Donald Richie – Ozu


  • One major subject: the Japanese family; one major theme: its dissolution – family members moving apart; two main extensions: the school and the office
  • “The father or mother sitting alone in the now empty house is an image common enough in Ozu’s films … … These people are no longer themselves. We know they will somehow survive, but we also know at what cost … … The reason they impel our sympathy is that they are neither victims of their own flaws, nor the prey of a badly organized society; they are the casualties of things as they are, the way that life is.”
  • Only in early films [he] emphasized the external social conditions; in later films the director found more important the constraints on human conditions; The more pleasant bourgeois life is “no less real”; Ozu abandoned the idea that unhappiness is caused solely by social wrongs
  • Ozu story is a pretext: “It is not the story that Ozu wants to show so much as the way his characters react to what happens in the story, and what patterns these relations create.”
  • The technique: highly restricted; the titles: similar; same actor in the same kind of role, [also] same story line in various films; activities: also consistent; and [Ozu’s] liking for trains – a vehicle of mystery and change; photograph for nostalgia, [while] death is simple absence
  • There is no such thing as Human Nature, only individual men and women – “By so restricting our view and confining our interest, Ozu allows us to comprehend the greatest angle aesthetic paradox: less always means more … … the several invariably indicates the many; restriction results in amplification; endless variety is found within the single entity.”


a)  Plot and Characters

  • Light story lines, rendered even slighter by its conventionality – marriage and death are the only conclusions
  • Ozu’s method resembled that of directors of animated films or musical comedies who construct their film around a finished sound track. One result of this method was the creation of characters that in no way depended upon the convolutions of plot or story.
  • “The character became real with no reference to story or plot; he became real because all the words he spoke gave expression to those principles of his character which it was the writers’ duty to discover.”
  • Heightened realism: the characters say just what they would say, yet the dialogue continually surprises because it is always unfolding facets of the character that we were hitherto unaware of
  • Ozu disliked plot: his curiosity and interest in people so great, that he denied himself the undoubted convenience of story, plot, and conventional dialogue … … The resultant lovability of [his] character, … … is based on his perfect freedom and consequent fullness
  • In the Ozu script no character description beyond simple indication is given; instead lines of dialogues that carry their own inflections. “The viewer of an Ozu film is expected to infer the characters’ feelings, and usually the dialogue is so beautifully written that reasonably attentive viewers do just that, whether consciously or not. … … in the films of Bresson and the earlier pictures of Antonioni, though, thoughts and feelings are so lightly implied that we must infer most of the motivation. The same is true of the Ozu films; as in the middle novels of Henry James, we are shown everything and told nothing.

b)  Humor, Parallel, and Inconsistency

  • Humor: formed by logical incongruities; repeating jokes, repeating character traits, led naturally to the formation of character
  • In the Ozu film there is often a minor motif running parallel to the main theme or story, and to an extent, both presaging and sustaining it: 1) The variations may be presented as contrasting with each other, or one variation may continue another. 2) More often, however, the parallels running side by side do not meet and stretch into infinity. 3) Sometimes, Ozu’s parallels are purely pictorial – the same scene is shown again and again, its presence supporting the theme of the film. 4) The most satisfying parallels are the few that are readily recognizable which fit the film and amplify it but whose connection with the main theme remains elusive (e.g. in An Autumn Afternoon, the old-time war song)
  • “Parallelism was the mainstay of Ozu’s method of film construction because it enables him to show what he wanted without telling us what we should be thinking and feeling.”
  • There is nowhere in [Ozu’s] work a scene of which the real, intended meaning is contrary to the one seemingly expressed. “Rather, a character reveals his belief to be the contrary of those he expresses, or maintains a belief different from the one reality quite apparently imposes. In Ozu’s work, such self-deception is, as the father in Equinox Flowers plainly states, proof of humanity.

