Judge Joel Pearce wonders just how much more effective Ozu would be if he were on time once in a while.
You have to wonder if Ozu had any unmarried daughters…
One of cinema's unqualified masters, Yasujiro Ozu has created several well-known masterpieces, which have garnered international critical acclaim. Of course, Ozu's canon isn't restricted to A Story of Floating Weeds and Tokyo Story. He has made dozens of other films, many of which we've never had a chance to see in North America. Criterion has chosen five of his later films for inclusion in the Eclipse line, a budget-oriented series designed to give us access to forgotten or under-appreciated films.
All five of the films feature seasons in the title, and focus on ideas that connect to that season. It makes for a surprisingly unified collection, but also five films that stand well on their own:
• Early Spring
Not only is Early Spring a good way to start off this box set, it's a fine introduction to Ozu's work. Whenever I watch classic Japanese cinema, I usually have to do some internal adjustment before I can really appreciate what I'm seeing. There are so many cultural differences, and the ideology of the characters is so often different than my own. By the late 1950s, that had started to change. When I sat down to watch Early Spring, I was stunned to find that this could easily be about 1950s America, and hasn't really become outdated since then. The characters are remarkably human, and Ozu has a keen eye and sensitive heart for social justice.
During the big economic boom, skilled labor was becoming less important, and a new class of citizen was born. In Japan, these were the white collar workers, who got jobs in large corporation, managing sales, dealing with book work, and generally shuffling about unhappily. Shoji is one such worker, but he and his friends don't have the positive outlook that they are meant to have. Indeed, we see them often at work, but never get a real sense of what they do. Shoji talks woefully about his situation, frightened that he will be trapped out of work, accepting of the fact that he is not a bright star, and will never rise to a position of real power.
This frustration in himself has driven Shoji away from his wife, Masako. After all, he works long hours and stays out drinking. She has also distanced herself, frustrated by the time she spends alone and the strain of running a household with so little money. This distance leads to an affair between Shoji and an attractive co-worker, but there's never a sense of passion between the two lovers. For him, it's just another business deal, exchanging affection instead of paperwork. When Masako discovers the affair and Shoji gets an offer for a transfer to a distant town, they are forced to deal with the problems in their marriage and their lives.
More than anything, I was blown away by how contemporary Early Spring feels. It looks dated now, and plays out slowly, but it is full of deep, richly designed characters. Masako is never allowed to be a simple housewife, and her relationship with her own mother is both complicated and fascinating. Even "Goldfish," Shoji's mistress, is a more complex character than expected. She has her own needs and desires, and we come to feel more for her towards the end of the film. Indeed, in an era of forward-gazing optimism, Ozu takes a microscopic look at the impact of the economic system on a small group of workers. While contemporary western viewers will find that it runs a bit long, it's impossible not to get caught up in drama this sincere.
• Tokyo Twilight
The longest film in the collection, Tokyo Twilight has a dark and tragic edge that sets it apart from the others. Like many of the others, it focuses on the dynamics and tension in a family, but it paints a bleak picture of both generations.
As in Early Spring, this second film in the collection takes place during a time of change. The younger generation of Japan is quickly shifting in values and ideology, but Shukichi Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu, The Bad Sleep Well) is saddened by the results of these changes. Both of his daughters have just moved back home, sullen and unhappy with the state of their lives. Takako (Setsuko Hara, Chusingura) is unhappy with her husband, and has brought her two year old daughter with her. Akiko (Ineko Arima, Bushido), the younger daughter, refuses to talk to anyone about what she is going through. She spends most of her days chasing after her boyfriend, who has gone missing.
The lives of all three family members are upset with the discovery of the girls' long absent mother, who ran off when they were very young. This absence becomes an excuse for both girls, as they feel they haven't had a chance to properly grow up without a mother. Perhaps this is why they communicate so horribly with the men in their lives. Shukichi certainly bears the brunt of this poor communication, as he struggles to repair the lives of his daughters without being let in to their thoughts and feelings.
With Tokyo Twilight, Ozu dives headlong into what must have been uncomfortable social issues in Japan during the '50s. It deals with alcoholism and abortion in a sincere, straightforward way, and the perspective ever so gradually shifts from the father to the two daughters, who are struggling hard to find their way in this new world. The cinematography here is unlike anything else in the collection, as Ozu uses harsh shadows and noir lighting to create a cold, wintery feel. Fitting with the characters themselves, we often receive the information second hand and muddled, as though we are also part of the broken communication of the Sugiyama family. In truth, Tokyo Twilight moves quite slowly, and is the hardest film in the collection to watch as a contemporary viewer. Still, it's hard to ignore Ozu's keen insights and tough outlook on social issues of the time.
• Equinox Flower
The third film in the set, Equinox Flower, is notable for several reasons. It is Ozu's first color film, a drastic shift to take on so late in his career. It also represents an impressive shift in ideology, a shift that proves his flexibility, ingenuity and brilliance.
In many ways, Equinox Flower is an inversion of Tokyo Twilight. It also features an aging traditional man who must deal with two progressive daughters, but the values have suddenly shifted to the younger generation. It's almost as though this leap to color challenged Ozu's black and white values, forcing him to reconsider his previous stance on important issues. Hirayama (Shin Saburi) is a wealthy businessman with two young daughters. He would like to set the eldest up with a husband, but both of his daughters want to marry for love instead. When Hirayama holds fast, he discovers that his daughter has already found the man she wishes to marry. He is forced to reconsider his traditional stance when daughters of his friends end up in similar situations, and he finds himself siding with the younger generation.
Like the other films in the collection, the title highlights some of the ideas found within. The equinox is a time of transition and balance, when day and night are equal length, and the other is about to become dominant. This is reflected in the family situations found here. The adults in Equinox Flower are starting to age, and begin to realize that they no longer have the control the expect over the younger generation. The younger generation is getting more powerful all the time, and this film takes place during the transition point. Hirayama must learn to give up the control he has always had. The children have to learn to carefully and gracefully take the reins as they head into their own lives. This film ends not in tragedy or despair, but in acceptance of a new system, one that will hopefully work as well as the old one, if not better.
Ozu proves that he also has a fine eye for color, taking advantage of the contrast between neutral building colors and the vivid clothing of the characters. He shoots some beautiful outdoor sequences, which are as uplifting as the shadows of Tokyo Twilight are grim. The shadows in the corners of rooms are not as dark, and the sun shines in to create a pleasantly warm glow. Few directors are willing to risk this much tradition at the end of successful careers, but Ozu wasn't willing to stand still and let the world change without him.
• Late Autumn
As the second last film in the collection, Late Autumn picks up on a number of the themes of the earlier films, but slides one step closer to comedy. Once again, this film is about the marrying of daughters, but the focus is different this time. Akiko (Setsuko Hara) is a beautiful widow with a daughter, Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa, Yojimbo), just coming of age. During a get-together, a group of men promise to find a suitable man for the young girl, but a couple of the men are still eyeing Akiko, who is still as beautiful as ever.
Although this is a tale about a mother and daughter, the men still take center stage for much of the tale. Late Autumn is notable for being the first film in the series that features sons, but the male offspring are treated as annoying or mindless, nearly as absent as in the previous films. The generational conflict is still at the center of the drama, though this time Akayo wants to hold off getting married because she is looking out for her mother, not for her own selfish reasons. In that, a new situation is created: the older generation comes off as bumbling fools, with children who care deeply about them. By this point in the series, the theme of daughters and marriage has gotten a bit heavyhanded.
Of course, the irony is clear in Late Autumn. The society presses girls to get married as early as possible, so that they don't reach an undesirable state. At the same time, parents expect these girls to adjust to married life immediately, and are shocked when they return home upset. Still, by this film it's clear that Ozu should move on to some new ideas before this one gets tired. Still, this is the lightest film in the collection so far, and it almost plays out like a Shakespearean comedy at times. All of the characters have an agenda, and by the second half we sit back, ready to watch it all unravel.
• The End of Summer
The final film in the collection is a fine close for this group of films, and the second last film of Ozu's career. It picks up a number of the ideas and themes from the other films in the collection, and pushes towards a poignant and fitting end.
In The End of Summer, we get to know the Kohayagawa family. Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) is the happy-go-lucky patriarch of the family, unconcerned with the failing family business, and striking it up with an old mistress who is back in town. His children are concerned about him, but it hardly seems fighting it at this point in his life. The rest of the family is far more concerned about daughters Akiko (Setsuko Hara) and Noriko (YÃ Â ¥ko Tsukasa). Akiko is (you guessed it!) an attractive widow, and Noriko has yet to get married. In the midst of the family struggles, everyone tries to find appropriate suitors for the two sisters.
I have to admit, by the final film in the set, I wondered if maybe it was getting to be time for Ozu to add some new plot cue cards to this mix. It's fascinating to watch as similar characters (played by the same actors) work out the same situations in different ways, but it also would have been nice to see him apply some inventiveness in creating the scripts for his last few films. This would be less obvious if all five films weren't watched over a few days as I've done, but it does all get a bit repetitive by the time we reach The End of Summer. That said, if I were only able to watch one of the five films, it might be this one. It's quite funny, moves faster than the other films, and demonstrates a more confident approach to the marriage situation. It isn't as rich a film as, say, Early Spring, but it's so easy to settle into this one.
All five films are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Although the Eclipse series is designed to be a cheaper line, Criterion hasn't cut any corners with the transfers. The black and white films have good contrast and shadow detail, and the color films feature vivid but controlled colors. The audio has almost no hiss, and the music and dialogue are both extremely clear. The subtitles have been unusually well translated as well, which is so important for dialogue-heavy films.
Though there aren't any special features on the discs, each film case does come with a short introduction to give some context on the films. Given the nature of the films, I have no complaints about not getting more.
Ultimately, this is an excellent collection for fans of classic cinema. It's attractively assembled and fills in a major gap in the work of a truly remarkable director. Each of the films was carefully chosen to fit into the collection, but each is also worth checking out on its own. Of course, this isn't really a set for everyone. It wouldn't make a great introduction to classic Japanese cinema, and the films presented here do live under the shadow of the true classics of the era. Still, I'm grateful that Criterion has chosen to piece together collections like this, as they give us a chance to explore the filmographies of history's greatest directors for the first time.
For that, Ozu and Criterion are both free to go.
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Scales of Justice, Tokyo Twilight
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Scales of Justice, Equinox Flower
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Scales of Justice, Late Autumn
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Scales of Justice, The End Of Summer
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Review content copyright © 2007 Joel Pearce; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.