Yasujiro Ozu, renowned as the greatest master of Japanese cinema, will be paid tribute in an eight-week series featuring his 35mm films in the Whitney Humanities Center Auditorium. This evening, the Cinema at the Whitney will begin by screening Ozu’s “A Straightforward Boy” (1929) and “Early Summer” (1951), two very different films that flank the schism between his prewar and postwar styles.
Ozu is best known for his sparse style — he incorporates very little camera movement and tends to cut harshly between shots. Ozu’s technique, initiated in his more widely acknowledged later style between 1949 and 1962, has been a huge influence on filmmakers worldwide.
“Ozu thematically explores shifting family relationships in postwar Japanese society,” graduate coordinator of the series Richard Suchenski ’11 said. “The audience will be able to relate to the films even though we are not living in postwar Japan which is what will make the experience profound. The works are universal but unique.”
Suchenski is the Graduate Chair of Cinema at the Whitney and is mainly responsible for obtaining the 35mm prints to be shown in the series.
“These are extremely rare works — especially because they have subtitles,” Suchenski continued. “Ozu’s pieces have to be viewed on film in order to have the full impact.”
The series will feature Ozu’s work from both his prewar and postwar styles, which is, in and of itself, an infrequent occurrence. Ozu is more widely recognized for his postwar style because the majority of his prewar films were well-received neither critically nor commercially, but have now become appreciated in the eyes of film students everywhere.
Ozu’s most famous work, “Tokyo Story,” which will be shown Thursday, Oct. 30, is aesthetically pleasing in that it does not shy away from a still frame or a somewhat blank screen. One of the most impressive trademarks of Ozu’s work is that he is able to craft a scene, or in some cases an entire film, in which there is little to no action, but still he cultivates the human emotion behind life, death, disappointment and hopelessness. Ozu is not afraid, as some current directors are, of silence and stillness. In fact, this aspect is, perhaps, what makes the film more profound. Utter solemnity is a theme throughout the film. Ozu is able to heighten the drama of a scene by stripping it of all dramatic context; the scene is thus left with only human emotion, which he successfully exposes.
Considered by Suchenski and others to be “the most Japanese director,” Ozu is remarkably still able to reach audiences across the world.
Also impressive is Ozu’s resistance against Hollywood conventions. He maintains his own techniques, including the “tatami” shot in which the camera is placed at a low angle as if kneeling on a tatami mat. This harsh angling of perspective is also a main hallmark of Japanese prints and Impressionist art such as the works of Mary Cassatt. In this way, it can be said that Ozu brings to the silver screen what his predecessors brought to a canvas. It is refreshing to see film steeped in the culture from which it originated.
Ozu incorporates ellipsis in his films in which he leaves out details of the story that could have been filmed for dramatic or emotional effect. He also notably projects positive images of strong, intelligent women, which is certainly atypical of conventional views of women at the time.
Ozu’s influence on American film can be seen in Sophia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. While Coppola is not quite as strict in her use of harsh cuts and still shots, she does, indeed, utilize silence and non-active shots to heighten drama. However, when it comes to Ozu’s techniques, they are probably best left alone. Ozu is the only director who has, thus far, successfully made use of stillness and subtlety without boring his audience to pieces.
It is because of Ozu’s unsurpassed brilliance that Suchenski strongly urges members of the Yale community to join the Cinema at the Whitney for the next eight weeks in paying homage to the late, great Ozu. “I have a feeling that those who come will not only see what Japanese cinema is, but what cinema can be at its best,” Suchenski said.