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This year marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, one of the most important and influential directors in cinema history. Ozu’s films are known for their understated style and focus on family life, and his work has been praised by critics and filmmakers alike.

The BFI is celebrating Ozu’s legacy with a special season of his films, titled A Family Affair: The Films of Yasujirō Ozu. The season will feature a selection of Ozu’s best-known works, including Tokyo Story, Late Spring, and Floating Weeds. These films offer a unique and intimate look at the Japanese family, and they continue to resonate with audiences today.

Ozu’s films are not only beautifully made, but they are also deeply moving and thought-provoking. They explore the complex relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, and siblings. They also deal with the challenges of modern life, such as urbanization, industrialization, and the changing role of women.

If you are a fan of cinema, or if you are simply interested in exploring the human condition, then I highly recommend seeing Ozu’s films. They are a timeless and essential part of the cinematic canon.

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Yasujiro Ozu: The Master of Family Drama

Yasujiro Ozu was a Japanese filmmaker who is considered one of the greatest directors in cinema history. His films are known for their understated style and focus on family life. Ozu’s films are characterized by their use of long takes, static camerawork, and low-key lighting. This creates a sense of realism and intimacy, allowing the viewer to feel as if they are right there in the scene.

Ozu often used recurring motifs in his films, such as the family tatami room. The tatami room is a traditional Japanese room with a floor made of straw mats. It is a place where families gather to relax and spend time together.

Ozu’s films have been praised for their realism and their ability to capture the subtle nuances of human emotion. He was a master of creating emotionally complex characters who are believable and relatable. His films often deal with the challenges of modern life, such as urbanization, industrialization, and the changing role of women. However, he never shied away from the difficult topics and believed that it was important to face these challenges head-on and to find ways to cope with them.

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Tokyo Story (1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is a masterpiece of Japanese cinema and one of the greatest films ever made. The film tells the story of an elderly couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their grown children, but they are met with indifference and neglect. The film is a moving and insightful exploration of the changing nature of family and the challenges of aging.

In 2022, Tokyo Story was voted fourth in the Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll, an annual survey of film critics and directors. The poll is considered one of the most prestigious in the world, and Tokyo Story is the only Japanese film to have ever ranked in the top ten.

The return of Tokyo Story to cinemas is a welcome opportunity for audiences to experience this timeless masterpiece. The film is a reminder of the power of cinema to move and enlighten us, and it is a must-see for any fan of film.

 

1930s-1940s

I Flunked, But... (1930)

Takashi and his fellow students plan to cheat in their exams. But things don’t quite go to plan. If the humour in Ozu’s later films veered towards the wry, his earlier work embraced knockabout comedy, even channelling the spirit of Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch.

An excellent example of his student films, I Flunked But… is initially playful, before proceeding to acknowledge the weight of responsibility that comes with age. The sophistication hinted at here would become increasingly refined as Ozu’s career progressed.

Tokyo Chorus (1931)

A few years after graduating, a young man feels the strain of the professional world upon his family, in Ozu’s early study of the ‘salaryman’ life.

Opening with the lighter tone that characterised much of the work at this stage in Ozu’s career, Tokyo Chorus takes a darker turn when married salaryman Shinji Okajima chooses to stand on principle against his boss.

His attempts to find work are occasionally comical, but there is also a serious strain on the film, which pits the individual against society at large.

A Story of Floating Weeds (1934)

A travelling kabuki troupe arrives at a small town, one that the troupe’s leader, Kihachi, knows well. As petty jealousies surface, the ordered world Kihachi has struggled hard to maintain falls apart. This was the first time Ozu employed the trademark sackcloth that became the backdrop to all his opening credits.

The film also marked a maturing of the director’s style, as evidenced by the way he develops the relationships between characters.

The Only Son (1936)

A widow makes sacrifices to ensure her son gets an education. Years later, when she visits him, she is surprised by how his life has turned out and how little he has told her of it. The son in turn comes to appreciate the cost of his mother’s sacrifice.

Ozu underpins this moving portrait of a mother-son relationship with questions regarding the true value of material wealth and the qualities that are cherished and rewarded in contemporary society.

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Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941)

The Toda family gathers for its authoritarian patriarch’s birthday. When he dies shortly after, the father’s profligate spending is revealed and leaves the family no choice but to sell the home that they all once lived in.

The mother and youngest daughter are forced to rely on the kindness of close relatives, who barely conceal their disdain at having to show charity towards them.

 

There Was a Father (1942)

Widely acknowledged as the first great performance in an Ozu film by the director’s regular on-screen collaborator Chishū Ryū, There Was a Father finds him playing a schoolteacher who, following a tragedy, finds his life and his relationship with his son irrevocably changed.

Ozu’s drama follows both as they grow older, detailing the emotional bond that matures between them. It’s a generous and moving portrait of parental love.

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947)

Tashiro, a fortune-telling resident in a poor district of Tokyo, has been followed home by a young boy whose father took him to the city and became separated from him. Initially unwilling to look after Kōhei, Tashiro gradually warms to the boy.

