There’s something magical about the films of Yasajira Ozu. Part of it is the novelty of his style. The still camera, the low angle “tatami” shots, the attention to detail paid to the framing and composition, the disregard for the 180-degree rule–when you’re watching an Ozu movie, you know you’re watching an Ozu movie. And yet once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. “Of his body of work, Ozu said, “I can make fried tofu, boiled tofu, stuffed tofu. Cutlets and other fancy stuff, that’s for other directors.”
So where does the other magical part come from? Not from the dialogue. Apart from “isn’t life disappointing” in Tokyo Story, I can’t think of a single memorable line from any of his films. And certainly not from the tension. Antagonists don’t exist in Ozu films. The children in Tokyo Story are portrayed somewhat unsympathetically, and Ayako in Late Autumn behaves a bit immaturely, but that’s as close as he gets. If there’s a villain to be found, it is the inevitability of change, which is faced, always, with a stoic reserve that robs it of its oppressiveness.
I think ultimately it arises from the juxtaposition of beauty and melancholy. The beauty is obvious, it’s source being the harmony of the shots and Setsuko Hara. The melancholy is not. Ozu does not lay it out there for us to confront directly. He leaves it for us to sense from the sum of the parts. Take, for example, the way he exposes us to the setting. Ozu frequently shows the setting before the characters enter and then continues to show it after they leave. It’s beautiful. Everything, always, is balanced to perfection. But seeing it this way, repetitively, throughout the course of the film, also serves to imprint it in the viewer’s mind as something the characters flow through rather than exist as part of. As such it becomes a metaphor for the human condition. We also, flow through. As children, we flow through the lives of our parents, who are fixed points in relation to us. And ultimately, we flow through the years of our lives–and consequently of life–itself. Most if not all of Ozu’s movies are about letting go. Of sons and daughters. Of our youth. Of dreams and expectations. This will always be hard. But by reminding us also of what continues, Ozu softens the blow. Those spaces that we’ve been seeing aren’t empty. They are alive with memories, memories we have somehow, magically, been imbued with over the course of a two-hour movie, while reading subtitles and eating popcorn.