December 2021, arsenal cinema

Ozu in Color – Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Work

OHAYO, 1959 ©Shochku Co., Ltd

Many people think of calm, precisely composed still lifes in nuanced black and white in relation to the films of Yasujiro Ozu (1903–1963), one of Japan’s most famous directors. Others make reference to the moving, universal themes of his films, which Ozu sometimes develops with silent precision and at others with ironic humor: generational conflicts, changing times, farewells, grief, loneliness. When it comes to the specifics of Ozu’s oeuvre, the focus is seldom on color, however unfairly, which he only turned to late on and with a certain degree of hesitation. Looking at Ozu’s color films and thus the last phase of his career reveals an important addition to his cinematic vocabulary, a stylistic device that he doesn’t just use to underline and comment on occurrences and moods, but also to reveal that melancholy itself carries a particular hue.

HIGANBANA (Equinox Flower, Japan 1958, 21. & 26.12.) The titles of Ozu’s films often contain seasons or names of plants, which is also the case for his first film in color. It is named after the Japanese hurricane lily, which carries deep red blooms in late summer and autumn. As Ozu’s professed favorite color and the reason for his preference for Agfacolor, a shining red makes its presence felt in the entire film, starting with the credits and extending to the red tea kettle that Ozu places in numerous scenes showing the house of the Hirayama family. This is where the film’s central conflict develops: the father does not want his eldest daughter to marry for love. To those outside the family, he presents himself as tolerant, while at home he is a stubborn traditionalist. His daughter’s wedding isn’t just a sign of his dwindling influence, but also of the decline in the values of his whole generation. It’s autumn - the time of the hurricane lily. ,

OHAYO (Good Morning, Japan 1959, 22. & 25. 12.) Ozu’s late work contains many lines of connection to his early films and their themes and characters. Some of the films are pendants to these earlier works, other free remakes of them, such as OHAYO, which is partly based on Uma-rete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But…, 1932). Far more comedic than its antecedent, Ozu weaves together a series of narrative threads around two brothers who decide not to talk again until their parents buy them a television. The oath of silence doesn’t just get rumors flying in the housing estate in which the film is set, but also fuels the relationships between the sister of the two strikers and her homework coach. Once again, it’s a whole series of colored objects that catch the eye, although the red kettle from HIGANBANA turns up here in green, even if the model is otherwise identical. Another thread running through the film is of an acoustic nature.

AKIBIYORI (Late Autumn, Japan 1960, 23. & 29.12.) Muted autumn colors—brown, desaturated green, red and blue tones—are used in Ozu’s calm observation of a farewell. Widow Akiko (Setsuko Hara) and her adult daughter Ayako live together happily, until three friends of Akiko’s deceased husband start making attempts to marry off first the daughter and then the mother. Both plans fail initially, until a misunderstanding begins to weigh heavily on the close relationship between mother and daughter. Framed by a commemoration ceremony and a wedding (with a touching epilogue), the conflict between tradition and modernity, parents and children unfolds. As so often in Ozu’s films, another pair of oppositions also emerges: melancholy and humor. In AKIBIYORI, he places ironic putdowns and comedic passages alongside brightly colored everyday objects: signs, cutlery, pieces of clothing: the future is colorful.

UKIGUSA (Floating Weeds, Japan 1959, 25. 
& 28.12.) Oppressive heat lies over a sleepy harbor town that still seems to belong to another time. When a troupe of traveling actors arrives, things are soon shaken up in the provincial backwater: in the evenings, the thespians invite the locals to colorful kabuki performances, which soon only receive small audiences: in the day, they make new connections or try to reactive old relationships. Komajuro, head of the troupe, thus resumes contact with his former lover and their adult son, who believes him to be his uncle and doesn’t hold back in his critical comments about him and the theatre troupe. As the theatre moves towards inevitable financial ruin, the actor realizes that he’s also failed in human terms. Whether the cloakroom, auditorium, alleys or cafés—together with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, Ozu creates precisely composed stages in accentuated colors where a drastically shifting world becomes visible.

KOHAYAGAWA-KE NO AKI (The End of Summer, Japan 1961, 26.12.) “New Japan”: over the rows of streets, the glowing lettering of the gaudy neon ads stands out against the night sky. This opening theme is followed inexorably by the slow breakdown of a family. It’s not just business that’s going badly for the Kohayagawas—the sake distillery operated by the family for generations is facing stern competition—two of the family’s daughters are also resisting the arranged marriages set up for them. When the head of the family also has a run in with his former lover, there is considerable indignation, if only for a short time. As is so often the case in Ozu’s films, he does away with external dramatics even in the most existential of crises, placing silent observation where grandstanding gestures would normally appear and thus creating images of great melancholy, intensity, and profundity.

SAMMA NO AJI (An Autumn Afternoon, Japan 1962, 27. & 30.12.) Ozu worked with the same actors again and again, most prominently Chishu Ryu, who ages in and along with the films. More than 20 years after their first collaboration, Ryu plays a widower in SAMMA NO AJI, who lives with his adult daughter and realizes he is making her dependent on him, although she must live her own life. Like Setsuko Hara—another member of Ozu’s ensemble —in AKIBIYORI, he is also confronted with his age and loneliness after bidding farewell to his daughter. Donald Richie writes “It’s autumn again, late autumn this time. Winter was always close, but now it arrives tomorrow”. (mg)