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

The Artistic World of Ozu Yasujirō on Display in Tokyo


A recent exhibit at the National Film Center in Tokyo showcases the refined artistic sensibilities of the renowned film director Ozu Yasujirō. The diverse array of objects displayed includes not only props and storyboards from Ozu films, but also his drawings and works of calligraphy. Viewed together these objects and other materials reveal the unique artistic vision of this legendary filmmaker.

The National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo is holding an interesting exhibit titled “Iconography of Yasujiro Ozu,” (until March 30, 2014), commemorating the 110th anniversary of the birth of the late film director and the 50th anniversary of his death. The exhibit is an attempt to take a fresh look at the charms of Ozu from the angle of his “iconography,” as reflected in his paintings, designs, calligraphy, and the colors of his films. Along with materials related to his films, the exhibit includes a wide array of objects from Ozu’s everyday life, stretching from his youth up to the end of his life. Looking at the objects on display brings into clear relief an image of Ozu and the absolute commitment to beauty that he maintained in both his cinematic work and private life.

A Deep Love of Painting

Near the entrance to the exhibit hangs an ukiyo-e print that Ozu inherited from his grandfather. The work was important to the director, who displayed it on the wall of his office at the Shōchiku Film Studio in Ōfuna, Kanagawa Prefecture. A slight burn mark on the print attests to how it narrowly escaped destruction in the 1952 fire that struck the studio.

Ozu’s fan-shaped painting “Kitagawa”(from the collection of the Furuishiba Culture Center in Kōtō Ward).

Ozu was on friendly terms with a number of great painters. Works by such painters as Hashimoto Meiji (1904–91) and Higashiyama Kaii (1908–99) are nonchalantly displayed in several of his later color films, such as Equinox Flower (1958), Late Autumn (1960), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

And Ozu himself painted. As an elementary school student he displayed remarkable artistic talent in his precise drawings of doves and plants.

Ozu the Graphic Designer

The collection of scenarios by Yamanaka Sadao designed by Ozu.

The composition of his shots, in terms of the placement of actors and objects, was pivotal to Ozu as a film director, but on top of this he displayed an incredible knack for graphic design. His talent was apparent at a young age, as is clear from a framed collage of stamps displayed at the exhibit, created when Ozu was around 18 years old. One can’t help being impressed by the witty manner in which he attached the stamps, quite different from the way a stamp collector might go about doing it.

The posters and advertisements for some of Ozu’s early films, such as Young Miss (1930) and The Lady and the Beard (1931), were the creations of Kōno Takashi (1906–99), a pioneer in Japanese graphic design who was on the design committee for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. Ozu was certainly inspired by Kōno and shared his humoristic, metropolitan outlook.

Ozu’s graphic talents can also be seen in the books that he designed. One example is a 1940 collection of scenarios by the director and screenwriter Yamanaka Sadao (1909–38), which Ozu designed in commemoration of his death in Manchuria. As an army conscript, Ozu had been sent to China and was reunited with Yamanaka there before his death. The design of that particular book uses the infinity mark (∞) as a motif, and later it was used as the logo for the Directors Guild of Japan. One senses from the book the emotions Ozu felt from the untimely death of Yamanaka.

Ozu’s Handwriting Brings Him to Life

A look at Ozu’s works of calligraphy speaks to the truth of the Japanese saying “written text can evoke a person’s character.” One gets a sense of Ozu’s personality from the handsome characters he wrote that are displayed at the exhibit, including handwritten essays and penmanship practice from his youth, postcards sent to friends and relatives, notes and journals related to his films, and even a nameplate he drew.

Particularly captivating is a reproduction of a postcard Ozu wrote in later life to Nakai Kie, then four years old, who was the daughter of Nakai Kan’ichi (stage name: Sada Keiji), an actor who appeared in many Ozu films and the older sister of the actor Nakai Kiichi. The postcard includes a charming illustration of the members of the Nakai family dancing together. The drawing not only shows Ozu’s close ties with the Nakai family, but also gives us a glimpse of his deftness as an artist.

The familiar monochrome title sequences for Ozu’s postwar films, featuring characters handwritten by Ozu on a fabric material, are also on display at the exhibit. In comparing the eight different title sequences displayed, it is fascinating to note the minute differences in the pattern and texture of the fabric used.

