.The Humanistic Magic of Ozu Yasujirô

Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive’s retrospective series honors Japanese filmmaker

Why is the late Ozu Yasujirô idolized by moviemakers and adoring audiences, both in his native Japan and wherever in the world his films are shown?

A horde of books, essays, term papers and homemade love notes have been devoted to that question, but one explanation for the director’s deep appeal seems to be that in Ozu’s films, audiences are initially charmed by the calm, quiet, emotional settings and then are compelled to lean in, to learn more. Their reward is not instantaneous. Rather, the characters and the dramatic power of their stories seep into the consciousness of the viewer like a gentle but insistent breeze from far away, carried to all who witness an Ozu creation, like the unexpected exhilaration caused by an early spring. 

Early Spring is also the title of a 1956 Ozu drama, the story of a restless young man going through what in an ordinary movie could be called a marital crisis—yet which in Ozu’s hands becomes a tale anyone can relate to without even trying. First, however, the viewer needs to adjust to the rhythm, to slow down and catch the breeze. 

That’s the essence of appreciating Ozu (1903-1963), who during his 60 years on earth either wrote or directed 54 motion pictures and inspired many times that number of spinoffs and tributes. “Understanding” Ozu’s way of storytelling doesn’t involve a great deal of homework—although to delve into that research is in some circles a lifetime study. Instead, coming to Ozu’s point of view is as simple as breathing, except that it’s a conscious decision. 

The Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive’s sweeping new retrospective series, “Yasujirô Ozu: The Elegance of Simplicity,” makes that decision easy. Beginning with the Dec. 3 screening of the 1932 silent coming-of-age feel-gooder, I Was Born, But… (co-presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival), the series boasts 18 unforgettable features, in both 35mm and restored digital versions gathered by Janus Films and the Japan Foundation in Tokyo. These include such rarely seen titles as The Only Son (1936), The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) and A Hen in the Wind (1948).

In 1956 Ozu directed Floating Weeds, a fairly faithful remake of his 1934 silent, A Story of Floating Weeds. The newer film, written by Ozu, Noda Kôgo and Ikeda Tadao, and produced by Daiei Studios in rich color—with gorgeous cinematography by Miyagawa Kazuo—instead of the earlier version’s black and white, answers questions about the filmmaker’s general preference for character over plot.

Both films detail the misadventures of a kabuki master and his traveling troupe as they visit the Kansai hometown of the Master’s former mistress—or more accurately, one of the Master’s several mistresses—and discover that time has not healed all old wounds.

The increasingly beleaguered boss, portrayed in the 1956 version by Nakamura Ganjirô, faces a dilemma: Does he acknowledge the existence of his biological son and settle down into retirement as an aged family man reunited with his tossed-aside kin? Or does he continue his life as a theatrical rolling stone, drifting from one show-business stop to the next?

The 1956 version, screening at BAMPFA on Feb. 16, compares to the older film in the same way that a rich seafood stew stacks up against a cold tuna sandwich. Fleshed out by sexpots Kyô Machiko and Wakao Ayako as the troupe’s female stars, and jazzed up with composer Saitô Takanobu’s Italian-sounding music score (shades of La Dolce Vita), Ozu’s most sumptuous late-period pic is filled with humorous interludes in service of the director’s trademark heart tugs.

But the above comparison shouldn’t dissuade anyone from A Story of Floating Weeds, playing Dec. 17. It carries the same ironic moral double standard for the Master’s peccadilloes, plus a cooler, drier approach to male-female relations.

The series runs through Feb. 25, with a showing of Ozu’s last film, the family drama An Autumn Afternoon (1962). For further info, visit: BAMPFA.org 

Dec. 3 to Feb. 25 at BAMPFA.

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