Lincoln Center is having an Ozu film festival. Although I know how important Ozu is for directors like Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismäki, Wim Wenders, and Hou Hsiao-hsien, I personally had only ever seen Tokyo Story. Ozu is often described as being “more Japanese” than Kurosawa, all of whose films I’ve seen at least once, if not more. This is largely, I believe, because of Ozu’s breathtaking ability to capture the Japanese aesthetic of “mono no aware“, which Jonathan Delacour describes on his blog as “acceptance of sadness as an essential ingredient of life.” This may explain why his films have been less popular abroad than Kurosawa’s violent Samurai tales. So I was very happy to see a rarely shown Ozu film from 1942 today, “There Was a Father.” Here is how the film is described in the festival catalog:
Horikawa (Ryu) places his son Ryohei in a boarding school while he looks for work in Tokyo. But here the gulf between the two is self-imposed. After Ryohei graduates and becomes a rural schoolteacher, he offers to move to Tokyo to take care of his father, only to be rebuffed; Horikawa would not want him to take leave of his work. There may have been a propagandistic edge to the film’s emphasis on self-sacrifice: a few offending scenes were cut for THERE WAS A FATHER’S postwar re-release.
A more extensive summary of the film is here.
Although the father clearly extolls the virtue of self-sacrifice. I think it would be a mistake to too easily categorize the film as fascist propaganda. For the “sadness” of the film comes precisely from the father’s seemingly inhumane devotion to duty, which causes such pain to his son. In one important scene, the father is given a party by former students who have all done well in life. But when they recall their education all they can remember is him being very strict and punishing them. In a very real sense the film’s power comes from its moral ambiguity. After the fact, such ambiguity itself in face of the horrors of Japanese wartime aggression (something which Japanese have yet to come to terms with) seems inappropriate, but it certainly makes for a powerful movie. Nor do I think anyone would compare Ozu to Leni Riefenstahl.
Although I loved the film, I was troubled by its moral ambiguity, and so I spent some time searching the web for more on Ozu and fascism. All I was able to find was articles about two very interesting parodies/tributes to Ozu by contemporary directors. The first is called Bean Cake, and is a short made by the American director David Greenspan. This film imagines if Ozu had made a strongly anti-fascist film.
So Bean Cake, after all, couldn’t really have been made by Ozu: at least, not in the 1930s; and for different but related reasons, not in the 1950s or 1960s either. Its implicit criticism of Emperor-worship is in the strict sense of the term anachronistic. Even if Ozu felt the importunacy of the political demand, it’s something he couldn’t have expressed outright.
The second film sounds even more intriguing. It is made by the Japanese director of the wildly popular “Shall We Dance,” Masayuki Suo. This 1983 film, called Abnormal Family, is a pornographic parody of Ozu’s Tokyo Story!
On one level, Abnormal Family works as a brilliant technical exercise — it is quite simply difficult to imagine what a cleverer parody of Ozu’s formal concerns may look like. The parody obviously consists in using “traditional” themes for porno ends, which Suo achieves by making repeated connections between the homedrama and the pink film. In other words, Suo’s film retains all the appearances of a family melodrama but turns its generic conventions completely around. The music, used as sparingly here as in Ozu, is cheerfully innocent, and the presence on the soundtrack of an electric organ (by sheer serendipity this instrument is called an erekuton) recalls not only memories of numerous scenes in Ozu but is the favoured instrument of many porn soundtracks as well. In addition, the family’s outrageous sex lives are nicely juxtaposed with their seemingly conventional home lives. Suo also makes sly use of a range of porn actors cast for their physical resemblance to such famed Ozu stars as Ryu Chishu and Hara Setsuko.
Ozu continues to inspire! Hopefully I’ll have time to go to some more of the films at Lincoln Center…
UPDATE: Jonathon Delacour has a post on a new (Japanese-only) box set of Ozu’s work. He also promises an article on Ozu and Fascism…