For several years on our introductory film course, we’ve spent the first week conducting formal analyses of a couple of films, breaking down their editing patterns and shot selections. We usually give students an example of Classical Hollywood Cinema and juxtapose it with an Ozu movie. As a pair, they represent very different approaches to narrative-based continuity editing, and for teaching the basics of shot-by-shot sequence analysis, the connections between shots, as well as the composition of each of those shots, these two films always serve as excellent illustrative text. For the past few years we’ve used Tokyo Story, which the majority of students have found so sluggish and unengaging that they switch off from the task of tracking the passage from shot to shot (they rarely have trouble with The Big Sleep, probably because the quick pace keeps them interested, and the incoherence of its plot stops them getting too distracted by the story). So, this year, we’ve switched the Ozu film to Ohayô, one of his brightest, breeziest outings. It’s much shorter than Tokyo Story. And it has fart jokes.
I kind of regretted switching to the softer option on this, but actually the new film works just as well as Tokyo Story in illustrating the key aspects of the director’s style. Ohayô certainly features Ozu’s distinctive, idiosyncratic and endlessly fascinating visual syntax, a set of repetitive techniques which stand as one of the most recognisable in all of world cinema.
The story is simple, the nuances legion. It follows the interpersonal relationships of a group of Japanese families who share an immediate neighbourhood. The primary focus is on two boys, Minoru and his little brother Isamu, who desperately want a television. Their parents are annoyed that the pair spend much of their time rushing next door to watch TV at the home of a louche couple, around whom a fair bit of town gossip circulates (they spend the whole day in pyjamas, apparently!), when they should be studying their English homework. Railing against their parents’ antipathy towards television (read it as a symbol of modernity), the boys take a vow of silence until they are given a set. The ensuing stand-off reveals much about the bifurcated worlds of adults and children, with the youngsters refusing to communicate, and the adults’ communication blighted by reticence, gossip and misunderstanding. This running commentary on communication gives the film its title: “ohayô”, meaning “good morning”, is one example of the kind of barely sincere small talk that the boys deplore. How can their parents say that watching TV is a waste of time when they themselves spend so much time talking to people they don’t like or uttering redundant phrases? Most of Ozu’s abiding themes are here: tensions between duty and desire, between traditional behaviours and modern attitudes (often represented by incursions of American/Western culture into post-war Japanese society), dramatised as an inter-generational conflict.
If you’re new to the close formal analysis of sequences of film, Ozu is a great place to start. Although his style develops over the course of the fifty-something features he completed in his lifetime (he lived for exactly 60 years to the day, 1903-1963), in his later work it is fully formed and comprising an immediately recognisable set of visual consistencies. His shots are always meticulously composed, with prominently placed objects, such as the kettles and other domestic implements that you’ll notice peppering the frame. They’re not necessarily useful props for developing narrative, but they anchor the eye and preserve the beautiful order of the set. In his colour films, you will be struck by the use of chunks of colour to adorn these compositions. See, for instance, this moment in Ohayo when two consecutive shots are connected, not spatially, but with a graphic match between two bright red objects.
Usually, these objects are not significant in themselves (though the prominence given to domestic utensils and everyday tools may be telling), but sometimes they can reveal a lot. In Tokyo Story, we learn that Noriko (Setsuko Hara) doesn’t entertain guests very often in her humble home, just from the fact of her going to a neighbour’s place to borrow a bottle of sake. It’s a simple act that invites the inference of a great deal of private backstory that would otherwise have been elided altogether.
You can also see a reminder of the widowed Noriko’s childlessness in the prominently placed baby (not that I would brand the little guy as an “object”) if you so choose. The same can be said for this beautifully composed shot of the alleyway outside Noriko’s apartment:
Even as it seems designed to convey the cramped conditions and disorder of the location, it is almost fussily arranged and perfectly lit so that the child’s tricycle (connoting the family environment in which Noriko must live alone), and the large sake bottle will pop out in the composition. Finally, here’s another significant object shot from Tokyo Story. The elderly couple have been sent to a tourist resort by their children (ostensibly as a treat, but really to get them out of the way), where noisy young people are cavorting and carousing late at night. The quiet simplicity of the couple, and their utter togetherness, in comparison to this youthful frippery (!), is set out definitively in this lovely shot:
OK, I could fill this whole blog with wonderful frame grabs from Ozu movies, but I suppose that would be too easy. What are we to make of these objects, even when they’re not so obviously weighted with narrational baggage as those examples? Donald Richie, who wrote one of the first book-length studies of Ozu’s work, considered them to be “containers of emotion”, but for them to serve as “a focal point for aroused emotions” these objects “must be free of all ostensible directorial purpose. Otherwise it would not contain emotion, it would discharge it. This emotion, of course, is neither Ozu’s nor that of his characters, but the emotion which has been generated in the spectator himself.”
