Yasujirō Ozu

Yasujirō Ozu
Yasujirō Ozu
Born December 12, 1903(1903-12-12)
Tokyo, Japan
Died December 12, 1963(1963-12-12) (aged 60)
Tokyo, Japan
Occupation Film director
Years active 19291963

Yasujirō Ozu (小津 安二郎 Ozu Yasujirō?, 12 December 1903 – 12 December 1963) was a prominent Japanese film director and (sometimes under the name James Maki) script writer. He is known for his distinctive technical style, developed during the silent era. Marriage and family, especially the relationships between the generations, are among the most persistent themes in his body of work. His outstanding works include Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), and Floating Weeds (1959).

Ozu's reputation outside his native Japan has grown steadily since his death. Influential monographs by Donald Richie, Paul Schrader and David Bordwell have ensured a wider appreciation of Ozu's style, aesthetics and themes in the West.



Ozu was born in the Fukagawa district of Tokyo. At the age of ten, he and his siblings were sent by his father[1] to live in his father's home town of Matsuzaka, Mie Prefecture, where he spent most of his youth. He was educated at a boarding school but spent much of his time in the local cinema rather than a classroom.

He worked briefly as a teacher before returning to Tokyo in 1923 to join the Shochiku Film Company.

Ozu was well known for his drinking. In fact, he and his fellow screenwriter Kogo Noda used to measure the progression of their scripts by how many bottles of sake they had drunk. Occasionally visitors to his grave pay their respects by leaving cans and bottles of alcoholic drink. Ozu remained single and childless all of his life and stayed alone with his mother who died less than two years before his own death.

Ozu died in 1963 of cancer on his 60th birthday. His grave at Engaku-ji in Kamakura bears no name—just the character mu ("nothingness").[2]


Ozu was initially hired as an assistant cameraman. He became an assistant director within three years, and directed his first film, Zange no Yaiba (The Sword of Penitence, now lost), in 1927. He went on to make a further fifty-three films: twenty-six in his first five years as a director, and all but three for Shochiku. Ozu first made a number of short comedies, before turning to more serious themes in the 1930s. His Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But..., 1932), a comedy with serious overtones on adolescence, not only marks the beginning of this transition, but was also received by movie critics as the first notable work of social criticism in Japanese cinema, winning Ozu wide acclaim.

In 1935 Ozu made a short documentary with soundtrack: Kagami Shishi, in which Kokiguro VI performed Kabuki dance of the same title. This was made as per a request by the Ministry of Education.[3] Like the rest of Japan's cinema industry, Ozu was slow to switch to the production of talkies: his first film with a dialogue sound-track was Hitori Musuko (The Only Son) in 1936, five years after Japan's first talking film, Heinosuke Gosho's The Neighbor's Wife and Mine.

Ozu's grave at Engaku-ji

In July 1937, at a time when Shochiku was unhappy about Ozu's lack of box-office success (despite the praise and awards he received from critics), the thirty-four-year-old Ozu was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army, and he served for two years in China as an infantry corporal in the Second Chinese-Japanese War. The first film Ozu made on his return was the critically and commercially successful Toda-ke no Kyodai (Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, 1941). He followed this with an autobiographical theme: Chichi Ariki (There Was a Father, 1942), describing the strong bonds of affection between a father and son despite years of separation. In 1943, Ozu was again drafted into the army to make a propaganda film in Burma. However, he was sent to Singapore instead.

Ozu's films were most favorably received from the late 1940s, with works such as Banshun (Late Spring, 1949), Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953)—considered to be his masterpiece—Ochazuke no Aji (The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, 1952), Soshun (Early Spring, 1956), Higanbana (Equinox Flower, 1958, his first film in colour), Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959) and Akibiyori (Late Autumn, 1960). Ozu often worked with screenwriter Kogo Noda; other regular collaborators included camera man Yuharu Atsuta and the actors Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, and Haruko Sugimura.

As a director, Ozu was eccentric and a notorious perfectionist. His films were typically infused with the concept of mono no aware, an awareness of the impermanence of things. He was seen as one of the "most Japanese" of film makers, and his work was only rarely shown overseas before the 1960s. Ozu's last film was Sanma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon) in 1962.

He once served as president of the Directors Guild of Japan.[4]

Legacy and style

Yasujiro Ozu (far right) on location of Tokyo Story (1953).

Ozu is probably as well known for the technical style and innovation of his films as for the narrative content. The style of his films is most distinctive in his later films, a style he had not fully developed until his post-war talkies. He did not conform to most Hollywood conventions, most notably the 180 degree rule. Also, rather than using the typical over-the-shoulder shots in his dialogue scenes, the camera gazes on the actors directly, which has the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene. Ozu did not use typical transitions between scenes, either. In between scenes he would show shots of certain static objects as transitions, or use direct cuts, rather than fades or dissolves. Most often the static objects would be buildings, where the next indoor scene would take place. It was during these transitions that he would use music, which might begin at the end of one scene, progress through the static transition, and fade into the new scene. He rarely used non-diegetic music in any scenes other than in the transitions. Ozu moved the camera less and less as his career progressed, and ceased using tracking shots altogether in his color films.

He invented the "tatami shot", in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat. Actually, Ozu's camera is often even lower than that, only one or two feet off the ground. He used this low height even when there were no sitting scenes, such as when his characters walked down hallways.

Ozu also eschewed the traditional rules of filmic storytelling, most notably eyelines. In his review of Floating Weeds, film critic Roger Ebert recounts

[Ozu] once had a young assistant who suggested that perhaps he should shoot conversations so that it seemed to the audience that the characters were looking at one another. Ozu agreed to a test. They shot a scene both ways, and compared them. "You see?" Ozu said. "No difference!"[5]

In narrative structure, Ozu was also an innovator in his use of ellipses, in which many major events are left out, leaving only the space between them. For example, in An Autumn Afternoon a wedding is mentioned in one scene, and then in the next, a reference is made to the wedding that has already occurred. The wedding, however, never occurs on screen. This is typical of Ozu's films. Usually Ozu elides moments that Hollywood films use to stir an emotional reaction from the audience, thus eschewing melodrama.

Ozu's films also featured more varied female roles. Most notably in the Noriko trilogy (Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story), his female characters exhibited an independence and assertiveness that was a departure from more traditional Japanese views of women.

Ozu's work anticipated some techniques used by later art-film directors: infrequent use of non-diegetic music, a distinctive visual style, minimalist storytelling, and a character-driven emphasis on quiet and intelligent conversation.

Ozu's influence on the modern art film has been tremendous. Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Mike Leigh, Deepa Mehta, Aki Kaurismaki and Pedro Costa have all admitted to having been profoundly influenced by his films. Paul Schrader had a high opinion of him as well, and in his book Transcendental Styles in Film relates Ozu to Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Ozu had some famous detractors. Japanese "New-Wave" filmmakers Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima were completely uninterested in Ozu's style of film making. Akira Kurosawa's more gentle criticism was that Ozu's work was too rarefied; he wrote in his autobiography that he disliked their "dignified severity".

Tributes and documentaries

  • The 2003 movie Five Dedicated to Ozu, by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, is a tribute to Ozu. The film consists of five long takes, averaging about 16 minutes each.
  • In the Wim Wenders documentary film Tokyo-Ga, the director travels to Japan to explore the world of Ozu, interviewing both Chishu Ryu and Yuharu Atsuta.
  • In 2003, the centenary of Ozu's birth was commemorated at various film festivals around the world. Shochiku produced the film Café Lumière (珈琲時光), directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien as homage to Ozu, with direct reference to the late master's Tokyo Story (1953), to premiere on Ozu's birthday.
  • John Walker, former editor of Halliwell`s Film Guide, placed Tokyo Story top in a list of the best 1000 films yet made.



  1. ^ Mark Weston Giants of Japan, Kodansha International, 1999, p. 303
  2. ^ "Yasujiro Ozu's gravesite in Kita-Kamakura: How to get there (Part Two).". http://www.easterwood.org/ozu/gravesite/directions2.html. Retrieved 2009-08-20.  The simple inscription is referred to in the Wim Wenders film Tokyo-Ga when Wenders visits Ozu's grave with the actor Chishu Ryu.
  3. ^ Google Book Result from Donald Richie's book
  4. ^ "Nihon eiga kantoku kyōkai nenpyō" (in Japanese). Nihon eiga kantoku kyōkai. http://www.dgj.or.jp/about_g/chronology.html. Retrieved 17 August 2010. 
  5. ^ Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of Floating Weeds
  6. ^ Hasumi 1998, p. 229
  7. ^ Sato 1997b, p. 280


External links

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