Ozu Yasujirō: New Discoveries in the Half-Century Since His Passing

Tokyo Story in Moscow: Bringing Ozu to the World


Naum Kleiman, film critic and director of the prestigious Moscow State Central Cinema Museum, was instrumental in introducing the films of Ozu Yasujirō to Russia. Here he looks back on his first encounter with Ozu and the reactions of audiences to his pioneering retrospective in Moscow.

My First Encounter with Ozu

I didn’t see the films of Ozu Yasujirō (1903-1963) until relatively late in my life. Nevertheless, I experienced them with an almost childlike sense of joy. I sometimes feel I have known them all my life.

My first encounter with Ozu’s works was in Berkeley, California in 1989. I was visiting the Pacific Film Archive at the time and Ozu’s name happened to come up in a conversation with the director, Edith Kramer. I had to admit that although I knew his name and had heard descriptions of his work, I had never actually seen any of his films myself. They were simply never shown in the Soviet Union. “You’ve never seen Ozu’s films?” she asked, incredulous. There was a note of genuine sympathy in her voice. “We have a 16mm copy of his early picture Otona no miru ehon: Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But…). I’m going to show it to you right now!”

Ten minutes later I was sitting in the dark as the director loaded the precious film into the projector. From the booth we laughed together as the silent comedy unfurled onscreen—the hapless grown-ups and the playful children who see through their father but love him in spite of his weaknesses.

Later, after watching practically all of Ozu’s surviving works, I came to understand that this innocent, childlike perspective on the world is one of the most important hallmarks of his work. It is one of the factors that pull the viewer irresistibly into the story. It is the view of an adolescent—not the kind of foolish, restless, or precocious teenager who appears so often in commercial cinema, but an intelligent, observant, and well-meaning young boy.

The Ozu Retrospective in Moscow

From that first encounter, the idea of showing Ozu’s films at the Cinema Museum in Moscow(*1) became something of an obsession. I was delighted when the Japanese Embassy and the Japan Foundation responded to our request by including a retrospective of the “unknown master” in their program for the Japan Culture Festival.

At first, the people on the Japanese side wanted to limit the retrospective to just 10 pictures or so. They were worried that audiences in Russia would struggle to adjust to the unusually slow tempo of the narratives. In short, they felt the style of Ozu’s films might be “too Japanese.” The same issues and motifs crop up in film after film, they said—wouldn’t Russian audiences find these endless variations on the same theme repetitive and annoying? We managed to talk them around and convince them that a more comprehensive retrospective would be a success. In the end, they brought 33 of the 36 surviving films to Moscow. I will always be grateful to my Japanese colleagues for the leap of faith they took back then.

From late January to early March 1999, the screens of the Cinema Museum were dedicated to Ozu Yasujirō. Each film was shown twice, once dubbed into Russian for the general public and once in the original language with English subtitles. Almost all screenings were sold out. Early on, it emerged that many people were coming to see the same film twice, even though some of them couldn’t understand Japanese or English. I remember one of the most dedicated visitors telling me that after watching the dubbed versions, she liked going to see the repeats just so that she could “look into the eyes of those good people again, and listen to the music of the intonations and pauses.”

I was delighted by how perceptive her comments were. Many film critics have mentioned the fact that Ozu never uses the shot reverse shot technique in his dialogue scenes. In this technique, common in Hollywood movies, the person talking is filmed from behind the shoulder of the listener. In this way, both interlocutors are on screen at the same time, giving the effect of looking on at the dialogue from close quarters. Ozu preferred to shoot the speaker front on. His characters look straight into the camera and seem to address the audience as much as the person they are talking to in the film. We see right into the eyes of the character speaking, and seem to be right in there as the action unfolds.

