Combustible Celluloid
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With: Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Ineko Arima, Kinzo Shin, Masami Taura, Ryo Ikebe, Chikage Awashima, Keiko Kishi, Fujiko Yamamoto, Kinuyo Tanaka, Shin Saburi, Ryuji Kita, Nobuo Nakamura, Yoko Tsukasa, Ganjiro Nakamura
Written by: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 636
Date: 19/03/2013

Late Ozu (2007)

4 Stars (out of 4)

An Ozu Summer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

To the casual viewer, certain filmmakers appear to make the same movie over and over again. But to the more dedicated viewer, these films slowly reveal something very special. One writer likened it to exploring the rooms of a house: the more rooms you explore, the more you'll understand the house itself, as well as the person who lives there. Arguably the greatest of all Japanese filmmakers, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), worked again and again with the same actors and the same co-writer, used the same style (low angles, straight-ahead, back-and-forth shots during conversations, very little moving camera), and even the same text-over-burlap opening titles. Ozu made upwards of 55 rooms, or films, though only 37 are reported to exist today. Of those, the Criterion Collection has previously released six on DVD, and now the new Criterion Eclipse box set adds five more. Admittedly, the five films in the box, Early Spring (1956), Tokyo Twilight (1957), Equinox Flower (1958), Late Autumn (1960) and The End of Summer (1961) are considered minor entries in the Ozu oeuvre, but they perfectly demonstrate the theory of the rooms; watching them side by side brings about a more complete understanding and appreciation of the master's work, not to mention the sublime peace and happiness that comes from the work itself.

Early Spring (1956) deviates from Ozu's family-related films and settles into a fairly bleak tale of a young, married office worker who begins to sense that his life will settle into an unchanging routine. He has a brief fling with a co-worker, which leads to a fight with his wife. The movie's masterstroke comes in the other characters, an older, dying office worker who wishes he could get back to his routine, and the mother-in-law, who has a nasty way of dealing with philandering husbands. (145 minutes.)

Tokyo Twilight (1957) is even bleaker, focusing on a dysfunctional family of two sisters (Setsuko Hara and Ineko Arima) and a depressed father (Chishu Ryu), dealing with unwanted pregnancies, no-good boyfriends and/or husbands and other deceit. Strangely, even though this is Ozu's darkest, most pessimistic film, it still has the same easy quality; we never feel bludgeoned or wrung out. Ozu achieves this by spending extra time, letting the camera linger over a scene even after the main thrust of it has finished. The film is notable for its use of chilly weather and silent snowfall. (141 minutes.)

Ozu's first film in color, Equinox Flower (1958) revisits some of the themes Ozu explored in his more fully realized Late Spring. Hirayama (Shin Saburi) is a hypocritical, middle-aged man, with two grown daughters. His eldest, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), has chosen a husband for herself, but Hirayama does not support her, despite his own vague disappointment in his own arranged marriage, and the fact that he agrees with freedom of choice for others, outside his family. His story is paralleled with two more grown daughters of friends; one has run away and another tries to avoid the unlikely partners her mother has provided her. Hirayama is a frustrating character, and only through Ozu's skill and the patient performances can we ultimately accept him as sad, conflicted and three-dimensional. The great Chishu Ryu co-stars as the father of the runaway girl. (118 minutes.)

The lovely Late Autumn (1960) is essentially a remake of Late Spring (1949), in which Setsuko Hara played a girl reluctant to marry for fear of leaving her widowed father (Chishu Ryu) alone. Now Hara plays the mother, Akiko, with a daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) in much the same situation. The new film is told from the point of view of three old school chums who all loved Akiko in their youth, and now wish to "help" her by finding suitable mates for both mother and daughter. Late Autumn lacks the sublime final moments of Late Spring, but Ozu seems more relaxed, more reflective and more in control here. (129 minutes.)

Ozu's penultimate film, The End of Summer (1961), and arguably the best film of the set, is about a widowed old man Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura) whose sake brewery is in financial trouble. His grown children worry about him as he acts childishly, even sneaking off to spend time with his old mistress. It's a lovingly bittersweet tale with bursts of great joy mixed with sadness. I expected a confrontation at some point between the mistress and the children, but Ozu handles it with unexpected grace and intelligence. Hara and Tsukasa return in this film, playing sisters this time, which is disorienting if you're watching the films in order. (103 minutes.)

The point of the new set, as with the other Criterion Eclipse sets, is to dig deep into a master's filmography to release the films that might not otherwise get noticed. These sets are intended to be affordable, with no extras or frills to weigh them down. The films are mastered with beautiful clarity, even if some minor flaws crop up from time to time. It's a shame that Criterion couldn't have found a way to slip in Ozu's final film, An Autumn Afternoon, which many consider his best. Even so, watching these five films brings a disturbing realization. Ozu's films may be relaxed, reflective and even refreshing, but hopelessness lurks behind it. These qualities come as a result of giving in and no longer trying to change our destiny. There is life as we hope it could be and life as it is, and Ozu's characters find a kind of sad serenity in realizing and accepting the latter. It takes a brave kind of artist to tackle this theme again and again and still make the works so bewitching and so beautiful.

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