c)  Irony, Mono no aware, and Surprise

  • Ozu’s irony makes us want to move closer to [those] very warm and human people, [contrary to] the traditional functions of irony ([makes] wholesale empathy impossible). Many of the ironies are neither explained nor exploited. Our detachment reveals a design of which the characters are unaware
  • Mono no aware (“sympathetic sadness”): a serene acceptance of a transient world, a gentle pleasure found in mundane pursuits soon to vanish. “Ozu’s characters are all without pasts and only very occasionally and indirectly suffer because of some past action of lack of one. But the present matters because it is all we have. One should … … not bemoan its gradual disappearance because that is the way things are … …”
  • Ability to contemplate; silent contemplation; long still shots of characters simply existing; a scene of simple savoring of the moment; appreciation of the weather ([so that] our thoughts are soothed and our spirits renewed)
  • “Ozu’s films are made of so little, his characters composed of so apparently few “traits”, … … He rarely gives his characters any identifying props, and yet they surprise.”
  • Ozu’s characters often display opposite extremes of emotion; beneath every one of the emotions we normally show, there lies its opposite. “When such concealed emotions, powerful and long denied, break out, they show — no matter who we are — how akin we are to everyone else.”

d)  Moralist and Artist; Life and Choice

  • The message of Ozu’s film, is, perhaps, that one is happiest living in accord with one’s own imperfections include aging, dying, and other calamities .- seen in this light, Ozu was a truly moral man … … He was also an artist, and thus expressed his moral views only indirectly
  • In Ozu’s universe there is no afterlife, [and his] view of life is not, indeed a comforting one. “Most of Ozu’s films are about parents and children, all of whom suffer a degree of disappointment … … This disappointment is built into the human condition, as many an Ozu character learns during the course of the picture. They begin by hoping that all will be well, that things will turn out as they wish; they often end by consoling themselves that at least they have suffered less than others they know.”
  • “Loneliness and death are in a sense such banal facts of human experience that only a great artist,  a Tolstoy, a Dickens, an Ozu, can restore to them something of the urgency and sadness that we all someday experience … … Ozu is one of the very few artists whose characters are aware of the great immutable laws that govern their lives.”
  • Choice is important to all of Ozu’s people: you are what you do, and nothing more or less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself. Here, perhaps, is the reason why Ozu’s characters have no past (Ozu never once in his entire career used a flashback) – what is important is not what life has done to them, but what they do with what life has done to them. Then, one understands Ozu’s dislike and distrust of plot … … one understands also why inconsistency of character is so important to Ozu: it is a sign of life because it is a sign of choice


a) Camera Movement and Angle

  • Ozu’s later films [make me] think harder and feel more, and hence [my] experience is the deeper. In the circumstances we must supply the emotional direction ourselves, and doing so heightens our emotional involvement, brings us closer than we can be when our reactions have been foreseen and foreordained … … we think more, but it does not follow that we felt less
  • Ozu relinquished most of the grammatical elements of cinema: he did not want to express himself in a direct way; he refused elements of film grammar because they express conventionalized opinion
  • The low camera angle made it possible to sharply delineate the various surfaces of the image and to accentuate the one occupied by the actors; [It] has the effect of creating a stage upon which the characters are seen to best advantage

b) Appreciation of the Present Moment

  • We are obliged to watch the entire selection when the Ozu character performs. Ozu would have us listen to the whole long song not only out of a sense of politeness, but for its own sake, out of a sense of pleasure; (Zen) when one does something one does noting else; the present moment is immortalized [in the scene at the end of Late Spring]: “As we watch the skin fall away, it is the concentration on the present we appreciate and, if we are like Ozu, admire. It is when the hands stop moving, the knife remains poised, the peeling remains unfinished, it is when the father looks up with vacant eyes, that we know he is, after all, like us — that the present is now lost in the future with its hopes and its fears, that he is feeling his loneliness.”

c) Composition and Symbols

  • Ozu was interested in composition within the single shot, [instead of] harmonizing the composition of succeeding shots; [he] worked to create the kine of geometry necessary to satisfy his sense of beauty
  • [Ozu’s] compositions, like most Japanese pictorial compositions, are the main horizontal. Such compositions suggest the known, the content, even the serene. Vertical and diagonal compositions, by contrast, suggest striving, the unknown, even the discontent. The invariable low horizon of the Ozu film helps create the accepting atmosphere of these pictures
  • The vase in Late Spring: it is the pretext for an amount of elapsed time; it is something to watch during the period in which the feeling of the daughter change … … “In being shown only the vase during the crucial seconds when she comes near tears, we are put into the position of having to imagine her feelings. Although we do not necessarily imagine that she will be near tears when we next see her, the vase has occupied our attention while we were occupied with her feelings, and we consequently accept her feelings, no matter what they are.”