Richie cites an example from near the end of Early Spring (1949):
The image of the vase in the darkened room to which Ozu returns at the end of Late Springserves not only to bridge the transition between Setsuko Hara equitable and Setsuko Hara near tears, but also to contain and to an extent create our own emotions. Empathy is not the key here. To be sure we do imaginatively project our own consciousness onto another being, but this is perhaps a secondary effect. Primary to the experience is that in these scenes empty of all but mu [a zen term meaning “nothingness”], we suddenly apprehend what the film has been about, i.e., we suddenly apprehend life. This happens because such scenes occur when at least one important pattern in the picture has become clear. In Late Spring the daughter has seen what will happen to her: she will leave her father, she will marry. She comes to understand this precisely during the time that both we and she have been shown the vase. The vase itself means nothing, but its presence is also a space and into it pours our emotion.
I actually quite like this analysis. It seems to have an internal logic, so it’s tempting to take it on board. But, aside from the fact that it assumes that the spectator (i.e. every spectator) is operated on so directly by a poetic device, I wonder if it would still work for those objects which are not also receptacles of some sort. Does Richie’s idea of objects as repositories for our emotional energy only work on hollow things? Do we have to hand over our feelings to the vase even if we don’t feel like it at the time? No, it all falls down upon closer inspection. Bordwell and Thompson critique Richie’s stance on Ozu in their superb article “Space and Narrative in the Films of Ozu”, a lucid and sensible attempt to catalogue the key facets of Ozu’s style using the Classical Hollywood Cinema as a model for comparison. They refer to hypersituated objects, which are “treated in such a way that they become much more noticeable than their narrative function would seem to warrant in traditional terms.” They’re talking here not about the fairly prominent examples I’ve pictured above, but rather about the “tea kettles, neon signs, fire extinguishers, beer bottles, vases, striped towels, and similar items that are given such prominence in Ozu’s mise-en-scene.” These are not like the props which, under the Classical paradigm, are allowed to augment the frame only in so far as they clarify, punctuate or illustrate a narrative point. They question Richie’s attempt to force the vase to appear to be contributing to narrative sense, to enhance the emotional identification required by the character’s sadness. Instead, they argue that “the object’s lack of function creates a second formal level alongside the narrative; its motivation is purely ‘artistic’ […] Such ‘inscrutable’ objects (and it may be that their only signification is just this inscrutability) drive wedges into the cause/effect chain.”
Even if Ozu’s films can be used in this way to contrast with the Hollywood approach, they areedited for continuity, even if it is not for the sake of building up a continuously structured procession of narrative pointers – each shot follows logically from the last and preserves a spatio-temporal relationship between them, but with some crucial differences from the kinds of continuity that you’ll find as standard in Classical Hollywood movies of the same period. That is to say, the links between shots are rarely abstract or symbolic, but the spatial relationships between them are very different from that standard. In an earlier post, I outlined the 180 degree rule as a starting point for understanding the conventions of continuity editing in Hollywood. This convention depends upon the regulation of camera position in order to maintain spatial continuity. The camera stays on one side of an imaginary line and reinforces the positional relationships between characters by ensuring that, for instance, that a character’s eyeline will be confirmed in a shot that matches its direction and reveals its object. In this example from The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), the characters’ position in relation to one another is clarified by keeping them in the same frame, with the diagonal composition meaning that cutting from one to the other keeps some of the same background in each shot but reverses that diagonal line and stating graphically that this shot is from the opposite direction:
Continuity between shots that follow a character in motion might also preserve the direction of that motion. An actor leaving a shot through a door on the left of the frame might be seen entering the next shot through the door at the right of the frame, establishing the new space as a continuation of the previous one through a match on action. In Ozu, you will notice that different conventions apply, utilising what Bordwell and Thompson designate a “360-degree shooting space”, in which one shot might cut to a view in a direction turned 90 or 180 degrees from the previous one.
Look at the shots in this sequence from Ohayô:
When Setsuko enters the house, we cut about 180 degrees as the occupants notice her. She leaves the frame and enters the house in shot 4, which has reversed the position of the couple. Setsuko follows a horizontal trajectory out of the right hand side of the frame and appears in the next shot walking down a corridor. This cut seems to turn 90 degrees away from the previous one, but the connection between the shots is clear by the match on action from Setsuko’s movement: her consistent presence in each shot is what links them rather than the spatial affinities of each composition.
