The Ozu Experience

Next up in Borderless Cinema, our new series profiling lesser-known gems of world cinema, we review “Late Spring.” The film is written by Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, directed by Yasujiro Ozu, and stars Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, and Haruko Sugimura. Running time 108 minutes. Available on DVD via Criterion Collection.

ozu sping

The first time I watched an Ozu Yasujiro film I was left frustrated. You have to understand, I’d spent the better part of my existence watching Hollywood films, so I was used to movies that did all the thinking for me. Though I wasn’t new to Japanese films, Ozu’s work completely confounded me. The problem was that he required I pay attention to the subtleties of the cinematic experience, and think for myself.  This meant I had to change my viewing habits completely, and it took some getting used to.  In the end, I discovered it was well worth the effort.

Shooting films amidst the tempestuous decades of the mid-20th Century, Ozu Yasujiro used his camera to shine a light on the subtle transformations taking place for Japanese subjects wrestling to locate themselves in a modernizing world.  His films normally take place within the confines of a family whose structure shifts as traditional norms are put in tension with modern trends. One of Ozu’s trademark techniques for giving expression to this tension is his use of low-level shots, or “tatami shots.” He is famous for placing the camera close to the floor and shooting his scenes from the perspective of characters more used to kneeling on the floor than sitting on chairs. In one of his most beautifully subtle plays on this technique, in the film Late Spring, his heroine shifts in an act of angry defiance against her father by moving from her seat on the floor to a spot on a chair. Seen from the perspective of a “tatami shot,” the young woman’s act of defiance is emphasized as she rises to a position above both her father and the viewer. Suddenly this seemingly mundane action reveals to us the tension between modern and traditional space.  The moment is fleeting, while at the same time breathtaking.

Another characteristic feature of Ozu’s films is his use of static shots to carry the transition between scenes. Attentive to the ways in which a scene will resonate after the action has passed, Ozu will often let the camera linger on a single object or frame – a lamp, a clock on the wall, a long shot of an empty hallway. The viewer is given the chance to breathe during these brief moments. That is, we are afforded something that is rarely afforded in a Hollywood film: the time to think. If Ozu’s films were nothing more than entertaining bits of action or comedy, this time would be wasted. Yet, his is not a world of mere spectacle. It is one built on subtle tremors that resonate deep into the substance of human emotion. To sense these tremors the viewer needs this time. Viewers may, like me, initially react with restlessness or frustration. My suggestion would be to have patience, to surrender to the rhythms of the Ozu experience, and to allow a new world of cinematic experience to open up.