“I don’t make anything but tofu,” the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu once said—a statement that, like the man’s movies, seems simple on the surface yet manages to speak volumes. You can look at it as a characteristically modest declaration from a craftsman who worked methodically and, despite winning a number of high rankings in the film journal Kinema Jumpo’s annual polls, considered himself just another Shochiku Studios employee. You can think of it as an admission of consistency, in that he essentially stuck to one subject and style for the last half of his career; indeed, a filmgoer could fashion a dangerous drinking game by slugging sake every time one of his famous katami low angles, still-life “pillow shots” or talking-head-and-shoulders single portraits appears onscreen. (Given that Ozu was an enthusiastic enjoyer of booze, he’d undoubtedly approve.) Or you can take it as an unintentionally snarky critique of the work itself, which some still think of as flavorless and bland or, worse, something so austere as to be joyless—a cultural-exchange vegetable cinephiles consume out of duty and/or guilt.
If “Ozu,” Film Forum’s extensive, 36-feature series dedicated to the J-auteur on the 50th anniversary of his passing, does nothing else, it should hopefully dissuade folks away from that last assessment. Yes, Ozu favored a deliberate pace, and the performances might seem purposefully muted; you’ll also see characters talk about being horny, drink like fishes and ponder vulgar, scatological topics at length. (Anyone doubting this should proceed directly to Record of a Tenement Gentleman [1947, screens June 16], in which two biddies discuss the art of wiping snot on one’s kimono sleeve, or Good Morning [1959, screens June 27] which features enough fart jokes to give Blazing Saddles a run for its flatulent money.) This was an artist who strove to show our species in all its melancholy, messy and magnificent modes, and whose rigorous formalism wasn’t meant to trap humanity in amber so much as give you a pristine room in which to contemplate life’s beauty and fucked-up-ness. He was an expert in cinematic depth charges: Underneath every meticulous image and pattern-recognition scenario is an emotional detonation designed to discreetly devastate you.
Not that Ozu sprung fully formed from Zeus’ head, of course. You can see early, awkward dabblings with German Expressionism in the noirish That Night’s Wife (1930, screens June 26) and genre exercises in Dragnet Girl (1933, screens June 23), Shochiku’s attempt at a gritty Warner Bros. gangster flick. Having done time as a gag writer for other directors, Ozu proved to be adept at comedies involving Little Rascals–ish shenanigans, including a breakthrough movie—I Was Born, But… (1932, screens June 7)—that successfully layered in social commentary among the laughs. Some critics prefer this prewar, prole-focused period to Ozu’s later bourgie-fixated projects, crediting An Inn in Tokyo (1935, screens June 13) as a precursor to Europe’s neorealism movement. His true métier, however, lay elsewhere.
Claiming that the demands of drama got in the way of characters channeling a sense of real life onscreen, Ozu began to strip down his narratives drastically. He kicked off the 1940s with a bona fide box-office hit: The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941, screens June 20), the tale of a middle-class clan dealing with the reverberations of their patriarch’s death. You can see the basic ingredients of what would become “an Ozu film” starting to come together, from the way the story proceeds anecdotally instead of act by act to the use of a visual style that somehow feels both fussily framed and deceptively simplistic. By the time he got to his next film, There Was a Father (1942, screens June 16), the kinks had been fully worked out; the story of a dad—played by Ozu’s male muse, Chishu Ryu—who provides a foundation for his son without ever being a consistent presence in his life plays out with such artistic assurance and a profound sense of filial dynamics that you’d think the filmmaker had been perfecting this aesthethic for eons. It was, arguably, his first real masterpiece. More would soon follow.
How families function and fluctuate over time would become Ozu’s water lilies, the subject he would return to again and again, recycling tropes (matrimonial searches, shuffling off this mortal coil) and adding variations in an attempt to wring out every last ounce of insight. The similarities between many of the films he’d made from 1949 until his death in 1963 have inspired many to say that they can’t tell one Ozu movie from the next, but just because he stuck to a recognizable template and reworked themes didn’t mean he suffered from creative bankruptcy. You only need to see Tokyo Story (1953, screens June 21–24), the greatest-films–list stalwart that belongs in a world-cinema pantheon located somewhere atop Shochiku’s logo-inspiring Mount Fuji, to know that isn’t true, but we’ll suggest that the unconvinced check out two works in particular. Late Spring (1949, screens June 7–8) pairs Ryu and Setsuko Hara, she of the Joan Crawford shoulder pads and gajillion-watt smile, as a widowed father and a grown daughter who’ve taken care of each other for years. The time has come for her to reluctantly leave the nest, however, so for her own happiness, Pops pretends he’s getting remarried. Late Autumn (1960, screens June 25) retells virtually the same story—and casts the now older Hara in the role of a widowed mother hoping her offspring will pair up and prosper. For all of the déjà vu, what strikes you are the ways in which both films are informed by the shifts in periods and specifics—and dredge up contrasting emotional states (a sense of natural progression in the former, a feeling of sorrow and loss in the latter) despite the repeated use of Ozu’s trademark shots throughout. The same recipe, different textures and flavors; here was a tofu maker who could serve you the human experience armed with just a handful of ingredients and never leave you hungry.
"Ozu" runs June 7–27 at Film Forum.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear