Yasujiro Ozu

Films of Yasujiro Ozu:

“Early Spring” - Yasujiro Ozu (1956)

Like most of the films of his mature period, Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (Soshun, 1956) concerns the various personal and social relationships that structured contemporary middle-class Japanese life. In this case the primary theme concerns the workaday dissatisfactions among the burgeoning class of low-level white-collar workers. The men (the primary breadwinners)  refer to themselves as “salarymen”, and for the most part, they feel their work is boring and meaningless – they merely work to collect their meager weekly salaries.

The story concerns one of these salarymen, a young married office worker, and it traces events that bring about a crisis in his life.  The ending of this crisis may bring about different critical interpretations, depending on how one views the bigger social picture.  But whatever your interpretation, a key component of the film is, of course, the manner in which Ozu tells the story cinematically. 

Ozu’s Cinematography
Ozu’s mise-en-scene was famously different from most other filmmakers across the globe, although his style has directly influenced some filmmakers, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  His camera is almost invariably set at a low angle, as if from a low sitting position and looking up at the characters.  The image compositions are static, and there is almost no camera movement.  Even when the camera tracks horizontally, it maintains a fixed composition on the principal characters of the shot.  Thus the camera seems to be rooted to the environment, and pays little attention to the eye-line axes of the characters.  Nevertheless, there is quite a bit of cutting on action, which evokes the idea of the camera representing the “invisible” witness whose focus of attention changes naturally with an action cut.  Sometimes, at dramatically significant moments in the story, there is a straight-on camera shot, with the principal character speaking directly to the camera, which places the invisible witness directly in the middle of the interaction, empathetically assuming the role of the recipient of the speaker’s words.

For scene transitions, Ozu often shows static cityscape images that are empty of human content.  Sometimes these scene transitions elliptically pass over a significant piece of action that must be inferred by the viewer.  Altogether these effects create their own special cinematic atmosphere  that seems to place the viewer in an intimate position to witness the scene, and yet not always privy to everything that is going on. 

Ozu probably developed this consistently rigorous visual methodology during his early days in the period of silent filmmaking.  Surviving storyboards of Ozu’s work show his meticulous concern for background compositions and are indicative of his static camera methods [1].

Using these cinematic techniques, Ozu presents in Early Spring over the course of two hours and twenty-four minutes, Ozu’s longest film, a close-to-the-ground study of the pointless tedium of modern middle-class existence.  Despite the careful brush strokes, however, I wouldn’t say that this film aesthetically matches the enervating existential ambience of Olmi’s Il Posto (1961). 

The Cast
There are three principal characters in Early Spring:
  • Shoji Sugiyama (Ryo Ikebe), an office worker at the Toa Fire Brick Company
  • Masako (Chikage Awashima), Sugiyama’s wife
  • Chiyo Kaneko, “Goldfish”, (Keiko Kishi), a girl at Sugiyama’s work place

The focalization is almost exclusively on Sugiyama and Masako. Nevertheless, I would say that there are three focal spheres in the story, and the narrative meanders back and forth across all three spheres throughout the film:
  • Sugyiyama’s world - the man's world
  • Masako’s world - the woman's world
  • The salarymen milieu at the company office.  It is this third sphere that is, in my view, the most important.
The Story
The story moves through four stages, and in each stage the three subject spheres are visited.
1.  Morning in the City
In the first part, we are introduced to the rather regimented world of the Tokyo office workers [2].  They all live in cramped apartments, all wear the same “office” clothes, and commute back and forth to work in crowded trains. Sugiyama and Masako are just one couple in this crowd.  During a lunch break, a number of the workers decide to break the monotony of work by going on a day hike at a nearby mountain.
2.  Sugiyama and Goldfish
On the hike, Sugiyama begins chatting with a girl from the company’s typing pool, “Goldfish”.  Soon they are shown having lunch together, and thanks to the vivaciousness of Goldfish their acquaintanceship blossoms into an affair.  The actual moments of passion are omitted by Ozu’s ellipsis here.

3.  Breakdown at the Office
Although Sugiyama and Goldfish conceal their relationship, their gossipy coworkers at the office begin to suspect something. A few of them arrange a fake party that is intended to serve as a kangaroo court to accuse Goldfish and Sugiyama of adultery. Sugiyama is preoccupied with news that he is going to be transferred by the company to the remote town of Mitsuishi, and he misses the setup party.  But Goldfish show up, and she is reduced to tears by their nasty allegations.

4.  Breakdown at Home
Eventually the suspicious Masako becomes sure of Sugiyama’s infidelity, and their ensuing quarrel leads to her moving out of their apartment to go live with a girlfriend.  Masako cuts herself off from Sugiyama, hanging up the phone when he calls her up.  So Sugiyama glumly goes off alone to Mitsuishi to take up his new post.  In the end, though, friends and family intervene to convince Masako to go join her husband.  They meet up, mutually apologize, and agree to start a new life together.

Some people view this story as a heartwarming domestic drama about a good traditional marriage that is almost ruined by the crafty machinations of the immoral Goldfish.  According to this view, Goldfish, whose hairstyle and clothing have a Western look, represents the corrupting influences of modernity.  Sugiyama is seen as initially succumbing to the evil temptations, but he eventually repents, and order is finally restored by his forgiving wife. 

But I take a different view.  To me the film is about the hollowness of “modern” Japanese middle-class life.  Among the men at the office, there is little authentic communication.  They compulsively reach for their cigarettes in order to give the appearance of being occupied. Much of the time they complain about the barren life horizons of all the salarymen. At one point in the story when Sugiyama is having a drink at a bar, he hears an elderly white-collar worker at the adjacent barstool tell him, “I’ve worked 31 long years to find life is just an empty dream.”  In fact in this social climate, drinking alcohol seems to be the only means that a man has to throw off the yoke of his social harness and be uninhibited.  This is shown when Sugiyama gets together with his war veteran buddies, and they all get heavily and satisfyingly drunk.

In the milieu of the women, life is equally dreary.  Masako chats with her mother and various female acquaintances, and they all tell her that men are inherently cheaters.  Although the mother is rather stoic about this, the others advise her to make men suffer as much as possible for their sins.

Goldfish, in fact, is the only authentic person in the story.  She is the one person who can feel love, honestly express her emotions, and make direct engagement with the people around her. Her habitually good-natured demeanor arouses jealousy. When the man she loves, Sugiyama, turns his back on her, she accepts and forgives him, only asking him to be honest with her. At the kangaroo-court party after Goldfish departs in tears, the men, who had just sanctimoniously attacked her, then admit to each other that it was probably Sugiyama who had seduced her. This is an erroneous belief – Goldfish had actually seduced Sugiyama – but it shows how men typically and immediately heap blame on women for acts in which they themselves are complicit. They go on to confess that they actually envy Sugiyama’s good luck at having scored with Goldfish.  Hypocrisy is the rule with everyone but Goldfish.

So in my view, the narrative of Early Spring ends gloomily as a defeat.  Sugiyama and Masako succumb to the oppressive, dead-end system that surrounds them and vow to make a go of it.  But the joys and wonders of life, its magic as represented by the way Goldfish engaged with it, are evidently abandoned.  This is a sad ending indeed.

  1. “The director’s storyboards suggest Ozu envisioned his trademark rigorous-style compositions long before cameras rolled. In them, sets are lined with geometric beauty and are much darker than drawings done to illustrate the characters.” – quoted from “Ozu's Movies Continue to Win New Fans”, by Noriki Ishitobi and Aiko Masuda, The Asahi Shimbun, January 28, 2014.
  2. This was by no means only a concern in Japan.  Everywhere there was a growing concern about the new social forms of the “Organization Man”, as attested to by bestselling books of that time:
    • The Organization Man (1957), by William H. Whyte, Jr., Doubleday Anchor Books, and
    • The Lonely Crowd (1953), by David Riesman, Doubleday Anchor Books.

“Crisis” - Ingmar Bergman (1946)

The earliest films that Ingmar Bergman directed, in the 1940s, are often dismissed by later critics as prosaic and jejune. In particular, this is probably the critical consensus concerning the very first film that the 27-year-old Bergman directed, Crisis (Kris, 1946) [1]. However, when I recently saw it, I found the film full of interesting stylistic flourishes that make it stand out even today; and in fact I think the film is superior to his later Thirst (Törst, aka Three Strange Loves, 1949). 

The story, scripted by Bergman and based on a Danish radio play, Moderhjertet (The Maternal Instinct) by Leck Fischer, concerns the psychological turmoil surrounding five principal characters variously encumbered by their own obsessions.  The presumed protagonist, Nelly, is a teenage girl who has become the center of attention for the other four principals.  But actually the narrative focalization is rather diffuse and spread out beyond the protagonist across those other principals, too. 

These principal characters in Crisis are
  • Nelly (played by Inga Landgré), an 18-year-old girl hoping to leave the humdrum confines of her small town in search excitement in the big city.
  • Ingeborg Johnson (Dagny Lind), Nelly’s stepmother who has been looking after Nelly since she was a baby.
  • Jenny (Marianne Löfgren), Nelly’s birth mother, who has come to visit Ingeborg in order to reclaim the daughter that she had abandoned 18 years ago.
  • Jack (Stig Olin), the oily, self-centered boyfriend of Jenny who falls in love with Nelly.
  • Ulf (Allan Bohlin), a thirtyish and decent, but unexciting, village local who hopes Nelly will accept one of his repeated marriage proposals.

As the story unfolds, we see that Ingeborg, Jenny, Jack, and Ulf all feel that only Nelly can supply them with fulfilment that is missing from their lives.  But Nelly is confused and noncommital about all of them.  What makes this situation and its presentation interesting is not Nelly, who appears rather conventional and not particularly endowed with personal magnetism.  Instead, it is the way Bergman fashions an expressionistic atmosphere around the personages of Ingeborg, Jenny, and Jack.  All three of them are facing existential crises, and Bergman’s mise-en-scene is employed at full tilt to externalize their intense inner turmoil.

The narrative passes through four phases.
1. Ingeborg and Nelly Receive a Visit
In this part we are introduced to the five characters.  Ingeborg is a spinster piano teacher in the small town, who looks after her maturing “daughter” Nelly. We also get the foreshadowing hint, which will be confirmed later, that Ingeborg is dying of a terminal disease and doesn’t have much longer to live. Ulf is shown lurking around Nelly and hoping for a response, but she dismisses him as too old and laughs off his marriage proposals. After having abandoned her newborn daughter to Ingeborg 18 years ago, Jenny shows up at Ingeborg’s house to reclaim Nelly and take her back to the big city. Soon Jenny’s boyfriend, the self-consciously suave and knife-wielding Jack, shows up, too, and it is obvious that his presence spells trouble. They all plan to attend the village ball that evening.

2. The Village Ball
At the ball, Jack charms Nelly, and the two of them quickly become inebriated. They disrupt the staid activities of the ball by arranging a boogie-woogie session in an adjoining room, and then they run outside into a park by the river. The dapper Jack represents something mysterious and bewitching to Nelly, but there is something bizarre and disturbing about Jack too. With a dark, half-mad demeanor, he tells her
“Once I lived under a stairs in an old castle in ruins. Across from the stairs was a big broken window.  Through it I could see the fields beneath the moon, the sea, the woods, and two bone-meal factories.”
He adds further,
“This is a moonlit life.  Not yet for you, but you’ll soon see. . . unreal light, darkness, and shadows, and all manner of frightful things."
He repeats this moonlit imagery several times later in the story, as if it represents a capsule summary of his obsessive melancholic psyche.

Although Ulf shows up and punches out Jack, it is clear that Nelly is attracted to the city slicker, and she informs the distraught Ingeborg that she will immediately leave with Jenny for the city.

3. Nelly in the City

Nelly is now in the city, and some time has passed.  Ingeborg comes for a visit and observes that the relationships between Jenny, Jack, and Nelly are riven with jealousy and are unraveling.  The next day Jack, now unshaven and in rags, shows up at Nelly’s apartment and appears to be a different person and even more deranged than usual. He tells Nelly a fantastic story about how he has just murdered someone (presumably Jenny) –  but she succumbs anyway to his embraces, and they make love. Then, to Nelly’s shock, Jenny hauntingly shows up alive and well at her apartment and confronts the unclad girl in her bed. This sets up a final confrontation between Jenny, Jack, and Nelly that has disastrous and fatal consequences. 

4. Back Home
The final segment, which is rather flat, shows Nelly returning to the village to live with Ingeborg. Ulf is there waiting for her, but Nelly is too traumatized by what has happened and has no patience for his hang-dog entreaties.

On the surface and probably to most critics, Crisis merely represents the well-traveled territory of small-town innocence briefly enticed by big-city corruption.  But the way this story is told suggests penetrations into deeper psychological issues of existential angst that would underlie many of Bergman’s later works.  Bergman’s cinematic expression is already well-developed here.  Regrettably though, the musical score on the soundtrack, which is loud and trashy, doesn’t match the narrative and is only an irritating distraction.

As mentioned, the interesting characters are Ingeborg, Jenny, and Jack, all of whom are drawn with an expressionistic brush.  At first, the characterizations of Jenny and Jack appear so exaggerated and repulsive that one is tempted to dismiss them as overblown stereotypes. But Ingeborg, Jenny, and Jack all turn out to be self-reflective characters, and the narrative focalization is equally weighted on them.

