Silent Films of Ozu Yasujiro


A review of Reflecting Hollywood: Mobility and Lightness in the Early Silent Films of Ozu Yasujiro, 1927-1933, by Yuki Takinami.

Contrary to the conventional view of Ozu Yasujirō as a filmmaker whose oeuvre reflects a remarkable level of stylistic “restriction and consistency,” his career actually followed a “tortuous” path marked by varying influences, challenges and constraints depending on the period (p. 202).  So concludes Yuki Takinami, whose dissertation treads the well-traveled yet ever-fertile territory of Ozu studies to develop a thoughtful, at times provocative revision of some common conceptions.  Specifically, Takinami focuses on Ozu’s silent films produced before 1934 to demonstrate how the director’s early receptiveness to Hollywood cinema and to certain globally circulated ideas about silent film aesthetics has been overshadowed as a result of a tendency to view his body of work as a uniform whole, and to conform everything to the coordinates of the later films, especially those from the postwar years. Arguing that the silent films and their circumstances were unique, Takinami offers a new account of the origins of Ozu’s signature “idiosyncrasies” — his low camera positions and unconventional treatment of eyelines, his predilection for narratively unmotivated graphic matching and for empty transitions, and his unusual arrangements of dramatic space. Takinami maintains that examining the silent films reveals how these celebrated peculiarities incubated under the influence of none other than 1920s American cinema.

Takinami tracks early influences on Ozu through a combination of historical research and comparative close reading.  From periodicals, he carefully reconstructs the critical reception of Hollywood comedies in Japan during the 1920s when Ozu was an apprentice, and furthermore tracks the historical reception of Ozu’s own films in the early 1930s when he was emerging as a notable director.  In the process, Takinami contests some tendencies of standard English-language Ozu scholarship, in part by altering the criteria of evaluation. In contrast to the methodical formalism of previous studies, Takinami, to an extent encounters Ozu’s films with the mindset of an historical spectator by chasing after rather more elusive qualities. It was the “touch” or “feel” of American films that appealed to Japanese spectators at the time, and that Ozu tried to capture in his own early work. Takinami demonstrates that American films and filmmakers were often celebrated in 1920s Japan for their “sense,” “tone,” “taste” or “esprit” (p. 26), just as film theory and the cinematic avant-garde of the time were in many cases primarily preoccupied with the ineffable spiritual “life” that cinema was said to breathe into things on the screen. Proceeding from a similar concern with the “something extra” animating films, Takinami not only modulates the historical understanding of Ozu’s development as a formally meticulous filmmaker, but also advocates a particularly sensory or intuitive approach to the films.

This is not to say that formal analysis is lacking in his study; in fact, it is an essential method by which the dissertation marshals evidence of Ozu’s foreign influences. The argument of the first chapter hinges on a detailed comparison of continuity in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1924 comedy The Marriage Circle and Ozu’s 1931 film Tokyo Chorus, focusing on how the two films represent, for example, the movement of clothing flung across a room. Takinami closely examines screen direction across cuts to make the case that Ozu emulated Lubitsch’s unusual choices for treating movement in cinematic space. The aim of such analysis is not to establish the proportion of intrinsic to extrinsic “norms” at play within the formal narrative system of the films, in the way that David Bordwell framed his own inquiry in his classic work on Ozu (Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). Takinami pointedly takes issue with this approach and its tendency to emphasize the ways in which Ozu “deviated” from the standards established by the Hollywood system. He is equally reluctant to endorse the conclusions of Noël Burch’s pathbreaking yet often reproached 1979 study of Japanese cinema (To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), which claimed that Ozu’s films reflected the influence of classical Japanese aesthetics, and in their Japaneseness posed a potentially radical alternative to the bourgeois narrative cinema of the West. By contrast, the aim of Takinami’s formal analysis is to understand how the films resonated with problems and preoccupations that were shared by filmmakers in both Hollywood and Japan. He demonstrates through historical research that, in the 1920s, Japanese film critics were preoccupied with the “sophistication” of the American comedies of Lubitsch, Harold Lloyd, and Clara Bow. “Sophistication” was adopted as a foreign loan word to name an elusive cinematic spirit that seemed to require a vocabulary as new as the medium itself. Compiling this cinematic vocabulary from archival materials, Takinami relates “sophistication” to “lightness” and “mobility,” two other terms frequently invoked by Japanese critics who echoed language that appeared globally in discourse about silent cinema. Takinami contends that Ozu himself was preoccupied precisely with lightness and mobility. Therefore, it was not in opposing Hollywood or in tapping traditional Japanese aesthetics that his style was idiosyncratic; paradoxically, Ozu’s idiosyncrasy derived from the fact that his films were “extremely and perversely” close to Hollywood (p. 63).

