Cinema that edifies and liberates us

Archive for June, 2011

Ozu and the Aesthetics of Cinema ( Equinox Flower )

The famous all watching kettle

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963 ) was one of the greatest auteurs in all of cinema. Over a prolific career spanning decades starting from the silents to black and white and finally to colour cinema,  Ozu created a unique body of work which has inspired film makers all over the world  to develop their own personal visions. Ozu’s narrative style remained more or less consistent with the elegant usage of an   elliptical narration while intermittently  reinforcing  the main plot at different crucial points through parallels which combined to create a holistic plot. Ozu’s diaphanous unobtrusive camera allowed us to look directly into the Japanese nuclear family without any distractions.  Ozu was a perfectionist,  he refused to switch from silent to sound until the technology had settled in (he once joked that he would be the last director to still make silents) . His first colour film was Equinox Flower  in 1958 ,  around 6 years after the Japan industry had welcomed it. There have been several brilliant monographs on Ozu , one of them being ‘Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema’ by David Bordwell ,  from which I have unassumingly  borrowed the title of this article.

Ozu made 6 colour films starting with Equinox Flower and ending with An Autumn Afternoon and while the usual aspects of earlier Ozu which makes all of these films great continue to exist , with  colour in his repertoire Ozu managed to create such beautiful geometrically symmetric images  that the aesthetic quality of these movies had just exploded which is remarkable since Ozu was such an austere minimalist . Chishu Ryu said about Ozu in the Wim Wenders documentary tokyo-ga that Ozu treated all objects in a particular shot with the same warmth and importance as the characters.  The positioning of different objects in any particular shot is so precise that even a  minor disturbance in either the choice of colours or the positioning of objects  could seemingly be a giant aberration.

Equinox Flower revolves  around a  well put businessman Mr Hirayama ( Shin Saburi ) and his concerns over the marriage of his daughter Setsuko (Ineko Arima). Although Mr Hirayama wants to be liberal in his attitude towards marriage which he indicates unequivocally while convincing Yukiko the  daughter of his Kyoto inn-keeper,  he refuses to consent Setsuko to marry a guy of her liking Taniguchi  (the  familiar Keiji Sata) .  After being tricked into giving his consent by Yukiko , he reluctantly attends her wedding but withholds his blessings. In the final part of the film,  he is convinced by Yukiko and her mother Mrs Sasaki to make peace with her daughter and Ozu leaves us with a final shot of  Hirayama in the train humming a nostalgic war tune, which some time before is sung by Mikami ( Chishu Ryu) when all the men gather after Yukiko’s marriage. This final pensive scene is a characteristic of Ozu as it alludes to the acceptance or embracing of the new invigorating cultural shift while at the same time keeping a perspective of the traditional history. To bring forth such a deep sentiment without being melodramatic in just a passing manner shows what a minimalist champion Ozu is.  Also like all his other movies,  Ozu creates such pellucid characterizations that it becomes first nature to associate ourselves with them.  The vibrant yukiko , the conflicted and inconsistent Hirayama , the assured and insistent daughter Yukiko   and the supportive mother ( Kinuyo Tanaka) are played with elegance and finesse.

Also exemplary is the usage of parallels and ellipses in the narration which we have come to expect since days of Late Spring. However this is a step further from Late Spring or Autumn Afternoon as we are not even given a glimpse of the bride or the cermony.  Also we are shown neither the prospect that Hirayama had in mind earlier nor Taniguchi’s  second visit to Hirayama’s house. There are only references to funerals or college reunions. Even the starting point which is a marriage ceremony only shows Hirayama’s speech and is used infact as medium to introduce us to his demeanor  and attitude.  Also we see the parallels of Sasaki and Mikami plotlines to elucidate the conflicting attitudes of Hirayama where on one hand his insecurity over his daughter’s relationship with Taniguchi comes forth when he visits Mikami’s daughter while on the other hand his relenting  desire to possibly concede to his daughter’s choice manifests itself in his conversations with the vibrant Yukiko.  Another notable mention is how Ozu uses very similar characters upto the point of giving them the same names in his different ventures. We are all familiar with Noriko as the daughter in the Noriko trilogy , but we also see the two friends of the main protagonist who will replay them in An Autumn Afternoon and Late Autumn. Also one can compare Yukiko to Yukiko of Late Autumn. Both drive the plot towards its conclusion and both exude a vibrancy which makes the protagonists make decisions reluctantly.

Starting with this film, colour forms a very strong aspect of Ozu’s mise-en-scene, with every movie having a preferred set of colours . Ozu had a liking for red as he once said that Red looks very well on a Agfafilm . But besides that we see constant shades of light brown and light green here, compared to dark green shades in Late Autumn and light blue shades in An Autumn Afternoon. These colours enter the landscape through a couple of preferred mediums: The Kimono and the obi ( sash ) of the female protagonists, the colour of the frames and designs  on the walls and importantly through objects .

The very first scene which is a marriage gathering illustrates the exemplary use of colours.  Note the amazing positioning of different glasses on the table and the colour of the drinks in them contrasted with a dining shot. In the second shot notice how the level of the drinks in all  the glasses is completely synchronous with each other, the level of the Sash and that of the fruit plate.

Another beautiful example of  how Ozu’s shot composition. In the scene where Mr Hirayama intercedes for Mr Mikami and decides to visit the latter’s daughter. The shot is of Mr Hirayama waiting; note the carefully placed symmetric nature of the sauce bottles in contrast to colour of the table-cloth and the door.

The entire film is rich with many such examples. Speaking of photo frames on the walls  once again the film is filled with  lots of instances one of which is the  scene where Mrs Sasaki meets Hirayama in his office. As in this example and elsewhere , chairs play a very crucial role in developing the principal tone of the movie.  Objects also hold importance as pivotal points  that  help us visualise the house in its entirety. The chair with the red cushion, the red kettle and a certain bottle containing light green liquid form three crucial objects here. They appear intermittently and while careful analysis  may  provide them other narration-centric implications, their aesthetic beauty alone is a stroke of genius.  It proves to be an exciting exercise  to follow these three objects throughout the movie, whenever focus shifts on Hirayama’s household. The kettle sometimes comes alone or is  accompanied by other objects. It is handled just once in the entire movie. The green bottle is never handled and it usually accompanies the mother who wears full green or striped green kimonos throughout the movie.  The only one time when she doesn’t wear green is perhaps  the outdoor scene where once again the colours are beautifully composed. The outdoor shots have an warm ebullient mood and immediately bring to mind those of Early Summer.

The empty chair with the red cushion is only used at the very end by Mrs Hirayama after talking to Mr Hirayama on the phone. This scene indicates the surrender of the masculinity ( as one of the consistent themes of Late Ozu) ,  thereby justifying the empty chair as a feasible precursor to this thematic consideration.  Just like Ozu’s characters, Ozu’s mise-en-scene is ostensibly phlegmatic but in reality contemplative. It is this mastery over minimalism, the ability to use objects of a seemingly trivial nature and create profound narrative and thematic implications that make Ozu a true champion of  Cinema.