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The Criterion Collection presents
"If I left home, Father would be lost."
DVD ReviewThe notion of a film being poetic strikes most of us these days as either quaint or pretentious—perhaps it's got to do with the history of motion pictures as a popular art form, the rightful heir to such base entertainments as vaudeville and burlesque, and I can tell you from much first-hand experience that most self-styled "poetic" pieces of cinema are more effective than a fistful of Tylenol PM. But the work of Yasujiro Ozu commands our respect—his movies are quietly beautiful, small meditations on family breaches, and, yes, his films have the kind of grace we associate only with poetry. The waggish might say that he made the same movie over and over for decades, and he'd probably agree; and if you've been weaned exclusively on overcut action pictures, an Ozu film will seem like it's from a different universe, closer to The Canterbury Tales than Mission: Impossible III. But patience has its rewards, and good things come to those who wait, which you must, if you want to savor the pleasures of an Ozu picture.
The story is rather mundane, the stuff of soap operas and melodramas, with similarities to Marty or The Heiress. Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is 27 and unmarried, and has devoted herself exclusively to looking after her widowed father, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). She encounters an old friend of her father's, also a widower—he has remarried, and Noriko finds this "filthy." She wouldn't dare articulate her own longings, but lingering glances suggest that she's got more than a passing fondness for Hattori (Jun Usami), her father's assistant; alas, he's got a fiancée, and so the extended clan in this Tokyo suburb is pressed into action to find Noriko a husband, for she is already perilously close to being an old maid.
The success or failure of the quest is hardly the point, as Ozu well knows—he in fact never shows us the face of the leading candidate for Noriko's hand. Rather, the movie is about the subtle but profound interactions between the characters, most of whom hardly dare even to express a scintilla of their emotions. Ozu takes on challenges that wouldn't even occur to other filmmakers—one long central sequence, for instance, is at a kabuki performance, and the story is pushed along only by the emotions flashing on the faces of various characters, telling us volumes about what's in their secret hearts. Similarly, he's content to linger on the mundane, to show Noriko riding the train into town—another filmmaker might have an audience mutiny on his or her hands, but Ozu gets us to give over to it. And in all this quietness and restraint, an extraordinary amount of emotional terrain is covered. In its way, it's gossipy and candid in a manner that Hollywood movies of the period could never have been, with chatter about sex, pregnancy, remarriage, divorce, single motherhood, any one of which would have been cause for a Hays Code violation.
Ozu's filmmaking style is similarly spare—his camera hardly moves, and he favors master shots, or cutting to perpendicular angles, to orient us in space. He's got a keen eye for architecture, and his lens of choice provides for significant depth of field—the obvious contrast is with the signature style of Akira Kurosawa, who flattened space in the interest of emotional immediacy. Also of particular note is the American presence in the film—made just four years after the armistice, the characters aren't reluctant to talk about the war years, but neither are they plagued by memories of World War II. Their lives are moving on, and they're all forced to face their fears, their hopes and their limitations—the last image of the film sums up the whole perfectly, in being quietly devastating, an elegy for a time that is passing and is sure never to come again.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: You can see the tremendous care that went into the transfer here—many of the black-and-white frames are simply luminous. All that work points up, however, the compromised nature of the source material, which is frequently badly scratched, and from which a number of frames seem to be missing.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: As with the image transfer, Criterion has done well with damaged material; you can hear a good amount of hiss throughout, but I imagine that this will be more problematic for those of you who won't be reading the subtitles.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Richard Peña
Packaging: Amaray Double
The love continues on the second disc, which holds Tokyo-Ga (01h:31m:48s), Wim Wenders' feature-length appreciation of Ozu's life and work. Produced in 1983, it looks at the Tokyo of that year versus the Tokyo captured by Ozu's camera, and includes visits with Chishu Ryu, frequently Ozu's leading man; and with Yuuharu Atsuta, Ozu's cinematographer, who gives a brief seminar on the evolution of the director's spartan technique, the camera always at the eye level of someone sitting down. Wenders' film is part biography, part travelogue, and part fan letter; Ozu's films themselves will probably do better winning over fans, but this project is infused with cinematic affection.
The accompanying booklet is worth more than a passing glance as well—it features an Ozu career overview by Michael Atkinson; an essay on the relationship between Ozu and Setsuko Hara, by Donald Richie; and notes from the director himself on Kogo Noda, his collaborator on the screenplay.
Extras Grade: A+
Final CommentsOzu's film is at once celebratory and mournful, cut from the same bolt of cloth as the rest of his unparalleled work. Watching a movie like this one is much more demanding than allowing the usual mediocre fare at the multiplex to wash over you—it stretches a different, stronger set of your moviegoing muscles, and the experience is enveloping and rewarding. Criterion has made the problematic source material look as good as possible, and has added a package of considered extras. Highly recommended.
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