This produces a startling effect on the viewer, who is not only present in the conversation but often comes to feel a remarkable sense of trust and closeness with the main characters, most of whom are kind-hearted and well-intentioned. We come to think of Ryū Chishū (1904–93) and Hara Setsuko (1920–) as old friends rather than film stars. The familiar, reassuring warmth in their voices becomes as important as the content of what they are saying. Their understanding silences, accompanied by a half smile on their bright faces, speak as loudly as words. Something in those smiles always reminds me of an image of the Buddha. The personality and human warmth of Ozu the man come through loud and clear across the screen.

Eternity in Repetition

When the screening of the festival’s final film Sanma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon) came to an end, the audience was reluctant to leave. It was as if people wanted to keep the atmosphere of the film alive by staying behind and talking about it. Many people noted that the theme of the picture repeated (in color) the post-war Bakushū (Late Autumn). I remembered the misgivings of my Japanese colleagues before the festival began and asked the people who had stayed behind (more than 100 of them) whether they had been bothered by the repetitions of the themes across Ozu’s films. Almost without exception, the films have family relationships at their center, with almost identical situations being played out in similar household interiors, offices and bars—often featuring the same types of people played by the same actors. Weren’t the films all a bit, well, the same?

One young woman interrupted me angrily: “You might as well say that Chekhov is all the same!” Another said that she watched the films as if they were all “the story of a single family.” She might have taken this family as representative of the whole of Japan, she said, if she hadn’t already seen the films of Kurosawa and learned from them that other kinds of Japanese characters and families also existed. Almost everyone agreed that the variations on similar themes were not tiresome but rather showed an unusually nuanced understanding of human relationships. I was particularly struck by the opinion of one elderly music teacher: “To the untrained ear, Bach’s music all sounds the same. The untrained ear struggles to pick out all the different variations on the melody, and only reacts to the surface noise. Although Ozu’s work seems to be limited by the confines of everyday mundane life, like Bach the repetitions in his work give me a glimpse of eternity.”

Ozu’s Greatest Masterpiece?

Some years later, like many cinema historians around the world, I received a request from Japan to choose my favorite Japanese film. It wasn’t easy to choose. How to pick just one out of all the masterpieces by figures like Kinugasa Teinosuke (1896–1982), Naruse Mikio (1905–69), Mizoguchi Kenji (1898–1956) and Yamanaka Sadao (1909–38)? I thought about it long and hard, but in the end I felt there was no other choice but Ozu. But which film? At first I wanted to chooseTōkyō monogatari (Tokyo Story), the film universally recognized as one of the great masterpieces of world cinema. Then I moved onto Sanma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon),his moving final testament. In the end, I settled on the understated black-and-white film Banshun (Late Spring). I felt this was the film that best encapsulated Ozu Yasujirō’s message to the world.

Banshun tells the story of a widower professor, Somiya Shūkichi, and his devoted daughter Noriko. The professor knows that his daughter is reluctant to leave him on his own, and so tricks her into thinking he is planning to remarry in order to allow her to get married and build her own life. As the typical elements of the Ozu plot are played out, the attentive viewer notices that the two characters’ daily lives take them through the treasures of Japanese culture: from the ancient temples of Kamakura to the Ryōan-ji rock garden in Kyoto, the Noh theater, and a lane of Japanese cedars. Even a scene of them eating breakfast at home suggests features of the tea ceremony.

Some people have interpreted this as a sign of the traditional conservatism of Japan. But Ozu’s message is more meaningful and more universal than that. For him, the most important national treasures are the feelings that keep family members and people in general together: the love of father and daughter, filial devotion and self-sacrifice. Beyond the immediate family circle are aunts and neighbors and old friends ready to help out.

In Tokyo Story and several other films, Ozu takes a wistful look at a family as it falls apart. In Late Spring he confirms that human ties—whether ties of blood or the wider bonds that unite the whole human family together—are the most precious human resources of all, for Japan and the rest of the world.

(Top photo courtesy of Shochiku Co., Ltd. Originally written in Russian.)

(*1) ^ Founded in Moscow in the 1920s, the State Central Cinema Museum holds screenings, exhibitions, and various events relating to cinema from around the world.

Russia film Ozu Yasujirō Naum Kleiman