d) Acting and Directing

  • In most of his mature films, Ozu demanded not emblematic gestures, but a wide though restricted range of actions that would achieve the desired effect. [Ryu]: “Ozu told me to stare at the end of my chopsticks and then stare at my hand and then speak to my child. The simple act of doing these things in that order conveyed a certain feeling. Ozu did not explain the feeling; the actions came first. He told me what to do and let me discover the feeling.”
  • Just as he remained relatively uninterested in the changing social conditions of his country, [Ozu] is uninterested in a naturalistic picture of his people. He is interested, precisely, in the known, mundane, and certain society, that can provide a frame or his observations on life, death, and other imponderables … … “For this reason, perhaps, almost all the characters in an Ozu film already know one another before the film begins.”
  • The underlying assumption of an Ozu film is that a person is always in control of himself … … “We are not allowed that vicarious and easy pleasure of knowing more about the character than he himself does … … given this kine of character delineation, the whole question of fault never rises.


a) Form and Transition

  • As we have seen, Ozu did not want to interpret; he wanted to present; for him there was only one way of editing – following the script. He followed it carefully and undeviatingly because the impact of his film depended on his realizing previously calculated effects, mainly those concerned with form and tempo
  • Circular form: life has revolved, and we are back where we started but with a difference (see Tokyo Story). Showing us this difference is the purpose of the film … …
  • Transition: usually indicated by two shots; the first shows an outside view of the place we have just been, the second an outside view of the place we are going. Other methods include [showing] only what the characters are experiencing, [which] appears both logical and natural; [using] objects as transitional devices, like the bicycle in A Story of Floating Weeds
  • Ozu’s still lifes and otherwise empty scenes become containers for our emotions. Empathy is not the key here. Primary to the experience is that in these scenes (like the vase in Late Springempty of all but mu, we suddenly apprehend what the film has been about, i.e., we suddenly apprehend life. “…. … Ozu has ensured that we sense something larger than the emotion we are both seeing and feeling, that at the same time we become aware of the universality of all emotion — in short that we feel something of the texture of life itself and again know that we are part of this universal fabric. Empathy is thus transformed into an appreciation, and experience into personal expression.”
  • Schrader: [the shot of the vase (a long one, lasting some ten seconds)] “can accept deep, contradictory emotion and transform it into an expression of something unified, permanent, transcendent.”

b) Tempo and Sequence

  • Indeed there is a question whether Ozu “knew” what he was doing … … The long close-up of the vase is not in the original script for that picture. Its proper length and position were something that became apparent only during the course of creating the film … … Certainly, his editing methods were largely a matter of “feeling”
  • Ozu usually continued [conversation scenes] past the point of silence, letting the camera run after conversation stops … … This gives an air of importance, of weight, to almost any conversation
  • The Noh drama scene in Late Spring: it would have been made rapidly, and we would then be rushed to the next sequence. [However,] Ozu has added shot after shot as a painter would apply brush strokes, each one contributing to the final impression … … In doing so, he created a feeling of actuality, … … and he took the amount of time we needed both to be convinced of what was happening and to apprehend the event’s emotional effects on father and daughter
  • The visual form of the Ozu sequence is the binary a-b-a, so the temporal form of the sequence is slow-fast-slow. “All aspects of an Ozu film, then, dialogue, scene, sequence, sound, were patterned; they were module-like units … … One reason Ozu can successfully impose such a pattern upon his material, can do so, that is, without falsifying, is that the sequence pattern is not the story pattern … … The higher authority in Ozu’s picture is the unvarying structure of the film itself, and not, as in most films, story or plot.”
  • “Certainly the immediacy of the Byzantine mosaic portraits is occasioned in part by the rigor and sameness of their patterns; certainly much of the joy of a Bach fugue is caused by the inflexible rules of fugue-writing itself, just as part of the magical realism of a Vermeer interior is attributable to the rigid geometrical composition. Or, better,  perhaps all this life and joy and recognizable realism results from the overcoming of various rules and patterns. Perhaps it is restriction that creates amplitude; perhaps less always means more.”


  • “While working with completely traditional material and using traditional means, Ozu has had the energy and insight to prevent the formal from becoming formalistic, the form from becoming empty, and the spirit from becoming the mere letter … … Ozu’s characters have a validity beyond their role in the film. It is possible for us to imagine them continuing their lives. Indeed, it is impossible for us not to. Having spend a few hours with them, we find that we do not want to leave them. We have come to understand and consequently to love them. And with this understanding we come to know more about ourselves, and, with that, more about life.”

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