Yasujiro Ozu is often rated the ‘most Japanese’ of directors.
That austere, minimalist style, indulging in nothing so vulgar as fades, dissolves, tracking shots or pans: just long-held midshots with an unmoving camera. The painfully reserved characters, conversing in courteous banalities, emotions churning away beneath the polite surface. The tight-knit family dramas, which nearly always home in on conflicts going on between different generations. That’s Ozu, right?
Well, at any rate, that’s the Ozu most of us know: the late Ozu of his magisterial flowering in the 15 or so years before his death in 1963. What’s so intriguing about these two double sets from the BFI is that they each include, by way of a generous extra, a rarely-seen Ozu feature from the pre-war period – and the contrasts, no less than the similarities, are fascinating.
So here’s Tokyo Story, his most famous film, regularly featured on critics’ all-time-best lists. An amiable elderly couple from the country come to visit their various offspring in the city. But the younger people, busy with their own affairs, have little time for the old pair and regard them as a nuisance. Only their widowed daughter-in-law treats them with respect and affection.
And, coupled with it, Brothers And Sisters Of The Toda Family (1941), which could almost be a dry run for the later film. Here, it’s the widowed mother and her youngest, unmarried daughter who are shunted from household to household until the youngest son returns from China to rescue them. A sanctimonious scene towards the end lets things down, but all the subtle relationship dynamics are in place. Yet by comparison with his later style, Ozu’s mobile camera positively frolics.
Likewise with the second pairing. In Early Summer a young woman rejects the man her family are pressuring her to marry, insisting on making her own choice – the conflict causing the break-up of the family. What Did The Lady Forget? (1937) plays generational clashes for comedy, with a skittish girl not only picking an ‘unsuitable’ young man as her boyfriend, but inciting her professorial uncle to stand up to his domineering wife. And again, Ozu happily lets his camera go walkabout.
Negatives of pre-war Ozu movies being virtually non-existent, transfers of both the earlier films are taken from prints that have suffered some damage – intermittently irritating, but not enough to make them unwatchable. And to cover all the options, the BFI is releasing these in ‘Dual Format Editions’, containing both Blu-ray and DVD versions, along with substantial booklets.
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