Article NL EN
How to Orient Yourself in Ozu Films
Frieda Grafe 1973
Translated by

In the coming months, Sabzian will publish a dozen new translations of the work of the German film critic Frieda Grafe, the “queen of German film criticism”. Frieda Grafe (1934-2002) started her career in 1962 at the monthly Filmkritik, the flagship of the burgeoning German film criticism at the time. She would publish 120 pieces there. Later, from the early 1970s, Grafe mainly published in the weekly Die Zeit and the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. She collaborated on monographs on Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau and Ernst Lubitsch, and translated books by and about Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Renoir. She did this partly together with her husband Enno Patalas, himself one of the most important German film historians and critics of the 20th century, founder-editor of Filmkritik and for a while director of the Munich Film Museum.

Grafe aptly called her reviews “described films” because she concentrated on making her way of looking at films comprehensible and vivid to the reader. Her pieces tried to unfold the world of a film for the reader, to make it transparent. “I try to reconstruct the general colour of a film for the readers from my impressions and insights in order to lead them to conclusions or assumptions of their own.”

(1) Akibiyori [Late Autumn] (Yasujirō Ozu, 1960)

The Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu made as many as fifty-four films between 1927 and 1962. Ten of them were shown this month at the Film Museum in Munich’s Stadtmuseum.

As guide, not even a specialist, just a semiotician, a researcher of signs, without the slightest grasp of Japanese: Roland Barthes and his Japan book Empire of Signs. In France, his hyper-Brechtian technique of alienation was criticised. As you can see, the lines crisscross. With Barthes, the East is kept at a distance through concepts that he adapted from Brecht and that Brecht had adapted from the East. Direct, so-called natural access is excluded from the outset. You sit before Japan as before a book with seven seals. The subject will not be mastered.

Yasujirō Ozu’s films, both silent and sound films, were shown in their original versions, for the most part without subtitles. The spectator’s lack of knowledge gradually turned into an asset: you learned to see again, you slid into a slowed-down, expanding rhythm, the films coming easily to you because the usual search for the meaning behind things gave way to simple, pure perception. You watched these films experiencing their reality like that of a haiku: a frog, a mountain pheasant, a cold moon, a cucumber.

In order to find your way around, you had to move your eyes a lot and note all the signs, as there was no possibility of relying on explanatory dialogue that reduced the process of experience. There was no question of hasty identification. The gestures, the clothes, the rooms began to speak. And it became very clear that, over there in Japan, other codes of communication exist that are equivalent to language, no less developed or subtle and with a great social impact.

Older Japanese people say that Ozu is the most Japanese of all directors, incomprehensible to the West. For many young people, he is too traditionalist, thinking and working too ahistorically. Ozu is a Zen filmmaker who, in the position of the one who looks and waits, does not want to change the world, but makes himself flat and indifferent like a surface of water, ready for the impressions of the world. When filming, the camera is always a fraction off from his gaze: the space gives a fragmented impression.

We know about Ozu that he was open to everything Western. Italian historical films such as Quo Vadis and The Last Days of Pompeii encouraged him to become a director. His first work in film and his first experience were in a field and part of the strictly structured Japanese film industry that is referred to there with the loan word nansensu-mono, “nonsense comedies”. The influence of the American burlesque on his early films is quite clear. They are colourful, discontinuous films with constant changes in mood and tone.

(2) Akibiyori [Late Autumn] (Yasujirō Ozu, 1960)

Montage as the First Principle

There are many statements by great old Western directors lamenting the breakthrough of the sound film as a loss of the visual and physical communication elements of film. Ozu says that his concentrated, long study of silent film taught him what he does in his sound films. He made silent films all his life; from 1936 onwards with sound, often with Western music and tediously monotonous and trivial dialogues: “One can talk endlessly about futilities; when it gets serious, we remain silent.”

Barthes: “Like many languages, Japanese distinguishes the (human and/or animal) animate from the inanimate, notably in its verbs of existence; yet the fictional characters introduced into a story (once upon a time, there was a king) are assigned the mark of the inanimate; while all our art struggles to enforce the “life”, the “reality” of fictional beings, the very structure of Japanese brings back or confines these beings to their quality as products [...] It is a matter of conceiving what our language does not conceive: how can we imagine a verb which is at the same time without a subject, without a complement, and is still transitive, like an act of knowledge without a knowing subject and without a known object?” This only for the sake of confusion and as an invitation to treat otherness in such a way that it sheds light on what is familiar and known to us, and therefore never questioned.

