Monday, 9 September 2013

On Yasujiro Ozu and "Japaneseness"

My previous post was about Yasujiro Ozu's most celebrated film Tokyo Story (1953). The post included a few puzzling quotes and here is another one, from the book Japanese Films by Beverley Bare Buehrer (1990):
While Ozu's characters are undergoing difficult times personally, they rarely vocalize their feelings. That is one of Ozu's stylistic strengths. An audience doesn't need to be told of a character's sadness, for they have lived with him. The last scene of Tokyo Story tells it all. Shukichi sits alone in a room in his empty house thinking about a life now filled with loneliness but also accepting it with a calm serenity. (p. 79)
A quote which suggests that Buehrer watched the film without sound and without subtitles because the feelings are overtly "vocalized", many times. But there is another issue with much writing about Ozu that is more problematic than these misrepresentations. It is comments regarding Ozu's nationality. For a representative example, here is a quote from Cinema East - A Critical Study of Major Japanese Films by Keiko I. McDonald (1983):
This emphasis on story rather than plot is easy for Japanese audiences to understand. Ozu's films show everyday Japanese life as it is lived. Thus, a viewer in Japan might well say: "I understand that old man's feelings. He is just like me." Another would say: "I feel for the daughter. I was once in the same situation." (p. 202)
But in what sense would only a Japanese viewer understand "that old man's feelings". Do not Brazilians, Indians or Italians mourn when their loved ones die or feel sad and upset when their children have no time for them? If the film only spoke to an audience who could feel that the characters are "just like me", then how come it is so loved all over the world? Is it not rather the case that the film speaks to universal themes and feelings about parenthood, ageing and such. Of course the film is Japanese and there are certain conventions and traditions that are specifically Japanese, but the feelings and sentiments are not uniquely Japanese. (You might also ask whether Ozu is really showing "Japanese life as it is lived" or an idealised version of something that did never really exist.)

Something that it seems to be more or less mandatory to add when writing about Ozu is that he is "the most Japanese" of Japanese filmmakers. Yet, it is seldom said without the quotation marks. So when for example Donald Richie writes about Ozu in his A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (2005) he will not say up-front that Ozu is the most Japanese of filmmakers, he will remove himself somewhat from the statement and phrase it this way: "makes him, as is so often said, 'the most Japanese of directors.'" (p. 124) as if Richie dare not say such a thing himself yet he likes the claim enough to want to mention it. But how does that work? How is one Japanese filmmaker more Japanese than the next Japanese filmmaker? Is there a scale from 1 to 10 of Japaneseness, where Ozu is a 10 whereas Kon Ichikawa is an 8? Where is Kenji Mizoguchi? The ease with which critics use his nationality as the key to his artistry is a little unsettling. (And it forgets the considerable influence for example Ernst Lubitsch had on Ozu.) And is a similar ranking being done within other national contexts? Does someone consider Werner Herzog "the most German of German filmmakers." Or is it Fritz Lang who is the most German? Does it matter? Does it make any sense?

You might think that this is a Western thing, and call it Orientalism. But that would be to simplify the situation. Many in Japan have similar ideas about Ozu for one thing and it often happens that filmmakers, as well as others, are surprised that their films are understood or liked by spectators from a country or culture different from their own. Once when interviewing the Greek filmmaker Pantelis Voulgaris I said I really liked his film It's a Long Road (1998). His wife, who was the interpreter, looked at me with bewilderment and said "But why? You're not Greek!?" 

All of this is dispiriting because it suggests that for some it is strange that one culture can understand another, as if the audience lacks imagination, being unable to understand or enjoy stories that were not about people exactly like themselves. But is not one of the reasons we watch films or read books that we want to engage with stories about people unlike ourselves? I would like to think so.

There is a lot to say about identification, sympathy, empathy and such but that is for another post.


  1. I think this is the flipside of the constant references to avant-garde or art film styles as being the anti-thesis of Hollywood: it's almost always meant as praise, but with an exoticizing sheen (even when offered up by Japanese people themselves). If Ozu was the most Japanese of Japanese directors, is Michael Bay the most American of contemporary Hollywood directors? It's my understanding that Akira Kurosawa's reputation suffered in some corners because critics thought he was too influenced by Western films, although the influence of Hollywood is all over Ozu's '30s films.

  2. Interesting notion, this "culture" ;) But isn't this a trait in mainstream Hollywwod, that movies are made to fit as many minds as possible and thereby becoming somewhat bland?

    And I don't find it that surprising that at least certain movies may be hard for an outsider to grasp the entire scope of.

    For example: while being perfectly able to relate to the protagonist, would someone who is not Swedish get all the nuances of Äta sova dö? Living in the small town, the bureaucracy of Arbetsförmedlingen and so forth?

  3. I don't think mainstream Hollywood is aiming to reach as many as possible, but that it primarily aims for kids. Mainstream is mainstream, regardless of country of origin and I don't think Hollywood is more bland than Swedish cinema or any other cinema. (The Lone Ranger was anything but bland.)

    But surely people live in small towns, are unemployed and struggle with bureaucracy in other countries besides Sweden? I suppose there are more people with those experiences than there are people who know what it's like to be an alien with superpowers.

    The key for me is to see the pain, joy or sorrow of a character, and engage with that, rather than the causes of these feelings.

  4. A relevant post on how understanding (or insight into culture) heightens the movie experience?