A reproduction of Ozu’s handwritten nameplate for his house (on loan from the Kamakura Museum of Literature), and a reproduction of his 1962 postcard to Nakai Kie (courtesy of Office Kiki).

An Eye for Color

Until his 1958 film Equinox Flower, Ozu had never made a color film. But in a sense this was because he had such demanding taste when it came to color. Ozu’s remarkable attachment to color can be sensed from the sample fabrics he considered for the clothing used in Equinox Flower and from looking at the long list of credits for the four color films he made for Shōchiku.

Ozu’s handwritten scenario for his 1957 film Tokyo Twilight, on loan for the exhibition from the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute.

Three things were indispensable to Ozu’s film direction: the original scenario, the storyboards, and his shooting script. It is clear from the exhibit how carefully he envisaged each scene when copying out the scenario into his notebook.

Ozu’s refined sense of color and design is abundantly clear from the storyboards in particular, where he uses separate colors to distinguish between the different characters who appear and the camera angles. Ozu developed a number of original descriptive techniques, such as the use of different colors. Okada Hidenori, curator at the National Film Center, says that looking at such materials, “gives us a glimpse of the working techniques of Ozu, which were practical yet urbane.”

In the case of Ozu’s lost 1936 film College Is a Nice Place, his precise storyboards allow us to calculate how many feet of film he shot for the work. Okada notes that even though the storyboard is a mere document of the film, it is so precise that it would be possible to use it as the basis to reshoot the film.

Ozu’s storyboards for the 1963 film An Autumn Afternoon, on loan for the exhibition from the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute.

Creating a Unique Cinematic Space

Fabric patterns used for the 1958 film Equinox Flower, on loan for the exhibition from the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute.

The final area of the exhibit centers on materials that were preserved by the artistic director at the Shōchiku Film Studio, Hamada Tatsuo.

Ozu laid the emphasis on the screen compositions of his films, whereas the consistency of layouts for his interior shots was a secondary issue. This is reflected in his notebook of drawings for the set of Equinox Flower, which was a house of unusual proportions with an exceptionally long hallway. Normally, when filming an interior on a set there is no need for ceilings because they are not in the shot. But Ozu, who often shot scenes from a low position, went to the trouble of including them.

A scrapbook with samples of cloth for curtains and paper for sliding doors to be used in film sets is also a valuable record. The existence of such materials has allowed those working on the digital remastering of Ozu’s films to recreate their original colors more faithfully.

Photograph of the set used for Late Autumn, from the former collection of Atsuta Yūharu.

Another highlight of the exhibit are the photographs of sets used for Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon. These photographs are a precious resource for better understanding how Ozu approached the task of filmmaking. Prior to the first day of filming, Ozu would hold a “set decoration day,” placing all of the props exactly where he wanted them in the film, right down to the location of a sake bottle or stones on a go board. Then he would film the set from basically the same camera positions that he intended to use for the actual filming. He would not allow the actors to enter the scene and be filmed until he had all those details worked out to perfection. This gives a vivid sense of just how dedicated Ozu was to the artistic groundwork of his films.

Another clever aspect of the exhibit at the National Film Center is an area where visitors can take a commemorative photo of themselves against the backdrop of the familiar street scene in An Autumn Afternoon, with its neon bar and coffee-house signs (photo lower left). The shop signs are another design element created by Ozu himself.

The exhibit lobby also includes recreations of the lantern-lit signs designed by Ozu for that same film (photo lower right). Looking at the signs fosters a better understanding of the effect of Ozu’s characteristic low shots. Even though the signs are much larger than similar real-life signs in Japan, a viewer of Ozu’s films has no sense of incongruity. Such touches reflect just how much thought the director gave to space and visual perspective. The backdrops and signs were created for the exhibit with assistance from the Association of Production Designers in Japan.

One comes away from the exhibit with a new appreciation for how Ozu’s artistic talents and tastes helped him fashion his own unique cinematic world, as well as a deep sense of his tremendous diligence and work ethic.

The “Iconography of Yasujiro Ozu” exhibit is being held at the National Film Center until March 30, 2014. Some of the displays are varied during the exhibit; the banner photograph shows objects displayed during the first half of the exhibit.

(Original Japanese article by Watanabe Reiko; photographs by Kawamoto Seiya; assistance provided by the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.)

design Painting Ozu Yasujirō Tokyo Story Yamanaka Sadao Kono Takashi