When Ozu speaks of authenticity in his films, it has little to do with what this term means to us. In the last twenty-five years of his career, Ozu didn’t need panning or fades in his films. These were artificial methods to him, cheating. By this he meant that they simulate naturalness, that they do not show enough and obscure the working process, that the sign of the inanimate is forgotten.

There are photographs of Ozu while he is filming; the camera is on a very low tripod and behind it the director is sitting on the floor with his legs crossed. Ozu always filmed from this exclusively Japanese perspective, which is for us a kind of child’s point of view, looking at things from below.

He does not dominate them with the camera, nor does he force perspectives on them with the help of the device, which would in the end only emphasise the omnipotence of the author. Even the fact that the film medium “improved” and learned to reproduce the world more and more accurately in a Western-realist sense only made his films more Japanese, less psychological, more abstract, more geometrical. The fact that art became reproducible must have had a different effect in a culture in which craftsmanship was increasingly counted as originality than the effect it had in our culture.

When Eisenstein became acquainted with Kabuki theatre at the end of the 1920s – shortly afterwards Brecht discovered Chinese theatre in Moscow and Artaud Balinese theatre in Paris, both in search of possible changes and new, more appropriate means of expression for the European stage – he found himself faced, he said, with the paradox that although Japanese culture showed cinematographic traits on every level, one looked for them in vain in Japanese cinema. It was obliviously imitating Western “positivist realism” instead of making use of its own cultural characteristics: the laconic and pictorial reproduction of abstract concepts, the constructivism of its artistic procedures. Eisenstein concludes his article with the beautiful pathos even his most serious theoretical treatises are imbued with: “Japanese comrades! Shall we take care of this for you?”

Meanwhile, another paradox developed. Ozu’s work was always dedicated to the very thing Eisenstein was calling for at the time. Yet for many Japanese Marxists, Ozu is like a red rag to a bull. Perhaps the means of Eastern culture are better suited to subverting bourgeois art in the West. Perhaps the most Japanese of all directors is much easier to accept in the West today. Possibly, Roland Barthes thinks, he was only able to write his book on Japan so undisturbed because his artificial situation as a tourist and ethnographer allowed him to overlook petty-bourgeois Japan and the pressure it undoubtedly exerts on the behaviour, way of life and lifestyle: “Japan has fallen into the same trap as the West: it is losing its symbols as one loses one’s hair, teeth or skin; it is about to take the step from (empty) meaning to (mass) communication.”

(3) Akibiyori [Late Autumn] (Yasujirō Ozu, 1960)

New Nippon

Ozu’s films register changes in Japanese life, changes that mainly affect the family structure and mostly come from the West. The office buildings in Tokyo look like those in Chicago or New York, with countless similarly dressed employees who only become picture-book Japanese again for us in their traditional home surroundings, in Eastern clothing, squatting on the tatami, the mat, and no longer sitting on chairs. The changes in the work realm have long since taken place, but the problems this brings along in the family realm are still waiting to be solved. This is all the more difficult because Japanese families, unlike Western ones, have always been more open to the outside world, more social – as are their houses without walls, without a centre, with sliding doors, so transparent that it is difficult for the Western viewers of Ozu films to see where one ends and the next begins.

In Ozu’s postwar films, the signs on official buildings, restaurants and cardboard boxes lying around the houses are bilingual and written with Eastern and Western characters. Coca-Cola advertisements are everywhere, and Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s super-Japanese favourite actress, plays secretary roles like Joan Crawford, walking like her with broad shoulders, a mouth full of make-up and a hanging perm. Twenty-year-olds in swinging petticoats get picked up by GI boyfriends.

This happens without lament: “By change, I don’t mean something sudden, things change gradually.” He was always behind everyone else, he says, he needed a lot of time to understand what he had to do. The rhythm that determines the course of his films makes visible, as if after the fact, the things and spaces between things that speed would otherwise cover up. “A slowing down”, Eisenstein marvels at the pace of Kabuki theatre, “which is completely unfamiliar to us. A dismantling of the coherence of movement. Zeitlupe.” (The last word is in German in the Russian text.)