Chapter 2 situates Ozu in relation to debates about cinematic modernity in Japan. Here, Takinami responds primarily to Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano and her study (Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008) of the shōshimin eiga — or petit-bourgeois films — produced by the Shōchiku Kamata studio where Ozu worked in the 1930s. Dealing with the everyday lives of characters who belonged to an emerging suburban middle class, these films directly portrayed the effects of modernity on social mores, but not necessarily in a neutral fashion. Wada-Marciano explores what attitudes the films took toward that modernity and the cosmopolitan, Western values it entailed.  Shōchiku would later play a role in wartime propagandizing, but for Wada-Marciano, says Takinami, even the early shōshimin films betray an ambivalent attitude toward Western modernity, which she claims they resisted and domesticated in ways that helped promote an image of a Japanese middle class that was compatible with nationalist and imperialist ideology. In other words, Shōchiku Kamata films tried offensively to “master” modernity in ways that foreshadowed the cultural dilemmas of the wartime state. Nuancing this view, Takinami reiterates the aforementioned qualities of lightness and mobility, which he suggests Wada-Marciano underestimates in her evaluation of Kamata shōshimin films (at least those of Ozu). Kamata films, he says, derived from old-fashioned heavy-handed shinpa melodramas, but were distinguished by their focus on new middle-class lifestyles, and moreover by their comparative lightness. The “Kamata tone,” being light, was in this sense fundamentally modern, especially as it was cultivated by Ozu. Takinami thus revises Wada-Marciano’s claim of mastery: far from attempting to “master” modernity, he says, Ozu was “mastered” by it, submitting faithfully to the model of Lubitsch and continuing to pursue lightness even as the situation in Japan grew increasingly heavy in the 1930s.

Takinami’s argument about Ozu’s “perverse” faithfulness to Hollywood leads to a further conclusion: that in emulating Lubitsch, especially the remarkably nonclassical discontinuities in his treatment of movement and space across cuts, Ozu discovered the “instability” involved in being light and mobile, an instability essential to the medium itself insofar as cinema was a matter of movement tending toward “collapse” rather than of proportion and symmetry tending toward balance and order. The claim that Ozu thus acquired a sense for instability becomes the basis for the argument that develops over the subsequent chapters. Chapter 3 reads Ozu’s flirtation with discontinuity and collapse alongside the theoretical writings of the French filmmaker Jean Epstein, placing Ozu’s films in orbit not only with commercial American cinema, but also with the European avant-garde. Without going so far as to claim that Ozu had read Epstein (though he may have, since Epstein’s writings did appear in Japanese translation during the 1920s), Takinami argues that Ozu cultivated a silent film aesthetic that bore resemblances to what Epstein had described in his celebrated writings on photogénie. As Takinami reads Epstein, photogénie is not only cinema’s near-mystical revelatory power, but also its mobility itself, the myriad “variations” aimlessly unfolding (“unknotting”) as so many little “dénouements” across the surface of the image. Something that moves so much must be unstable, but Epstein also locates photogénie in what Takinami calls the “suspended” or pregnant moment — in Epstein’s words, the “mouth which is about to speak but holds back,” “the recoil before the leap,” “the becoming, the hesitation, the taut spring” (p. 114). Cinema from this perspective became a dance of volatility, of inevitable unraveling and fluctuation, and of momentary suspension. Examining closely scenes from more of Ozu’s silent films, especially the 1933 Woman of Tokyo (once again in relation to Lubitsch’s Marriage Circle), Takinami finds similar preoccupations. Once Ozu had discovered the fundamental mobility and instability of the medium (with Tokyo Chorus), he next had to decide how to handle it. His solution, says Takinami, was to “suspend” it. Rather than the goal- or action-oriented mobility of the American chase films of the 1910s, for example, Ozu pursued, through a variety of techniques, a more diffuse, objectless mobility suspended (or sustained?) across the duration of a film as an air or touch of “lightness,” something akin to (yet distinct from) photogénie. Takinami goes on through close analysis of individual scenes to indicate that especially Ozu’s famously “mismatched” eyelines can be understood as a strategy for channeling the mobility and instability of the cinematic medium.