Ingeborg may seem colorless, but her understated anxiety is always present, since we know that she has only a couple of years left to live.  She craves to spend that limited time with her beloved adopted daughter, but she doesn’t reveal her doomed condition to others.  I particularly liked the depiction of the nightmare that she had on the train when she returned from the big city. Although she has devoted her life to selflessly serving her adopted daughter, when she pleads to God in her dream for salvation from death, she recognizes that she is not guiltless – she anguishes over the thought that she has coveted Nelly’s presence in her life for her own happiness.  Realizing, when we are in dire straits, that we don’t really deserve favors from God probably comes to all of us at some point.

Jenny appears as a vulgar and insensitive woman, someone who looks quite a bit older than her purported 36 years of age [2]. But she, too, turns out to be a self-reflective person, and we occasionally get glimpses of her own anxieties – she is more interesting than she first appears. She has evidently had a hard life, and now that she has finally earned some money she seeks to extend her youth by living off younger people that she thinks she can buy – Jack and Nelly.

But the most interesting character is the self-destructive Jack, who instills the film with its psychological foreboding.  He remarks on one occasion to Nelly, “
“Jenny lives off me, and I live off Nelly. It’s all rather diabolic.”
He knows that he is playing a role to energize the fantasies of Nellly and Jenny, and questions what, if anything, is behind any of the roles that attract us. The unacceptable horror for him (and something that he doesn’t want to tell Nelly) is that there really may be nothing more out there than the barren mundanity of  “two bone-meal factories.”

  1. Bergman had earlier written the screenplay and served as the assistant director for Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (Hets, 1944).
  2. Interestingly, though, actress Marianne Löfgren was 36 at the time of filming.  Ageing appearances have changed over time.

“Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie ” - Vilgot Sjöman (1963)

The documentary Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (Ingmar Bergman Gör En Film, 1963) is a uniquely detailed examination of a great film director in action. Bergman, who was engaged at that time in the production of his feature, Winter Light (1963), was at the peak of his career and already critically regarded as the world’s best filmmaker. What makes this documentary special is the intellectual intimacy that director Sjöman was able to achieve with Bergman and display in the presentation of the film.  Sjöman at this time was a film critic and an aspiring auteur, himself, interested in gleaning all aspects of Bergman’s craftsmanship – in fact he was engaged at this time in the production of his own first feature, The Mistress (1962).  He would later go on to achieve world notoriety for his controversial politoco-cinema-verite features, I Am Curious Yellow (1967) and I Am Curious Blue (1968).

This work was originally made for television and shown in five separate installments, tracing a linear sequence through the activities associated with Bergman’s work on Winter Light during late 1961 and the early part of 1962:
  1. The Script
  2. Filming, Part 1
  3. Filming, Part 2
  4. Postproduction
  5. The Premiere
Regrettably, Sjöman had not absorbed one of Bergman’s fundamental maxims: “film is about rhythm”, for a progressive rhythm is missing in Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. Adhering to a linear time structure through the filmmaking process was probably a contributing factor to this problem, because the opening section concerning the script-writing lacks necessary context and motivation.  As it stands, this first section is mostly a rather boring talking-heads interview with Bergman.  The only interesting element in this section is Bergman’s revelation concerning how insecure he used to feel about writing.  Given his prolific production of film scripts, I would have thought that he would have had no qualms in this area.  This intriguing admission notwithstanding, I can imagine some viewers giving up on the film during this relatively static early part and not sticking through the remaining segments.  That would be unfortunate, because the film, despite its narrative deficiencies, contains a number of interesting nuggets about filmmaking technique and Bergman’s approach to it – so much so, in fact, that this film should probably serve as essential material in any filmmaking curriculum. After all, for documentary films in particular, the important thing is not so much what is behind the camera but what is in front of it.

When we get into the filming sections, parts 1 and 2, things get more interesting. Berman worked closely with his cinematographer, Sven Nyquist, and together they plotted out how to achieve Bergman’s original vision with respect to lighting and image composition.  Bergman is shown blocking out an individual scene for his lead actors, Gunnar Bjornstrand and Ingrid Thulin, in considerable detail.  This is followed by extensive rehearsals with the actors in order to settle on just the right tone and expression for everything that is said in the scene.  Sjöman’s camera prowls around the set following Bergman in his work, trying to sneak up and capture the details without getting in the way of Bergman and his crew and interfering with the production.  Although Bergman didn’t allow Sjöman to film much live camera action for the Winter Light shooting, it is still amazing that Sjöman was able to get as close in as he did to Bergman’s  rehearsal activities, which of course are a crucial aspect of the filmmaking.