Ozu shoots the scenes between the two, as well as those between Tashiro and her neighbours, with warmth and humour, which only accentuates the poignancy of the film’s final scenes.

 

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Late Spring (1949)

Late Spring is seen as the beginning of Ozu’s rich mature period and marked the first of six collaborations with Setsuko Hara. Noriko here is a young, single, professional woman who lives with her father. She is encouraged by him and her friends to marry, but has yet – or is unwilling – to find someone suitable.

A compelling portrait of post-war Japan and a society modernising at great speed, this is one of Ozu’s most admired films, ranking 21st in Sight and Sound’s 2022 critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time.

 

1950s

Early Summer (1951)

Setsuko Hara’s Noriko in the second entry of this loose trilogy works in Tokyo but lives outside the city with her family. The visit of an elderly uncle prompts a discussion of Noriko’s marital status, but rather than be guided by the advice of others, she decides to take matters into her own hands.

Highlighting the progress of post-war Japanese society and markedly different attitudes between generations, Early Summer profits from Hara’s charismatic turn and the subtlety with which she reveals Noriko’s motives.

Tokyo Twilight (1957)

Ozu’s final film to be shot in black and white is one of his bleakest portraits of family life. Akiko and Takako grew up alone with their father. Akiko still lives with him. Takako has also returned, following the failure of her marriage.

By chance, Takako encounters the sibling’s mother, who had left home for another man when Akiko was a child. Although she tries to keep the news from Akiko, Takako fails, setting off a series of events that result in tragedy.

Equinox Flower (1958)

Ozu’s first colour film is a beautifully understated drama exploring the concerns of two fathers over their daughters’ futures, and their unwillingness to accept their waning influence over them.

As with all of Ozu’s films, the construction of the domestic space is a marvel to behold, perfectly reflecting the shifting moods within the family and the changing nature of relationships between two generations.

Good Morning (1959)

Ozu’s loose reworking of I Was Born, But… opens with an honest mistake between the treasurer of a women’s club and the mother of two siblings. The boys’ anger at their parents for not allowing them to watch their neighbour’s TV and refusing to buy one for their own home sees them decide to ignore all adults.

When they refuse to acknowledge the treasurer, she believes it is because of their mother’s spite, setting off a series of events. The lightest of Ozu’s later films is also one of the most joyous of his career.

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The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)

Mokichi Satake, an executive at an engineering company, is considered dull by his wife Taeko. She has been asked to help negotiate the arranged marriage of her niece, Setsuko, who wants no part of it; Taeko and Mokichi were married the same way and Setsuko can see the state of their relationship.

Ozu skilfully conveys the dreams and disappointments of characters who wish their lives had turned out differently.

 

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Floating Weeds (1959)

Ozu set himself the challenge of modernising an old entry in his filmography. Unlike Good Morning and Late Autumn, Floating Weeds (originally entitled The Ham Actor) hews closer to the 1934 original, with the leader of an acting troupe taking his production to a small town for personal reasons.

The filmmaker employed the services of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Ugetsu monogatari), resulting is his most visually dazzling film.

 

1960s

Late Autumn (1960)

A re-envisioning of Late Spring. Meeting up to commemorate the anniversary of the death of an old college friend, three men decide to help their friend’s daughter, Ayako, find a husband. When she discovers their plans, Ayako refuses to go along with them, concerned that her mother will be left alone.

Perhaps the least-known of Ozu’s colour films, Late Autumn is a moving portrait of a mother-daughter relationship.

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

In Ozu’s final film, Chishū Ryū is outstanding as a father concerned for his daughter’s future. It’s a theme the filmmaker explored many times, without ever repeating himself. The drama here is played out through the most subtle of gestures between family members.

With each post-war film, Ozu’s interest in the machinations of plot or conventions of narrative construction waned. It reaches its apotheosis here, as the filmmaker homes in on the minutiae of his protagonists’ daily lives.

Talks and events

An Autumn Evening with Yasujirō Ozu

A discussion of Ozu’s cinema, looking at the elements that made his work so compelling and the influence it has had over subsequent filmmakers.

We are delighted to announce that Jennifer Coates (University of Sheffield) and Kristy Matheson (BFI Festivals Director) will join season curator Ian Haydn Smith and Jinhee Choi (King’s College London and Editor of Reorienting Ozu: A Master and His Influence) for this event.

The Anatomy of Ozu

An afternoon of illustrated talks and discussions exploring some of the elements that make the world of Ozu’s films so rich and distinctive, including his meticulous style, recurring use of domestic spaces, and a sharp eye on the family structures in post-war Japanese society.

Our invited speakers will also discuss his key collaborators, consider the use of humour in his work as well and look at the immense impact his oeuvre has had on generations of filmmakers.

 

About BFI

Founded in 1933, The British Film Institute (BFI) is the UK’s leading organisation for film and television; a cultural charity that handpicks the very best of global cinema to be enjoyed at festivals, in cinema, and online.

As well as supporting existing and emerging filmmakers, the institute looks after (and draws inspiration from) the BFI National Archive: the world’s most significant film and television archive. It also proudly runs London’s BFI Southbank – renowned as the number one cinema to watch non-English language films in the UK.