When she gets to the door at the end of the corridor, marked with a big red circle, there is another 90-degree cut. We’re breaking the 180-degree line with these shots, but notice that the space doesn’t exactly become “incoherent”. We know why these shots are following one another, even if we might be accustomed to seeing them done differently. The red circle on the door is visible at the end of the corridor in both of these last two shots (sorry if it’s not clear in my frame grabs above), operating as a graphic bond between them. Finally, for my purposes at least, in these two shots there is another 90-degree cut to the other side of the door, and the reverse shot of the two boys frames them together from an angle that does not represent Setsuko’s point of view (she would have to move a few steps sideways to her right and crouch down to get that perspective). It makes sure we get a good view of the boys’ interaction, even as it ignores eyeline conventions, and it is a 180-degree cut:
Ozu’s camera doesn’t follow his characters, but rather holds its position while the actors move through it or position themselves in their alotted portion of the frame. When shooting inside a traditional Japanese house, as Ozu so often does, the camera stays at the same low height. This is not a low angle, as sometimes claimed, but a height that is lower than usual, the perfect height for shooting people kneeling to eat or converse. Notice the lack of diagonal lines in these shots. The straight lines of walls, screens or doors are perpendicular to the lines of floors, tatami mats and tables. There is so much symmetry, so much care lavished on these compositions, that the films could easily devolve into fussy formalism and indeed you might have this response because the films do not forcefully emotionalise the compositions. I’ll leave you to decide what your own feelings are about Ozu’s films, but I find that the apparent tidiness of Ozu’s shots sensitises me to the minor variations and subtle disruptions of the formula (and of course, the superb character acting, which should not go unreported). Even if Ozu’s techniques seem repetitive, it shouldn’t be presumed that similar shots always carry the same meanings. Here’s a particularly striking example from Tokyo Story. These two frames are from the beginning and the end of the film. The first sees the elderly couple preparing to go on holiday to visit their children. The second frame is nearly identical in its composition, but Tomi, the wife has recently died.
Rather than reframing the second shot to focus on the old man, Ozu lets the two shots echo one another, bookending the film and making the gap in the frame that was previously occupied be felt as a tangible lack. You’ll notice something highly distinctive about the way Ozu shoots dialogue. Rather than the “over-the-shoulder” shots familiar from Hollywood movies, he almost invariably shoots conversations between two people in a medium shot, with the speaker almost, but not quite, looking directly into the lens, often shot from the side and turning towards the camera. Here’s an example from The End of Summer (1961):
Another dialogue scene from the same film shows how Ozu might use an object to reinforce the continuity between shots:
The yellow ash tray moves to precisely the opposite position for the reverse shots, making it certain that this is the view from the other speaker’s point-of-view. These dialogue scenes are quite a jolt the first time you see them. We’re used to seeing this technique used for scenes of confrontation – the near-direct looks from the actors seem to come straight at you, breaking the voyeuristic comfort you usually find when watching people talk in a movie. Sometimes you can see the discomfort of the actors, as if they’re being subjected to great scrutiny, but the effect is, more often than not, to focus on the performances and to create an engaging level of intimacy with the humans who drive Ozu’s dramas.
For Bordwell and Thompson, Ozu’s use of space and composition cannot be adequately explained with reference to narrative causality, and they criticise Richie for attempting to force interpretations of Ozu’s style into such a shape. Crucial to their argument are the shots of intermediate spaces that you’ll find cropping up quite often. These might be sets which are not crucial to the narrative, sometimes using the objects mentioned above to give prominence to points of the frame which are not arranged to advance the narrative, or they might be the transitional shots that are usually placed between scenes of human interaction:
Although these operate as establishing shots in many cases, showing the area (if not the precise setting) in which the action will take place, they give rather more time and attention to objects and places than is required for narrative development. If Ozu’s interiors are frequently enclosed and framed with perpendicular lines, these shots abound with deep, diagonal compositions gesturing emphatically towards a vanishing point. Once again, shots like this, offering pauses between the dialogue and character scenes that comprise most of the story information, Ozu’s films can prioritise space over narrative to varying degrees that contrast with the “loaded” mise-en-scene of the Classical Hollywood paradigm that affords little time to shots that have little or no relevance to the narrative or to the establishment of a thematic mood. Hollywood cinema is anthropocentric, with shots and sequences composed around the movements and the eyelines of protagonists. Ozu doesn’t privilege people in that way. As Bordwell and Thompson put it:
At the most radical level, in presenting space empty of characters – spaces around characters, locales seen before characters arrive or after they leave, or even spaces which they never traverse – Ozu’s films displace the illusion of narrative presence and plenitude. A scene in The Maltese Falcon without Sam Spade is possible, but not a scene without any of the characters, without any causal or parallel function in the narrative. Ozu’s cutaways contest the imaginary presence of “human nature” and “character psychology” in the system of narrative causality by structuring sections of the film around what the classical paradigm can only consider absences.
I hope this gives some clues on things to look for when getting started with Ozu. There is no substitute for watching a number of his films and noting the way that these stylistic devices gain force through repetition across the body of work. It also means that minor variations will leap out at you (the use of tracking shots in The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice might be a subtle effect in isolation, but is a real surprise for how it deviates from Ozu’s norm), and the resonances from film to film get stronger with each viewing. It goes without saying that Ozu’s films need not be viewed purely in terms of how they illuminate or are illuminated by a comparison with a Hollywood template. But I’ve said it anyway. Just in case.