Chapter 4 returns to questions of cinema and modernity, this time through another European film theorist: Siegfried Kracauer. Takinami appeals to Kracauer to understand another peculiarity of Ozu’s aesthetics: namely, his penchant for filming inanimate material objects and “empty” scenery. In a 1960 book (with debts to silent-era film theorists), Kracauer argued that cinema could both “reveal” and “redeem” various aspects of the reality in which humans lived. It could do this in part by organizing a “non-anthropocentric” vision that “disfigured” habituated representations grounded by the self-identity of the beholder, and in this sense could produce feelings of “estrangement” in viewers (p. 145). This estrangement was for Kracauer a kind of “liberation,” a separation or a stepping back from the material objects, for example, that formed the environment of everyday modernity. Takinami takes these comments on the photographic disfiguration of objects and of empty street scenes (as in Eugène Atget’s photographs of Paris which Kracauer discusses) and uses them to interpret the significance of Ozu’s “suspended mobility,” represented here by the still life and empty landscape compositions that punctuate the films. The American lightness that Takinami says inspired Ozu (and it is still American, the main intertext being in this case Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 Docks of New York) now acquires higher stakes: it is not only an expression of modernity, but also a means of estrangement, even liberation from modernity. Here Takinami links Ozu to film scholar (and interpreter of Kracauer) Miriam Hansen’s notion of “vernacular modernism” as an attempt to rethink the evidently universal classicism of Hollywood cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. Against the idea that Hollywood succeeded globally because it so expertly tapped into a somehow universally hardwired predisposition to narrative, Hansen argued that the receptiveness toward American films across cultures in the first half of the twentieth century should rather be attributed to the way that these films channeled shared experiences of modernity. Hollywood films presented viewers with realities of modern life, not primarily through skillful storytelling, but through sensory experiences that helped viewers step back, or “estrange” themselves, from those realities. Takinami says that the vernacular modernism of Ozu, a Japanese student of Hollywood, had to do with responding locally, and through the senses, to modernity, rehearsing through cinema a form of liberation from the thick of the everyday.

This is not to say that Ozu was some kind of radical social critic promoting class awareness through what were, after all, commercial studio films. The fifth and final chapter of the dissertation dispels the notion that the shōshimin films, notably the canonical 1932 film I Was Born, But…, were intended as exposés of social conditions. Takinami compellingly demonstrates that while the term shōshimin as used by critics at the time did designate films that were about middle-class characters, it also carried the connotation that the films were themselves “bourgeois,” produced by middle-class filmmakers and reflecting middle-class values. By 1933, political purges had suppressed leftist film criticism in Japan, but Takinami shows that the early critical reception of Ozu, who emerged as a director around the time that a national proletarian film movement was underway, had generally held his films to be promising, but insufficiently critical of the class situations they portrayed. Takinami gives special attention to the leftist critic Iwasaki Akira, who would become one of the foremost film critics in Japan. By way of Iwasaki, Takinami brings Ozu into contact with the other great tradition of 1920s film aesthetics: Soviet montage. For Iwasaki, who studied the Soviet filmmakers in the 1930s, cinematic “mobility” had to do with the impact of films upon spectators (Sergei Eisenstein famously wrote of a “Kino-fist” that could crack skulls). He prioritized impact over the aesthetic purism that informed cinematic “lightness,” though he became sympathetic to Ozu after 1933. Takinami establishes this critical context in order then to look for evidence of Soviet-style mobility in Ozu’s films, which he remarkably locates in the well-known home movie scene from I Was Born, But… In this film within the film — a home movie shot on the streets of Tokyo — Takinami detects the influence of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 proletarian urban montage film Man with a Movie Camera. The urban montage in I Was Born, But… is so brief that its similarities to the Vertov film easily escape notice, but Takinami makes a strong case for his reading when he reveals that Man with a Movie Camera was released in Japan in March of 1932, just as Ozu’s film was in production. Based on this startling discovery, Takinami concludes that Ozu was in fact conscious of the proletarian cinema of the 1920s, so much so that he probably adapted what would become one of the canonical films of the Soviet avant-garde. But his adaptation was “light” and indifferent to the politics of the original. In light of this, the idea that Ozu’s shōshimin films were socially critical in ways that resonated with proletarian film criticism should be tempered.

Takinami’s dissertation as a whole intriguingly re-evaluates Ozu and his idiosyncrasies according to the terms of the historical film discourses and aesthetic trends of the late silent era, demonstrating the ways in which his films responded to ideas that were circulating not only in Japan, but also in Hollywood, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union. In other words, this is a portrait of a filmmaker who was concerned not so much with Japanese tradition as with a cinematic modernity shared by people around the world in the 1920s. It is also a reminder that national cinemas such as that of Japan did not form in a vacuum. Finally, Takinami’s novel approach to the films, emphasizing their mobility and lightness, is testament to the profound richness of Ozu’s work, which continues to inspire fresh ways of seeing and thinking about the movies and their history.

Ryan Cook
Postdoctoral Fellow
Edwin O. Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies
Harvard University

Primary Sources

Numerous historical periodicals, including more than a dozen film journals.
Essays and memoirs by historical figures, including former Shōchiku Studio head Kido Shirō and film critic Iwasaki Akira.
Silent films from the 1920s and early 1930s by Ozu, Ernst Lubitsch, and Josef von Sternberg, among others.

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 243 pp. Primary Advisor: Yuri Tsivian.

Image: Ozu Yasujiro. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply