Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Story of Floating Weeds

It's hard to overemphasize just how good this 1934 silent Japanese movie is. Directed by Yasunori Ozu, the simple story involves the reunion of a traveling stage performer with his lover when he returns to her town after a long absence. Given the climate surrounding most movies these day, I can appreciate how some people may find it slow-moving or even boring, but it really does bear up to repeated viewings. I watched it a second time with the commentary on the same night. Donald Richie does a superlative job, so much so that I transcribed some of his more memorable remarks. The range of his commentary really is incredible.

Here he is on the Japanese language:
“There is a term in Japanese, nakama, which means doing things in a group, and that is indeed a goal, and indeed it is virtuous to behave in this fashion.”

“There’s a word, wa, which is the great circle of accord, which is certainly known in China, but which in Japan even now remains (at least it is given lip service) as the main social virtue; if you have wa - that is if you have an accord, a group of people who are in a single accord - then you have virtue, in the Confucian sense of the word.”

On Japanese culture:
“She responds by leaving her comb in her hair, which is a very well known gesture of courtesans (ladies who are no better than she should be), so it is as if she were thumbing her nose at him.”

On one of Ozu’s shortcomings:
“Ozu’s love scenes are particularly … are not very good, usually. He keeps away from them, but when he has to have them (in Early Spring, for example), they are noticeably, badly done; the actors are embarrassed for them, probably because the director is embarrassed for them.”

On an interesting detail, as part of Ozu’s technique:
“How many times in Ozu’s pictures do we have laundry on the line. Laundry on the line in this case leads to a conclusion that we might have thought of, but very often we don’t have any such thing at all. I don’t know which film has the most laundry to dry. Drying laundry has something to do with the story in Good Morning because the boys are always getting their underwear dirty, but in many another picture I think it was the sculptural quality, perhaps, or like those flags that Ozu was very fond of using as shots connecting one locale to another. The idea that we can move forward by showing a scene outside where we have been, then moving to a scene outside where we’re going, and then going inside of the place where we’re going to. It’s almost an invariable grammar in Ozu. He uses it from the earliest films on, and here again he is very carefully using it.”

More on Ozu’s technique:
“Ozu never liked enlarging technical capacities; just the opposite, he wanted to take away what we would consider cinematic effects. Dollies got rarer and rarer, panoramas became unheard of, fade-ins, fade-outs, dissolves - all of which he banished. He would say these are attributes of the camera; they are not attributes of cinema. So with that philosophy he really pared down, which gives Ozu his minimalist look.”

On style in general, using an 18th century French mathematician to comment on traditional Japanese aesthetics:
“When you’re searching for style in anything, you must remember what Buffon said, that style is the man himself, and you are your own style. Your style springs from you; style is nothing you put on afterwards like icing on the cake. Rather it is something integral to you; it is revealed to you by your choices, and when you make something then (when you’re an artist of any kind), what you choose to do is indicative of what you’ve already chosen within yourself.”

On Ozu and genre:
“Ozu never plugs anything for political or ideological reasons, and that is the reason he sits uneasily in genre. Because genre always plugs ideology, and since Ozu didn’t do it, it’s very difficult to be absolutely sure with him what the genre is, and to name it. Usually it’s this mixture of genres, which is one of the things that gives Ozu films their charm, and certainly their meaning.”

On the grand theme of Ozu’s career
“From this film on, if we hadn’t learned it before, we learn now that his true theme, the theme he was to illuminate all the rest of his career, was not the Japanese family but the dissolution of the Japanese family.”


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