Of all the achievements of Ozu Yasujirō, the most peculiar, and certainly unintended, is attaining the status of a touchstone by which critics, historians, and other artists test the value of their aesthetic practices and beliefs. He has been described in a rich variety of ways: his techniques as anti-Hollywood, subversive, or obsessively craftsmanlike; his artistic sensibility as quintessentially Japanese, a judgment often meant to contrast him, to his advantage, with Kurosawa; his ethical consciousness as deeply humane and empathetic. If one measure of the greatness of a body of work is its openness, its ability to invite a range of interpretations and remain appealing to different audiences, then Ozu's films more than meet that standard. Whether viewed from the perspective of cultural history, in the manner of Hasumi Shigehiko, of film aesthetics, in the manner of David Bordwell, Donald Richie and many others, or of the ideological formations of cinema, in the manner of Yomota Inuhiko, the ultimate effect of all these approaches on Ozu's reputation has been to create a polished, impenetrable icon of cinematic genius—an image that reflects our own concerns and values back at us.
This effect is on full display in Yoshida Kiju's brilliant and fascinating study and reminiscence of Ozu, Ozu Yasujirō no han eiga, which was a highly praised addition to the critical literature when it first appeared in Japan in 1998. The publication of the clear and sensitive translation by Daisuke Miyao and Kyoko Hirano is doubly welcome in that it not only adds an important work to the English-language literature on Ozu, but also makes Yoshida accessible to a wider audience. What gives this book its special twist is that Yoshida is himself a noted director, an important figure in the emergence of the Japanese New Wave in the 1950s and 1960s. Yoshida's [End Page 458] career began at Shochiku, and it was during his time there that he became acquainted with Ozu. Yoshida thus has unusual qualifications as commentator. He had a direct connection with the older director, and he was a key member of a movement opposed to the methods of the filmmakers of Ozu's generation. This dual position allows Yoshida to infuse his professional observations with an intensely personal view of a man whose films he admired and resisted.
Yoshida makes clear the personal source of his motivation for writing this book. His starting point is a brief account of the moment when he visited the dying Ozu. On that occasion Ozu, who had previously spoken to Yoshida about film art in playful, self-deprecating terms only, whispered to him "Cinema is drama, not accident." This statement turned out to be Ozu's last words to Yoshida; and though he was familiar with Ozu's propensity for cryptic remarks that hid as much as they revealed, Yoshida was haunted by that moment.
There is, of course, something contrived about this deathbed scene—Ozu's words have the same dramatic impact as Charles Foster Kane's "Rosebud." I am not sure if Yoshida had that particular cinematic moment in mind (though he notes the impact that Citizen Kane had on Ozu), but in any case the desire to tease out the meaning of Ozu's last words leads him to a wide-ranging survey. As one might expect, given Yoshida's own background, there are many surprises, often strange and delightful, as he takes us through the marvel of Ozu's art.
For example, in his discussion of Tokyo Story, the one film whose presence is felt in all the essays, Yoshida urges us to view the film from the point of view of the air pillows, the objects which the elderly father is looking for at the very beginning of the movie when he and his wife are packing for their trip to Tokyo. Despite the mundane, everyday quality of the conversation that opens the film, for Yoshida "the episode with the...