Why this might not seem so easy
The two Japanese films that loom largest in the canon are Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Consequently, critics and audiences in the west have often seen subsequent Japanese releases through the lens of these two seminal pieces of golden age cinema. The modern-day films of Hirokazu Koreeda, for example, are often described as ‘Ozu-esque’, due to their domestic settings and the stylistic similarity in their use of ‘pillow shots’ – those scene-setting in-between details that Ozu made his own.
The idea of an Ozu film is as a cosy space in which nothing much happens, everything looks more or less the same, and everyone is as nice to each other as it’s possible to be. Yet his cinematic output was not as homogenous as we’re often led to believe. Indeed, his signature style – instantly recognisable with its shots filmed from sitting height, his characters’ direct eyelines into camera, and his humorous depiction of everyday life – was not set in stone until the later part of his career. His work in the silent era, which lasted into the mid-1930s in Japan, is filled with socially conscious student comedy, tense crime thrillers, and scenes of Depression-era desperation.
It’s true, however, that the subject of the family, and particularly the role of the father, became an increasing fixation for Ozu as his career progressed – specifically in the context of Japan’s rapidly changing postwar society. There is much sadness to be found in his work: one family must inevitably be broken for the next to form. But there’s also laughter, joy and a wry sense of fun, along with an acknowledgement that life goes on – an understanding that’s central to what we think of when we think of Ozu.
The best place to start – Good Morning
Although it’s tempting to dive straight into Tokyo Story, a more approachable beginning is Ozu’s cheerfully colourful comedy of consumerism, Good Morning (1959). Here, as he often would, Ozu repurposes old material for contemporary concerns, in this case re-inventing his 1932 silent comedy I Was Born, But… in which two young brothers go on a hunger strike in protest after realising the father they’d idolised is a corporate lackey. The two boys at the centre of Good Morning, meanwhile, rebel against adult hypocrisy by going on a pleasantries strike because their parents won’t buy them a TV set.
The boys’ defiance has unexpected consequences, as it coincides with a local drama in which a neighbour scandalously buys a washing machine while under suspicion of embezzling funds from the neighbourhood women’s association. The housewives snipe and gossip, bearing out the boys’ confusion with adult non-communication in which petty resentments can fester under a superficial façade of politeness. In true Ozu fashion, it all comes right in the end, though not without its share of irony.
One of his most charming depictions of contemporary family life and a mild critique of how consumerism was reshaping society, Good Morning is the very essence of ‘Ozu-esque’.
What to watch next
An obvious place to continue is with his original version, I Was Born, But…, the most celebrated of his early films. It features the same family dynamic but with additional bite as the two young boys’ hunger strike in a time when food was in short supply.
Ozu’s families of the 1930s often find themselves at the mercy of their times. The father of Tokyo Chorus (1931) stands up for a colleague who’s been unfairly sacked so the company won’t have to pay his pension, only to lose his own job in the process. The father of An Inn in Tokyo (1935) struggles to provide for his two young sons while wandering the country in search of work, but like his counterpart in A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) – another silent film that Ozu remade in the late 50s, as Floating Weeds (1959) – he’s eventually exiled from his family, having taken drastic action to save a single-mother from being thrown into sex work to pay for her daughter’s medical care.
A father in That Night’s Wife (1930) finds himself in a similar position, committing a robbery to pay for a doctor for his sick child. This is one of Ozu’s underseen silent crime dramas, one which does not condone its hero’s actions but sees him as a good man struggling against an unfair society.
The most famous father in all of Ozu, however, is the widower played by his regular star Chishu Ryu in Late Spring (1949). His melancholy peeling of an apple, left alone after his daughter’s marriage, is one of the director’s most enduring images.
The first of the ‘Noriko trilogy’, each of which stars frequent Ozu collaborator Setsuko Hara as a young woman called Noriko, Late Spring cements the director’s familiar postwar style. It finds him engaging with the themes that thereafter defined his career, as the heroine resists the pressure to wed in order to remain with her elderly father but is later coaxed towards the traditional paths of marriage and family.
In Early Summer (1951), another Noriko again resists pressure to accept an arranged marriage, but in this case because she has fallen for the widower next-door and transgressively wishes to decide her own romantic future.
Finally, there’s the Noriko of Tokyo Story, a moving exploration of the disintegration of the family unit in the postwar era that’s often regarded as Ozu’s masterpiece. This time she’s a war widow who alone is willing to shoulder the burden of a family’s visiting elderly relatives, where the birth children prove themselves unreliable.
The three Norikos embody the differing perspectives Ozu would continually return to in his late colour films, as seen most obviously in Late Autumn (1960), which recasts Hara in a reimagining of Late Spring, this time as mother rather than daughter.
Where not to start
The image of Ozu we get from his late colour dramas, from Equinox Flower (1958) to An Autumn Afternoon (1962), is by and large a cheerful one, but his visions of domestic strife could sometimes turn dark. Despite its ultimately hopeful conclusion, 1948’s A Hen in the Wind features shocking scenes of domestic violence, as does the melancholy marriage drama The Munekata Sisters (1950).
Woman of Tokyo (1933) skews darker still, as a student protagonist discovering that his sister has turned to sex work to pay for his education yields tragic results. His final black-and-white film, Tokyo Twilight (1957), continues the antipathy towards life in the capital and is among Ozu’s bleakest efforts in its critique of corrupted motherhood and a troubled heroine. These are all fine films, but atypically bleak for a director known for geniality.
Nevertheless, wherever you begin with Ozu, you’ll discover a world of wit and charm that will surprise anyone coming to the director aware of his reputation for formal rigidity.