The Only Son/There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu (Criterion)
It’s a clichÃ© by now to call Yasujiro Ozu the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, even if it is true to a point. The restrained style and quietly contemplative tone of his family dramas are a distinct and deliberate break from the western conventions that informed the work of his contemporaries (and, for that matter, his own early films), a concerted effort to reflect conservative Japanese ideals and mores. But the clichÃ© misses a defining component of his films, namely that they are utterly contemporary to their times.
Where Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi found international recognition with historical adventures and elegant period dramas about samurai warriors, royal figures, and fallen heroes, Ozu exclusively made contemporary films. His quietly understated family dramas and comedies take place in the modest homes and workplaces of everyday citizens trying to make a life for themselves and their children. His films are a veritable survey of Japanese society from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, a society straddling an age-old culture of expectations and codes of conduct on the one hand, and the stresses and demands of the modern world and its international influences on the other. The homes of our characters are models of simplicity and austerity, but just outside their windows are the smokestacks of industrial factories, roofs decorated with TV aerials, and webs of power lines and telephone poles hanging across the sky. These are the elements most often featured in his famous “pillow shots,” glimpses of the world around his characters which “cushion” the space between scenes which are among the most beautiful still life moments seen in 20th century cinema.