In his essay film Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders says of Yasujiro Ozu (and I’m paraphrasing) that he “captures all of human life in his films.” And as I am in agreement with this assessment, I have recently come to the firm conclusion—and I’m sure you were all eagerly anticipating this announcement—that Ozu is the greatest filmmaker of all time. He put everything into his films, all of family life and everything that radiates out from it. There is not a subject he didn’t touch on, however obliquely, which brings me to my first point of inquiry, which is Ozu’s treatment of WWII.
Now, one of the high points of Ozu’s career is the “Noriko trilogy”—Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953)—so-called because in each film Setsuko Hara plays a woman named Noriko, although they are different Norikos, as there is no continuity between the films. They all take place amidst the aftermath of WWII, and Ozu’s treatment of the subject is subtle but devastating. Unlike other Japanese filmmakers, like Kon Ichikawa and Masaki Kobayashi, Ozu never directly depicts soldiers in combat. Rather, they become notable by their absence. In Early Summer and Tokyo Story, the families at the center of the film are each missing a son. And their loss is especially agonizing, because their sons are not dead, or at least not confirmed dead, but have simply disappeared in the chaos of the war, and as the years go on and time passes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that they’re still alive. But their families can never know definitively; there will always be uncertainty. In Early Summer, which I just watched this evening, there’s a scene in which the mother and father of the Mamiya family are speaking with a neighbor about their missing son Shoji. And the father says of the mother, “She thinks he could still be alive somewhere. But there is no hope.” But there is no hope. This quiet, Dantesque fatalism is just as tragic as anything in the bloodiest war movie. There is no hope. That’s Ozu’s pronouncement on war.
Another theme running through Ozu’s work is the terrible sadness of “normal,” everyday life. At the beginning of Early Summer, Noriko lives happily with her extended family: mother, father, brother (the one who survived the war, played by Chishu Ryu), sister-in-law, and nephews. By the end of the film, she’s engaged to be married, which has prompted her parents to decide to move off to Yamato with her elderly uncle, while her brother and sister-in-law will raise their kids in a more American-style, nuclear family. And the tragedy of this situation, which has developed through the normal, socially-acceptable course of family life, leads Noriko to dissolve into tears and say, “I’m sorry. I’ve broken up the family.” To which her father responds, “It’s not your fault. It was inevitable.” Yes, but isn’t it sad that something like that has to be inevitable? Is it any less tragic for being normal?
Which brings us to Noriko’s smile. Setsuko Hara has one of the most memorable smiles in all of cinema, and she spends much of the Noriko trilogy beaming, regardless of the sadness of her situation or the human condition in general. In fact, everybody in these movies insists on being happy. They’re always telling themselves, “We’ve been very happy, haven’t we?” “We’ve had a good life, haven’t we?” Because what else can you say? When you’ve reached old age, can you really admit to yourself that you haven’t been happy, and that it’s too late to change that? No, that would be unbearable. We must persist in smiling like Noriko, whether or not the situation justifies it.