Saturday, November 26, 2011

#240: Early Summer

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1951)

One of the most satisfying results of this Criterion journey has been my budding appreciation for and even love of Ozu movies. I don't think any director deserves to be enjoyed by everyone as a prerequisite to appreciating cinema. But I do think that there are a handful of directors in history that deserve a close evaluation of their work regardless of the initial impression one has of them. Kubrick, Lubitsch, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Godard, Bergman come to mind. These filmmakers are so (rightfully) praised and so integral to the understanding of cinema history that giving their work a second (or third, or fourth...) try is not something of which any movie nerd needs to be convinced. There are other directors as great as these, of course, but most of them (e.g. Kurosawa or Hitchcock) work with generally accessible pacing, genre, and theme as to make their work much less of an acquired taste - it's the equivalent of comparing bacon to sea urchin.

Of the most essential filmmakers, Yasujiro Ozu was the last to move me. Maybe it was my own hardwired perceptions of how a film should be properly paced, shot, and edited. Certainly, too, Ozu's films are not just unusual in their technique but in the simplicity of their stories (their plots, on the other hand, are actually rather complex, and can sometimes take reflection to piece together - maybe never more the case than here in Early Summer). But I ultimately think it was the shock of the new - even within the relatively non-rigid world of iconic cinema. When people think of the revolutionary filmmakers, names like Lang, Godard, and Lynch spring to mind, but Ozu's style and grammar are so deceptively unique that an evaluation of his work requires a very open mind and time to devote to transition to his rhythms. It took time, but my confusion has blossomed into genuine pleasure.

Early Summer is a confirmation of this metamorphosis. Made just after Last Spring and just before his most well-regarded film, Tokyo Story, Early Summer tells the story of an average family and their desire to find a husband for an unmarried daughter. There are other plots woven into the family tapestry - a visit from an Uncle, a plot involving the children and their desire for a train set clearly presaging Good Morning - but these are meant to give the core plot of the daughter finding a husband (and inadvertently breaking up the family) more heft. We are meant to care about this family and recognize our own lives in their daily existence. As an outsider - with time, culture, and geography between me and the characters - I am exposed to a world rarely seen both in what takes place on the screen and in how it is presented. Once the rhythms of Ozu seem comprehendible if still unfamiliar, the viewer can appreciate his films for their unique insight into the human condition, both within the Japanese culture and universally.

From a technical standpoint, the most compelling thing about Ozu's films for me is without a doubt his trademark camera angle, which is on full display here in Early Summer. Ozu films his actors from a floor-level angle - often filming their entire bodies from afar - yet it does not appear as if we are looking up at them. The effect is one of Japanese domesticity and elemental cinema. The director manages to pack the maximum amount of information into each shot; his editing might be seen as choppy and crude if it didn't have such a logical flow to it. He writes poetry with his camera, the kind that rivals the barest of all personal verse. Stripped-down prose is so rare in cinema today - and in American film in general - that this work seems over-simplistic to the unaccustomed eye. Ozu is often defended against charges of boredom, but it's not the glacial pace of his stories that troubled me, I think, but the lack of pomp surrounding his cinematic grammar. His worlds simply exist and exist simply.

The common refrain about Ozu is that he is the most Japanese of Japanese directors. This is often used as a reason why Western viewers aren't able to fully appreciate his work. Certainly his stories center around the intricacies of a culture that is substantially different than American culture. Not only can it be difficult to adjust to the pacing, there's also a host of subtle plot points that are undoubtedly lost in translation. But simply chalking it up to a cultural misunderstanding gives Ozu short shrift. Japanese filmmaking, from Kurosawa and Suzuki to Oshima and Miyazaki, is hardly known for its austere productions and absence of style, so it's not really fair to classify their cinema as less Japanese than Ozu films. Ozu, in fact, is the most Ozu-like of any director. That's the real challenge to overcome - one well worth the reward waiting for you at the end of the tunnel.

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