Barthes again: “We know that the chief concepts of Aristotelian philosophy have been somehow constrained by the principal articulations of the Greek language.” Eisenstein, who looked to Eastern cultures for help in grasping the newness of his medium theoretically, found it, among other things, in the ideograms, the characters, which are a mixture of figuration and letters that never aspired to total abstraction like our alphabet, but remained sensitive abstractions with ties to materiality and concrete worldliness. Barthes wrote of Brecht – some time ago – that this was precisely what fascinated him about Eastern theatre. What was revolutionary about Brecht was not his Marxism, but his decision to relate it to the position of a spotlight and the worn-ness of a theatre costume.

The ideographic script is inseparable from the gesture. That is why our problems of realism never existed for the East. The caesura between signifier and signified, between forms and meanings has not taken place. Eastern realism is the precision of brushwork, in Ozu’s case the tracking shot. A precision of the stroke that frames and quotes things: snapshots of insignificant events with a tendency towards caricature, without its pejorative overtones, understood as an emphasis on the important strokes. A Japanese actor does not simulate a character or a person, but only accumulates and combines certain characters, says Barthes.

Chishū Ryū has acted in almost all Ozu films since 1936. Only with Ozu, he says, was he really good, because Ozu needed a bad, mechanical actor. “I played my roles strictly according to his instructions. He told me to look at my chopsticks, then at my hands, then at ‘my children’. Or to first look at one side of a banknote, then at the other, and then look up.” In Ozu films it is the glances that lead and draw the spectator. They piece together the characters’ feelings, of which there are no ready-made and merely reproduced ones.

His shot-countershot technique always takes the route via the audience. The gaze of the person speaking is diverted towards the audience. Individual images therefore seem like scene photos that a photographer might have taken during a break, when the actors briefly left their roles. They seem like views, like cutouts, and they address the comprehension of the human gaze.

(4) Akibiyori [Late Autumn] (Yasujirō Ozu, 1960)

Almost like Antonioni

Being involved demands infinite attention from the viewer to the most inconspicuous nuances – which has nothing to do with Western art’s following of the plot. Ozu’s films are trivial, impersonal family stories with minimal climaxes. Occasionally, one of his characters will cover his face with his hands in great distress and trip out of the room with a dismissive gesture. You rarely sees tears streaming from the eyes. The barely moving action is interrupted by still-life-like images of deserted décors, emblematic nature scenes or peculiarly decentred views of Tokyo street corners, which entirely reduce the limited tension. In his late films, Ozu uses completely faded colours to wash out his images.

The intention is clear, the technique acts as a bloodletting. The poor means neutralize the images and purge them of all meaning. Ozu: “It’s so easy to show emotion in a drama: the actors cry or laugh, and that provides the audience with feelings of sadness or happiness. I want people to feel what life is like without dramatic ups and downs.”

Ozu finds dramatization inauthentic. The cold pathos of his films is directed against Western conventions of representation, in which the hysterical, narcissistic individual sings his own praises and pushes himself to the fore.

It is said that there is nothing to learn from the teachings of Zen Buddhism. The disciple who goes to a master with a naive request for instruction receives an absurd answer, or the master laughs uproariously or even pounces on him and twists his nose. Nothing to learn means nothing that can be abstracted from the world. Satori in Zen teaching means shock, the unexpected disturbance, the sudden opening that only happens to those who look at the world with constant attention. Satori is an extra-linguistic state, not something inexpressible, a waking up to the real. Georges Bataille found this a captivating method, but unfortunately its Western friends were not to his liking. You don’t have to become a Zen Buddhist for Ozu films. But Zen elements incorporated into Western contexts could only have an invigorating effect.

You could try to let physicality and writing gestures, unwritten references, shine through our dried-up typography again.

born in Tokyo on 12.12.1903
died in Tokyo on 12.12.1963

Only a minimal difference between alpha and omega. In Ozu’s films, even death is of a bewildering triviality, almost nothing.

(5) Akibiyori [Late Autumn] (Yasujirō Ozu, 1960)

Originally published as ‘Wie sich in Ozu-Filmen orientieren’ in Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1973. © Brinkmann & Bose Publisher Berlin, Germany


Images (1), (2), (3), (4) and (5) from Akibiyori [Late Autumn] (Yasujirō Ozu, 1960)