Ozu at Brisbane

in 12nd Brisbane International Film Festival

by Chris Fujiwara

A highlight of the 12th Brisbane International Film Festival was a retrospective of 11 films by Yasujiro Ozu, one of a series of worldwide tributes being paid to the Japanese director during 2003, his centenary year. One of the first of these tributes was held at the Berlin Film Festival, from whose nine-film lineup Brisbane inherited all the films but one (Tokyo Story), while adding three (Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, There Was a Father, and The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice).

The prints shown at Brisbane were not the restored prints promised for later this year from Shochiku Films, for which Ozu worked throughout his career, but those from the Japan Foundation’s circulating collection. I Was Born But…, Late Spring, Early Summer, and some of the others were in acceptable condition but had obviously been around for a while. The gems among these prints were a crisp and sharp Early Spring and a jaw-droppingly beautiful Equinox Flower.

Any Ozu film gains tremendously on being viewed in a good 35mm print; the color films gain perhaps most of all. What became strikingly clear on viewing this print of Equinox Flower was Ozu’s remarkable ability to impart a sense of vastness to the image, whatever its scale (long, medium, or close shot), by filling it with objects that look out serenely at us from their places (a red tea kettle, Asahi beer bottles, beautiful sake bottles) and by an architectural use of furniture to give motion and depth (the angles of tables and chairs count for much in an Ozu shot).

The characters in the film also benefit from the increased grain and definition of a good 35mm print: they become more substantial, more haunting, more transient, more alive. In Equinox Flower, Shin Saburi, Kinuyo Tanaka, Chishu Ryu, and the others are as recognizable and as definitive (in belonging to this cinematic universe and being unthinkable anywhere else) as the people in a film by Lang or Jacques Tourneur. Ozu invariably gives us the sense that (as Fassbinder said of Sirk) he loves people: the vibrant presence of his actors, which is the expression of his love, is vastly enhanced in the projection of a good print.

What Ozu gives us is never mere decoration, but a disposition of people and objects in space such that an imperturbable, strange, and stark harmony is achieved. The chunky 1.33 space is filled from end to end and from back to front, without seeming crowded (or decorated); and each frame is its own map rather than merely “an image of reality”. In Equinox Flower, reality is not what’s captured by the lens; it neither preexists the taking of the shot, nor is born simultaneously with it. So abstract and so human are Ozu’s concerns that reality is beside the point; it simply appears as if it necessarily accompanied a form so deeply meditated and so perfectly achieved.

Ozu colored the rest of the festival. Even the eroticism that was a prominent element of so many films in the festival resonated for me with Keiko Kishi and Ryo Ikebe in the private room of the restaurant and in the hotel room in Early Spring (Hong Sang-soo’s Turning Gate, Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures, and Cheng Wen-tang’s Somewhere over the Dreamland all feature scenes in similar settings) or Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu in the room at the inn in Late Spring (Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town, another delicate study of an impossible and thwarted love).