Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Auteur Files #13: Adventures in the Criterion Collection Part Five; Or, Life Is Ephemeral -- Yasujirō Ozu's EARLY SPRING (Eclipse Series 3a)

“I tried to avoid anything dramatic, and instead piled up scenes where nothing at all happens, so as to let audience feel the sadness of their existence.” Ozu on EARLY SPRING

I’m quite candid over Yasujirō Ozu’s TOKYO STORY being my all-time favorite film. It’s certainly possible that some masterpiece will one day enter my consciousness and topple it from this position, but the quiet, sublime humanism of this enduring classic from 1953 affects me on such a profound level that I’m quite doubtful. For years in my little nook of the globe Ozu was brutally hard to see, so when the opportunity presented itself to watch STORY, a film that was consistently bandied about in serious critics-polls as one of the greatest ever made, I didn’t hesitate. That its beauty far exceeded my expectations is credit to its placement in the cinematic canon. One of the sweetest turns of events over the last few years is the increasing availability of Ozu’s films both early and late, with Criterion’s Eclipse series knocking out two boxed volumes of the man’s work for cinephiliac consumption. LATE OZU, a five disc set dedicated to a large chunk of his masterly final period, is simply an essential document that’s sheer value is incalculable. EARLY SPRING, the film that directly followed TOKYO STORY in Ozu’s oeuvre is included in the set, and while a gap of three years occurred between the works it’s quickly apparent that the director suffered no diminishment in his creative powers.

The first thing that should be said, indeed the first thing that is often said regarding Ozu (in order to prepare the curious and scare away those with insufficient attention spans or inappropriate expectations), is that his cinema is slow. This slowness doesn’t register in the manner of art-film/indie/experimental tropes, methods that often strive to aestheticize alienation and existential stasis to varying degrees of success. No, Ozu’s slowness is much closer to the grammar of classic film style, the sturdy deliberate quality and the quiet stateliness joining in deep harmony with his themes, ideas deeply concerned with the emotional effects of human relationships instead of the often flashier intrigues of plot. Contrary to the quote above, many things do happen in the films of Ozu; people wake, rise, work, converse, eat, laugh, play, argue, sleep. And while these activities unfold and provide the characters with quiet dignity, the story’s weight unfolds. EARLY SPRING is easy to describe in terms of its core narrative. Shoji and Masako are married. They’ve lost a son, and both are somewhat dissatisfied with their marriage and with life in general. Shoji is a “salaryman”, a non-skilled office worker who commutes to Tokyo by train. He establishes friendships in his daily routine and eventually succumbs to an affair with a fellow commuter. Masako shoulders the weight of domesticity and begins to suspect Shoji’s infidelity as he grows more distant. Eventually the fact of his adultery drives a wedge between them, with Masako leaving their home and Shoji accepting a transfer to a small town and departing alone. The film ends with Masako making the trip to rejoin her husband and the two resolving to make a fresh start, a denouement that lacks any sense of false hope or “happy ending” triteness, instead working in perfect agreement with Ozu’s intentions.

Yes, stuff is happening in EARLY SPRING, but it’s often the same stuff; he expertly uses structural repetition, depicting the same or similar activities as commentary on the mundane cycle of daily life. The soundtrack music during the opening credits is reminiscent of old Hollywood style, but once the film’s action begins the scoring is minimal, mostly used in scene transitions. In contrast, Ozu favors incidental music, the singing of characters or none at all. As the narrative gradually unfolds the film is peacefully respectful to how these characters carry on through the commonplace activities of their lives, and much information is communicated to the viewer without needless dialogue. The way the camera captures the routine of workers preparing for departure on the Tokyo train shows a life that is burdened by the necessity of daily ritual, for one instance, or the atmosphere of non-dynamic repetition that is office work for another. When his workers converse and attempt to inject spontaneity into their lives with a Sunday hike, the activity is shown to be hampered by familiarity; there is mild comedy here, but Ozu’s overall intention is to give portraiture to the malaise of life. When Shoji and the woman of his eventual affair, named Goldfish due to her large eyes, hitch a ride unexpectedly, their action departs so much from the expected sameness of the hike that it inspires a large commotion in the rest of the group.

The main focus of the story is how one couple deals with a marital indiscretion, but the overwhelming theme of the film concerns a large cast of characters coping with the inevitable disappointments of human existence. And they are truly well fleshed out characters, not symbols or stereotypes; the amount of time and care that Ozu gives in their depiction is absolutely essential. Early in the film, there is an easy conversation between Shoji, his older visiting friend Onodera and the proprietor of a local milk bar. All three express dissatisfaction with the paths of their lives’ vocations and the general atmosphere feels like a collective indulgence in a round of “the grass is always greener”. Late in the film, after his marriage has splintered and a close young friend has died, Shoji partakes in another conversation, the subject similar to the first but this time much more grim in tone.

There is profound sadness over this sick man dying at age 32, overdosing on sleeping pills while living with his mother. When the line “We live on, but we’re not happy” is delivered and it is suggested that the dying man may indeed have been lucky, it is the depth of the characters, the truth of their experiences and the precision with which Ozu moves them through his world that allows them to register not as callow or self-centered but to instead strike a universal chord that one character succinctly states as “life is ephemeral”.

The way Ozu composes shots of humans in rooms is a joy, as is EARLY SPRING’s long shots of city buildings that feel like B&W paintings; but the form is always securely tied to the content, the connection as deep as it is in the work of any old Hollywood master. It’s no surprise that Ozu was an admirer of Ernest Lubitsch, and in fact TOKYO STORY was at least somewhat inspired by Leo McCarey’s masterwork MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. And the director is fantastic at showing us sides of the human condition that transcend borders or cultures. A mother is concerned for her daughter, curious without being meddlesome. There is woman talk over spinsters, widows and the idea of remarrying. A line of dialogue succinctly expresses being taken for granted (“Wife is just a cooking machine”) while a husband, angry over an unprepared dinner, goes out to hang with the boys. We see the seemingly universal ritual of group-singing and revelry and drunken shit-talking. And gossip permeates the air like a foul wind. Just one aspect that makes Ozu’s cinema so amazing is even with all this common human ground his cinema is still profoundly Japanese, existing as a true doorway into another culture and time. Another interesting element is that the film holds not only no villains, but also no overt indicators for audience sympathies. Yes, I suppose it’s easier to identify with Masako than Goldfish, particularly since the latter is volatile and somewhat immature, but this tendency is part of our preconditioning, not anything coded into the film. No music accents Goldfish’s statement that “I hate you’re wife now” or tugs at our heart strings to take sides when Masako and Shoji drift apart.

And the scene of a drunken home invasion by Shoji and two old army buddies is brilliantly depicted, with the viewer left to struggle with moments of comedy (the small gesture of the hand of an inebriated man caressing the ass of a mannequin is simply perfect) amidst the despair and resolve of Masako, dealing with not only her crumbling marriage but the eve of the anniversary of her son’s death. And earlier, the grace with which that army reunion switches from alcohol-fueled camaraderie into something far more somber is a trait that shows Ozu’s sheer skill with acting, space, composition and the rare ability to use silence as an expressive tool. Along the way, Ozu is powerfully evenhanded in regard to gender. Men are shown as being possibly the worst gossips, and no way is domestic life belittled. On the contrary, the women, particularly Masako and her Mother, are possibly the strongest characters in the film. This fairness to gender spreads over to the concept of age. While older characters like the Mother and Onodera are possessed of wisdom and acceptance, this is in no way pitted against the inexperience of the young. Goldfish’s problematic immaturity is given as much dignity as anyone in the story. Even a meddling neighbor holds human dimension. When this woman describes to Masako how she discovered her husband’s infidelity with his mistress in a rented apartment, going so far as to divulge the food he was preparing at the time (tofu and bonito), it at first feels aberrant in the midst of Ozu’s grand human scheme. But when she leaves to join her husband, the irony that they are going to partake of the same meal, and prepared by him no less is a beautiful leveler, suggesting that her actions and surroundings speak far louder than her words. But three scenes in the film really bring home Ozu’s commitment to humanist filmmaking.

First, at the moment Goldfish and Shoji are consummating their affair, the camera turns away to study the movements of an electrical fan. Instead of prudish, this decision feels non-judgmental, an acknowledgement of human weakness, and also a gesture of respect to his characters dignity in the face of our possible judgment. Second, in a conversation between Shoji and a co-worker, there is a powerful contrast between the loss of Shoji and Masako’s son and this co-worker’s fears over the unplanned pregnancy of his wife. Shoji shares his experience with total understanding and respect for the co-worker’s worries over money and the change this child will bring, the two ultimately bonding over the unexpected inevitabilities of their lives. Last and most important, Shoji and Masako’s reconciliation registers as sincere, again not as a shallow happy ending but instead as the admittance and acceptance of a mistake and furthermore as a way for the two to battle the existential pain of life together, a regeneration of energy through union after the solitude of their estrangement proved worse for the them both. There is no false sense of optimism. The unavoidable nature of existence is still very much in front of them, and now they must face it for three years in a small, unappealing town full of huge, billowing smokestacks. Ozu’s film shows life as it is; an endless struggle, with fitful moments of joy in the midst of pain, disappointment and uncertainty.

These two lovely but unexceptional representatives of humanity’s beauties and faults choose two of the most affirming of all actions, sincere regret and forgiveness, in hopes of moving forward, and in so doing give this wonderful film a truly appropriate sense of closure. It’s been said that Ozu’s cinema is out of step with the times, but the more of his work I see the more I think that’s bullshit. I’m gonna make it plain. Ozu isn’t out of step with anything; he died in 1963. The reality is our times are seriously out of step with the eternal qualities of his work. Attentively watching EARLY SPRING, meeting it on its terms instead of demanding it conform to contemporary expectations, it’s impossible to not be absorbed on some level by the rendering of the human condition, but sadly that’s in direct opposition to the overload of sensation, stimulation and distraction that is such a large part of contemporary life. Can’t see the forest for the overabundance of fake plastic trees. But I don’t want to come off like some sort of cultural grump-ass, so enough. Some will love him, most will never encounter his name, but Yasujirō Ozu is NOW.

Yasujirō Ozu

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