Pairing Ozus

Mariko Okada and Fumio Watanabe in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (1960)

Next year will mark the 120th anniversary of the birth of Yasujiro Ozu. Of the fifty-four films, including six shorts, that he made before he died on his birthday, December 12, in 1963, thirty-six survive. Surveying the life and career for Senses of Cinema in 2003, Ozu’s centennial year, Nick Wrigley noted that the oeuvre can be roughly divided into two phases, before and after the Second World War. “His breezier early works are unafraid to acknowledge the influence of Hollywood melodramas or to flirt with farce,” wrote Wrigley. “Such films contrast greatly with his later masterpieces, which portray a uniquely contemplative style so rigorously simplistic that it renounces almost all known film grammar.”

That unique style grew more consistent over the years to such a degree that the later films resemble each other not only in tone and pacing but also in terms of narrative and theme. As with, for example, the work of Hong Sangsoo, that makes the differences all the more crucial and telling. In a series opening today and running through next Wednesday, New York’s Anthology Film Archives is zeroing in on this aspect of Ozu’s work by presenting films that “are—explicitly or implicitly—reworkings of earlier films.”

In both I Was Born, But . . . (1932) and Good Morning (1959), two young brothers go on strike. The boys stop eating in the earlier, black-and-white silent film when they decide that their father’s bowing and scraping before his boss—as they see it—is humiliating. In the lighter reworking of the story, with its meticulously arranged color palette, the boys refuse to speak until their parents buy a television set. In 2017, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that “the setting is again middle-class Tokyo suburbia, but the family is now firmly settled, and serious problems—old age, unemployment, ostracism—are principally reserved for their neighbors and friends.”

In 2004, Donald Richie pointed out that Ozu only once formally designated one of his films as an actual remake of another. A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959) measure the consequences of the return of an aging actor with his troupe to a small town, where he begins seeing a former lover and meets their now-grown son. Noting that Ozu was thirty-one when he made the first version and fifty-six when he made the second, Richie found “in the later picture the feeling of relaxation—not of technique, nor of standards, but of attitude. The main difference is internal. The earlier version seems the more bitter of the two. Toward the end of his life, Ozu mellowed.”

In Late Spring (1949), Setsuko Hara plays the loving daughter of a gentle man who is persuaded that the time has come for her to get married. Michael Atkinson has called the film “a hushed battlefield where no one is right or wrong.” In Late Autumn (1960), the goal of nudging a still-young but mature woman out of the nest is the same, but here, Hara plays the mother. Late Autumn “lays bare the oppressive formalities and rigid traditions that turn bourgeois marriages hollow and bitter,” writes Richard Brody in the New Yorker. “Ozu films the forced smiles and deferential courtesies of husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and colleagues in coolly distanced images that cut to pained confessions spoken into the camera, which sting like accusations aimed at the viewer.”

Screening unpaired with any other Ozu on Friday and December 21 as part of Anthology’s Essential Cinema program is There Was a Father (1942). “The film is uncompromisingly didactic in its fidelity to Japan’s wartime ethos,” wrote Tony Rayns in 2010. “And yet there’s an underlying feeling that Ozu is slightly ambivalent about the film’s overt messages. It would be wrong to overstate this, and there is certainly nothing to suggest that Ozu was a closet pacifist or that he covertly opposed the war effort. The feeling arises only because of various continuities with Ozu’s pre- and postwar work, suggesting that he cared more about his own procedural and aesthetic choices than he did about the demands of wartime propaganda.”

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