[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
The very title is evocative of Yasujiro Ozu’s style, interests, and attitude: in the simple but scarcely negligible pleasure of a most ordinary dish, the unpretentious character and self-integrity of the protagonist is defined, and by the end of the film his hifalutin spouse has come not only to accept but also to value him for that quality—and even to share, albeit timorously, his satisfaction in slurping audibly as he consumes the rice in the privacy of a late-night snack at home. The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice enjoyed its local premiere one recent summer afternoon thanks to a cultural studies program in the University of Washington’s Far East Department.
Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas (Eclipse 42) (Criterion, DVD) is an apt companion piece to Criterion’s previous set of silent Yasujiro Ozu films on their Eclipse line. The artist called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, famous for the quiet restraint and rigorous simplicity of his sound films, was a voracious film buff more interested in Hollywood movies than his own national cinema early in his career and he thrived in a great variety of genres. The previous Eclipse set collected a trio of family comedies. This one offers three gangster films: Ozu noir, so to speak, inspired by the late silent crime pictures by Josef von Sternberg and American pictures. These films are more intimate character pieces than the gangster romantic tragedies of their American cousins, but they are lively productions directed with a dynamic style he stripped away through the 1930s.
Walk Cheerfully (1930) mixes the gangster drama with character comedy in the story of a hood named Ken the Knife (Minoru Takada) who vows to go straight when he falls in love with a “good” girl. His old girlfriend, who sports a Louise Brooks bob, isn’t happy about being dumped and decides to get revenge on them both. In fact, there’s a lot of American influence in the film, from the storytelling to the camerawork (from tracking shots to oblique, dramatic camera angles) to fashions; these hoods are as sporty as their Hollywood counterparts with their flashy suits and fedoras and swaggering attitudes. This is a bright picture, as the title suggests. The mob isn’t happy that Ken and his partner (Hisao Yoshitani) have left the gang but for all the obstacles, this is on the more lighthearted side of the gangster genre.
Tokyo Story (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is perhaps the definitive film by Yasujiro Ozu, the artist called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors. Chishu Ryo (Ozu’s favorite performer) and Chieko Higashiyama star as an elderly couple in rural Japan who find a cold welcome waiting for them when they come to Tokyo to visit their two urbanized children, who too busy with work and their own lives to pay them any attention. Within this simple framework Ozu creates a quiet but profound drama of the changing face of Japanese culture and the loss of traditional values in modern society.
The familiar themes and formal elements are all here – the quiet, graceful formality of Ozu’s style, the “tatami mat position” of his camera (about 36 inches from the floor, as if viewed from the position of a person seated cross-legged on a floor mat), the themes of familial responsibility and sacrifice – executed with the sureness of a master at the peak of his powers. But it’s also a resolutely modern portrait of post-war Japan, where western fashion defines the business culture and traditional dress is reserved for home, and careers and success increasingly dominate the lives of the rising generation. The painterly images bring the past and present together and the still life compositions have a serenity contradicted by the collision of cultures. It is sublime and one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema.
Previously available on DVD from Criterion, this new Blu-ray+DVD Combo is mastered from a new 4k film transfer and digital restoration, which upgrades the image significantly, and features commentary by Ozu scholar David Desser and three documentaries: the feature-length profile of the life and career of Ozu “I Lived, But” from 1983, the 40-minute tribute “Talking With Ozu” from 1993, and the 45-minute “Chishu Ryu and Shochiku’s Ofuna Studios” from 1988, all carried over from the previous DVD release. The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic David Bordwell (updated from the original version featured in the DVD release).
Assault on Precinct 13: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) isn’t John Carpenter’s first feature but it’s the first real John Carpenter film, with his themes and sensibility in rough but recognizable form. Ostensibly an urban crime thriller of street gangs gone wild, it plays like a cross between a Howard Hawks western and a zombie siege film that meets in a desolate Los Angeles no man’s land of a nearly abandoned neighborhood. A small group of people—cops, criminals, civilians and office workers—find themselves suddenly under siege by a nearly faceless gang in a nearly vacant police station.
Carpenter turns his dingy set into a claustrophobic cage and builds the tension as the gang takes out the besieged members one by one, forcing the survivors into the corner for a last stand. The acting is hardly Oscar material, but Carpenter fills his characters with real character and his smart, dramatically strong sense of visual design and tight pacing pulls the film together as it continues. For all the exposition dealt out in the opening half hour, it’s become an almost abstract act of violence by the end, motivations long forgotten by the attackers and survival the only thought on the minds of the dwindling survivors. And this is Carpenter’s first film shot in Panavision, his format of choice for the rest of his career.
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.
I’ve done the best DVD releases of the year in some incarnation or another for years. This one is a little different. This is not a celebration of the most impressive special editions, the most stunning transfers or the best supplements. This is my list of what I consider the essential movies that debut on DVD — from long awaited classics to rare cult discoveries — done up right in worthy editions. That doesn’t mean great supplements (though those are always appreciated) but worthy transfers and fine mastering.
Forgive the U.S.-centric spin. Some of these may have been released in other countries with other region codes, but not everyone has an open-code, region free, PAL-converting DVD player. And those of us who do don’t always keep on the releases in other regions. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what’s coming out here.
This is a decidedly subjective list, influenced by personal taste, excitement of discovery (or rediscovery) and rarity. While films that have been previously available on VHS or are periodically revived in retrospectives or cable showings are still valued DVD releases, the release of something unavailable in any form is an even greater cause for celebration, and that is reflected in my subjective hierarchy.
The cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher with star/producer Randolph Scott and writer Burt Kennedy include some of the greatest American westerns of the fifties — or ever, for that matter. Until this year, that was a contention that many folks had to take on faith, as these films were difficult to see at best. Apart from Seven Men From Now, released on DVD a few years ago by Paramount, none of these collaborations were on DVD and the selection arbitrarily released on VHS years ago were part of a failed experiment in low-cost/low-quality tapes from Goodtimes, whose tapes were recorded in the substandard EP (extended play) mode. And of course, the two widescreen films in the cycle were only ever seen on TV or video in pan-&-scan versions, which ill-served the integrity of Boetticher’s films. Has any major American director been treated with such shabby neglect on home video as Budd Boetticher?
The five-disc set The Films of Budd Boetticher from Sony Pictures Home Video more than doubles the number of Boetticher films on DVD (before the release of this box set, only four of his 35 features were available, and only a few more on VHS and laserdisc), but more importantly, it finally gives this American director his due with beautiful editions of his essential films, especially his definitive The Tall T (mastered to fit the 16×9 frame) and his widescreen classics Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, all tightly scripted by Kennedy with a lyrical approach of dialogue, all set in an increasingly abstract nowhereland of the desert. The offbeat black comedy Buchanan Rides Alone and the grim Decision at Sundown are minor companion pieces with a few major pleasures (among them a beautiful turn by a young L.Q. Jones as an amiable young cowpoke in Buchanan). In all of them, Boetticher took the “limitations” of his stiff, craggy star and turned them into essential elements of his characters: a hard, inexpressive man at home on a horse and in the wilderness, a survivor with few words and no wasted actions. The same can be said for Boetticher’s direction: every shot of his best films is austere and pared to the essentials, yet directed with an ease that made them live and breath. Martin Scorsese provides a marvelous video introduction to The Tall T (and, by extension, the entire series) and Ride Lonesome with a mixture of historical perspective and cinephile love of the films and Clint Eastwood introduces Comanche Station, but an even greater contribution is the documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, a feature-length portrait of the director and his life and career produced by Eastwood and directed by Bruce Ricker.