In these scenes it is interesting to see how Berman operates.  He seems relatively relaxed and low-key around Thulin and Bjornstrand, with whom he had worked many times before, but he nevertheless maintains strict control of everything and everyone around him.  He confessed that he has to treat inexperienced, and therefore insecure, actors much differently from experienced actors when he wants them to alter their performances according to his wishes.  With an experienced actor, he can be curt and aggressive, but with an inexperienced actor he had to be more subtle.  

A particular concern of Bergman’s was the maintenance of emotional continuity between scenes.  The action of Winter Light takes place over only a three-hour period of a single day, but the shooting of those scenes took several months.   So when a particular scene was to be shot, Bergman and his assistants had to pay close attention to the emotional nuances that had been present in the script’s immediately preceding scene (which, for all we know, may have been shot some time ago or may not to this point in the shooting have been filmed).

Another interesting point that I had not heard before was Bergman’s remarks about the energy of his actors. He felt that actors might become less energized as the production proceeds and that  he felt the need to invigorate them with more energy to maintain continuity on this level, as well.  Moreover, he said that as a film viewer watches a two-hour film, he or she will inevitably become psychologically fatigued. To counteract this fatigue, the latter stages of a film must inject more energy and stimulate the viewer somewhat.  To achieve this, he felt that the actors should display a bit more energy in their performances towards the end of the film.

With respect to camera rhythm, Bergman said that he liked to make editing cuts on action.  His explanation for why this is psychologically effective is very well stated.  As the viewer refocuses his or her attention on the principal character in focus when there is some significant character movement, a cut is less noticeable and therefore less psychologically disruptive.

Even though Bergman has carefully “blocked out” (i.e. worked out the sequence of camera positions) prior to shooting, he said he still spends 6 to 8 weeks editing each of his films.   In this regard, Sjöman shows us how Bergman carefully edited a short, intimate sequence of shots involving his actors Bjornstrand, Thulin, and Max von Sydow.  Even though meaningful close-ups and reaction shots were required to convey the psychological nuances of the scene, Bergman progressively shortened the sequence in his editing – to the point where he removed one reaction shot on the part of von Sydow that Sjöman thought should have been retained.  But the master knew better.

Concerning how much of the shooting is pre-planned, Bergman contradicts himself somewhat.  Alfred Hitchcock (who is not mentioned in this film) was said to plan his films so carefully that he found the actual shooting of his films to be mechanical and boring.  The creative activity had taken place in the planning.  Similarly, Bergman here says much the same thing at one point in this film.  But on another occasion in this film, he says that he often learns new things about what should be expressed when the actors are out there in front of the camera, and he makes changes opportunistically.  So the creative activity is ongoing throughout the production.

There is also a brief but interesting discussion about realism and neorealism. Bergman, of course, was more oriented toward expressionism, and the “realism” he sought included the psychological domain of not only the author (the filmmaker) but also the viewer.  Vilgot Sjöman, on the other hand, seems to have been more aligned with the neorealistic sides of filmmaking (at least on the basis of what I saw in I Am Curious Yellow).  In this connection Bergman makes the insightful remark that the work “isn’t done until it’s surrounded by the consciousness of the audience”.   This is true of all art, but it is particularly notable with respect to film, concerning which the viewer must always construct his or her own diegetic narrative during the act of viewing.

So Bergman is profoundly interested in how his film-viewing public see his films, particularly in connection with his films during this period of his career that expressed his own concerns and the path that he was working through in connection with faith in God.  Indeed, Winter Light was subsequently considered by many critics to be part of Bergman’s “Trilogy of Faith” that included Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963).  Given this degree of personal expression, it is not surprising that Bergman sought to insulate himself from the potentially depressive effects of critical reviews, which often appear before the film is officially released.  He discusses this issue briefly with Sjöman and reminds him that one should “never, ever respond to a critic. . . . never discuss with a critic” – an interesting remark, since Sjöman at this time was primarily a critic. 

Near the end of the film, Bergman then turns the tables on Sjöman and starts interviewing the interviewer concerning how a critic feels about films and the degree to which a critic might take pride in the publication of a damning review of a new film.  This is only fair, because Sjöman  has cast himself in a more prominent role in this film than one might have expected.  The critic and neophyte filmmaker has queried the master, almost impertinently as an equal might have done, and we frequently see full frontal closeups of Sjöman expressing his questions and thoughts. To some extent this is a strength of this film, because by placing himself on an equal footing with Bergman, Sjöman achieves a more intimate and conversational interaction with him, thereby eliciting more thoughtful responses. But Bergman puts his interlocutor in his place in the end. He slyly reminds Sjöman how distraught he (Sjöman) had been when he had seen the first, damning review of his own first feature, The Mistress. And with this needling, the sober and thoughtful Bergman erupts with an uproarious horselaugh.