Family Ties: The Sublime Cinema of Yasujiro Ozu

DECEMBER
12-16, 19-20, 22-23, 26-30
JANUARY
2-8

A Seasonal Celebration of One of Cinema’s Greatest Masters!

ALL AGES WELCOME • ALL 35mm PRINTS! This holiday season, as we gather ’round hearth and home and spend time with loved ones, The Cinematheque celebrates the sublime films of one of cinema’s greatest humanists and finest chroniclers of family (and family disappointments).

Yasujiro Ozu (December 12, 1903-December 12, 1963) was master of a deceptively simple, intensely moving cinema that can be both heart-warming and heart-breaking. His subject was almost always the family, and his work captured, with a remarkable subtlety, wisdom, and benevolence, the everyday family crises invariably engendered by generational conflict, marriage, and death. His body of work is, in the opinion of many, one of cinema’s great treasures.

Hard though it may be to imagine now, with Ozu long regarded as one of the great filmmakers, and his 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story routinely cited as one of the best films ever made, but there was a time when Ozu’s quiet, contemplative, tranquil cinema was regarded as too provincial, “too Japanese,” to be appreciated by foreigners. Ozu himself apparently shared these sentiments, and his works were not seen abroad until very late in an illustrious directorial career that had begun in the 1920s. At the time of his death in 1963, with some 53 features to his credit, including six that had been named “best Japanese film of the year,” Ozu had yet to receive the wide international recognition and acclaim already conferred upon his compatriots Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ichikawa. In fact, Ozu wouldn’t be given his full due in the West until the 1970s.

Ozu’s 53 features include 34 silent films, many of them now lost, made in the 1920s and 1930s. Ozu’s movies from this period — college and salaryman comedies, crime films, social-realist dramas — reveal a boisterous young filmmaker with a free-wheeling style and an unexpectedly mobile camera — all very un-Ozu-like! Ozu’s mature films — the work of the great Sensei we celebrate here — are delicate, understated affairs. Ozu authority Donald Richie once described them as “the precise opposite of Kurosawa’s.” Ozu’s is a cinema of character, dialogue, and observation, rather than plot or story. His preferred genre was the shomin-geki, or stories of the lower middle-class. In the West, this has been the stuff of soap opera or lowbrow comedy; in Ozu’s supple hands, it was material for some of the most moving and magisterial cinema ever made. Indeed, it is often said of Ozu (as of Eric Rohmer) that he made extraordinary films about very ordinary people.

If Ozu’s subject matter, the family, is deceptively simple, so too is his celebrated style: spare, economical, restrained — a restrained style to match restrained subject matter. His magnificent late-period films “are probably the most restrained ever made,” according to Richie. Ozu typically employed a fixed, static camera, set at the peculiarly low angle that became his stylistic signature: about three feet off the ground, roughly corresponding to the eye level of a person seated on a tatami mat. He favoured long takes, unadorned editing, and was a pioneer in the use of off-screen space (his 360-degree approach to filmic space radically broke with cinema's conventional use of 180-degree space only). His work is carefully, rigorously composed, and often also conveys a very real sense of empty space; many describe this as corresponding to the Zen notion of mu, of emptiness, negation, silence — the Zen sense of still life in which the space between objects is an important and integral element of form. Noël Burch has called Ozu’s characteristic cutaways to still lifes or unpeopled landscapes “pillow shots,” with an “unmotivated absence of human beings” that operates in contrast to Western anthropocentric codes. Ozu’s, it is said, is “an art predicated on the Zen Buddhist reverence for the mystery of the everyday” (David Cook).

Ozu himself once observed, wryly, that “Whenever Westerns don't understand something, they simply think it's Zen.” Perhaps so, but there is no denying that Ozu’s work treads the ineffable, the immanent, the invisible. His deliberate, controlled, beautifully minimalist style has a metaphysical intensity that Paul Schrader famously described, along with the work of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer, as transcendental. It is a cinema of repose, of contemplation, a cinema that reveals “the metaphysical realm of expectation, disillusionment, and acceptance in the family situation” and “the full pathos of the human condition” (Audie Bock). It is a cinema that displays a deep, abiding, sympathetic, sad but serene resignation; an acceptance of life’s uncertainties and inevitabilities; an acceptance of things as they are. It is this, finally, this sense of mono no aware, which makes Ozu's work so graceful, so gently melancholic, so intensely moving. In a word: sublime.

Our retrospective begins on December 12 — a date that is both the 110th anniversary of Ozu’s birth and the 50th anniversary of his death — and includes 16 of the 19 sound films directed by this Master of Masters.

Click for film notes + showtimes

Recent Showings

In one of Ozu's finest achievements and own personal favourites, a widowed father worries that his daughter is spurning marriage in order to keep him company.
This subtle, exquisite study of an unhappy marriage centres on a middle-aged, middle-class, childless couple's realization that their relationship had lost its meaning.
A poignant and gently comic tale of an unmarried adult daughter being pressured to take a husband in postwar Kamakura.
The tale of a widowed, working-class woman and her disenchanted son was Ozu's first talkie, and ranks with his finest and most emotional works.
This bittersweet, comedic, and fable-like story of a war orphan's relationship with an aging widow was Ozu's first postwar film.
A widow attempts to find a husband for her unmarried daughter in Ozu's masterful, late-period work of gentle humour and formal beauty.
Mizoguchi favourite Kinuyo Tanaka is superb in this poignant postwar melodrama about a young woman forced into prostitution.
Ozu favourite Chishu Ryu plays a self-sacrificing, widowed schoolteacher and father in this affecting work produced during the height of World War II.
Generally acknowledged to be Ozu's supreme masterpiece, as well as one of the greatest films ever made, it is a sad, simple tale of generational conflict between an aging couple and their children.
A gorgeously-shot work of great formal precision, this exquisite comedy about a modern, young woman's desire to marry a man of her choice was Ozu's first film in colour.
Ozu's first-rate follow-up to Tokyo Story finds the director returning to a favourite milieu of his silent films: the workaday world of salaried office men.
Ozu's made-during-wartime drama, his first box-office hit in Japan, charts the fortunes of an upper-class family in decline.
Set in a nocturnal, wintry Tokyo of tawdry bars and seedy mah-jong parlours, this dark, atypical melodrama was Ozu's last film in black-and-white.
Ozu's sublime valedictory film, in which a widower arranges the marriage of his devoted only daughter, is now regarded as a fitting final summation of his serene, deceptively simple work.
Ozu's 50th film, and his second in colour, is a mocking, masterful comedy of manners about small talk and social niceties, set against 1950s suburbia.
One of Ozu's most underrated sound films, this piercing satire on the foibles of the Japanese bourgeoisie has been compared to the works of Jacques Tati and Ernst Lubitsch.