It's fun to talk Ozu to the Japanese. Our pals from across the Pacific won't bat an eye if gaijin expresses a fondness for Akira Kurosawa movies or a sweet tooth for sushi or an appetite for anime. But mention that you are a fan of Ozu Yasujiro, and they will probably look at you like you told them you like natto or understand what the whole pachinko thing is about. (Cultural sidebar: "pachinko" is an immensely popular arcade game more or less totally unlike pinball; "natto" is something made from deeply unhappy soybeans more or less totally unlike food.)
Though he is on the short list of major figures in world cinema, Ozu is widely believed to be a little beyond the reach of Western viewers. As one Japanese woman I was chatting with on a flight to Osaka put it when I told her of my own love of Ozu movies, "But he's soooo Japanese."
The notion that Ozu is "the most Japanese" of Japanese filmmakers is one of those bits of cinematic Common Knowledge that has been so often repeated, by fans and detractors alike, that it has taken on the trappings of unassailable truth, like the idea that Citizen Kane is the greatest sound film ever made or that no killer pig movie will ever top Razorback. But the saw is a misleading one. Ozu's greatness doesn't rely on any kind of cultural particularity but in the universality of his themes. Sampling Ozu you find not "the flavor of green tea over rice" (a uniquely Japanese treat and the title of one of his films), but the bittersweet, hauntingly familiar taste of the endless every day.
Take Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari). If we want to leave Ozu in his team colors as Most Japanese of all directors, then this 1953 masterpiece would have to be a shoo-in for the title of Most Japanese Film ever. Like most Ozu films, from his sharp spoofs of the '30s to his almost mathematically precise melodramas of the late '50s, it has at its heart issues that transcend any boundaries of time or place.
A finely wrought and carefully understated exploration of the disappointments and mundane beauties of family life, Tokyo Story features Ozu regulars Chishu Riyu and Chieko Higashiyama as an elderly couple from the sticks who travel to Tokyo to spend time with their adult kids, only to find them all too busy to be a family. Only their widowed daughter-in-law, played by the always-luminous Setsuko Hara, bothers to give the old-timers the time of day. With dialogue best described as poetic minimalism and Ozu's signature style, an almost still-life aesthetic that emphasizes detail and a measure of distance, the film manages to break your heart without ever once wringing its hands about it. Transfixed someplace beyond the reach of the kind of cathartic spasms afforded by dramas weepier and less wise, we are drawn inexorably into the inevitable tragedy of these two fragile people fading into life's twilight, finding themselves no longer central to their children's lives, or even to their own.
As timeless as the tale is, there is not one false note here, not one scene that seems cliche or ho-hum, or that lapses into easy hysteria. So great is Ozu's control of his medium that the film walks a tightrope, always in sympathy with its characters without the slightest bow to sentimentality. Miraculously, even the daughter-in-law's final, smiling acceptance of the fact that life is basically a pisser comes off not as bitterness or fatalism, but as a modest kind of enlightenment.
So is Ozu's great masterpiece strikingly, singularly, authentically Japanese-y? Well, Ozu sure ain't Hollywood. But he is a master craftsman and marvelously articulate, and Tokyo Story speaks loud and clear, whether you are following the subtitles or not. It takes a deep breath and a little bit of patience for Tokyo Story to start to work on you, but if you let it, this picture can offer up a delicacy that's always wildly rare: brilliance.
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