu reworks I WAS BORN, BUT… later in GOOD MORNING. And, LATE SPRING gets reconfigured into LATE AUTUMN (1960). Finally, I think both Hitchcock and Ozu both had both public popularity and critical reappraisals by scholars and filmmakers after their death. Both were well-esteemed in their lifetime, but I think their work was appreciated in larger critical contexts long after their deaths. So – very different, content-wise, but there are definitely interesting parallels between the two.
Thank you. Funnily enough, the two do have many similarities. Hitchcock believed it would be boring to portray ordinary events; Ozu thought there was beauty in it. We think this may be the biggest difference between the two.
Thank you for answering so generously about the exhibition and on your personal thoughts. Finally, could you please leave a comment to the people visiting the exhibition?
Yes, I agree with you about the biggest difference between Hitchcock and Ozu. Your statement about Ozu finding beauty in ordinary events is so true. Beautifully stated.
Well, to everyone who comes to our library, I hope you will feel the enthusiasm and passion with which this exhibit has been put together. To those familiar with Ozu’s cinema, I hope you will see photographs that are new to you, and perhaps gain an insight into his techniques as a filmmaker. I hope you will enjoy seeing candid photographs of Ozu having fun with some of his well-known actors such as Setsuko Hara, or seeing Ozu dressed in a baseball uniform – maybe this will open up our ideas of Ozu as a person, away from his work in film. To those who are unfamiliar with Ozu’s work, I hope this exhibit may pique your interest, and hopefully make you curious enough to watch some of Ozu’s films. It is my hope that by showcasing both rare behind-the-scenes photographs, as well as personal family photographs, as well as frame blow-ups from the films themselves, you will get a sense of what an “Ozu film” is! So, no matter what your prior knowledge of his cinema is, you will find something to enjoy.