Ozu and Oshima: Beyond the “Tradition of Nostalgia
“I depicted the changing relationship between parents and children and how the family system collapsed in Japan”. (Ozu, 1960)
These words from the iconic director of early Japanese cinema denote a social system that is morphing from a traditional model into something as yet unfamiliar. Throughout its history, from the period of the Tokugawa Empire in the mid 1700’s, Japan has developed as an isolated, and “homogeneous”, society which placed a high value on strong government supported by a stable family model. As the empire evolved into an imperialist regime, these traits followed, and helped to shape the creation of a Japanese national cinema. During the 1930’s, “Studios were ordered not to feature jazz, American dancing, or scenes that might undermine respect for authority, duty to the emperor, and love of family.” Complementing the family model are the extended social connections found within the school and workplace, “Both are almost foster homes; traditionally far less impersonal than their analogues elsewhere”. These foster groups are interdependent, yet may have been subject to disruptive forces occurring in the core family traditions of birth, love, companionship, loneliness, and death. If, as Ozu denotes, the Japanese family system suffered collapse, it may have resulted in a weakened national social identity as reflected in the national cinema. This social identity may also have affected the younger generation of the post-World War II period through evoking radical change in the passive role of the individual within the collectivist culture. It is the focus of this study to consider the cinematic works of two directors as reflective indicators of Japans national and international social identity during the period of this transition.
Firstly, I would like to consider that Yasujiro Ozu created a “Tradition of Nostalgia” which helped to create and preserve a filmic sense of national identity. This was primarily achieved through the subjective cultural representation of the Japanese family in dissolution. The second consideration is that in 1959, Nagisha Oshima began to produce “Japanese New Wave” film, also known as “Nuberu bagu” film. Oshima represented a younger generation and his films were influenced by his exposure to global cinema. The Oshima film, as a counterpart to European “Nouvelle Vauge”, and Western “New Wave” film, moves beyond, the “Tradition of Nostalgia”, and into a more radicalized form of cinema. The films of Oshima exposed Japan’s modern culture by exploring youth dissentient over the subtle family melodramas presented in Ozu’s films. The release period of 1959 to 1967 denotes a cinematic transition from the “Tradition of Nostalgia” into “Japanese New Wave”. These two monumental periods amalgamate the importance of Japanese cinemas in both national and global cinema studies.
Japanese cinema is steeped in two traditions, the jidai-geki or historical film, and the gendai-geki or films depicting contemporary life, the latter of which Ozu’s bijou movies are more aligned. The cinema produced by Ozu and Oshima, which was not readily exported to the West, appears to have lagged in early academic film consideration compared to other movements.
Perhaps it is best to begin by tracing Ozu’s trajectory in terms of his life events. The director is described as a quiet man who never married; he lived with his mother until they both departed within a few months of one another in 1963. It is unclear what role, if any, Ozu’s father played in his life or how it may have affected the subject choice of his films. He was extremely disciplined in his craft and was noted as enjoying strong drink following the days’ shooting schedules. In 1923, according to David Bordwell, Ozu began an apprenticeship at Shochiku studios where his training as assistant camera man and assistant director included shot composition, scriptwriting, and plan continuity. Ozu’s career was interrupted at different times by his deployment in Japan’s military service. In October of 1937, Ozu assumed the role of foot soldier in the war with China and the invasion of Nanking. The capital city fell to the Japanese after fierce fighting and many civilians were killed. This battle is the subject of the arguably propagandist film produced in China, Nanking (2007). This historical documentary style film highlights the severe brutality that was imposed on Chinese citizens by Japanese forces. In an interview, Ozu recounted his desire, during the battle, to capture on film the sound of falling apricots and image of small floating white flowers of a nearby tree following the nearby explosion of mortar rounds.
The experiences that Ozu encountered in war may have profoundly impacted his personal philosophy on life. His commentary on the absurdity of war is evident in his post war statement, “I feel like I began to think positively through the war. I wanted to cry out from the bottom of my heart that every existence is fine as it is!” One can only speculate as to the effects his war experience, and witnessing, what has been described as “the rape of Nanking” had on him. As a filmmaker, however, he observed enough chaos existing in ordinary life that he rescinded the need for overtly false drama. It is reasonable to assume that his exploration of domesticated dwellings and the everyday people that inhabit them provided some therapeutic haven to psychological trauma imposed by his military service. Following his discharge from service, Ozu moved deeper into films depicting the complexities in the meaning of life, such as, The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1939), through the calm, stable and controlled settings which he created. This film depicted the home front “women’s picture” scenario of a wife’s acceptance of the husband’s military deployment. The film script was censored and pulled from production due to violations of the “1937-1938 Home Ministry Code”. The script and film were later revived and produced by Ozu in 1952.
Once again, in 1941, war interceded in his filmmaking career and he was deployed to Singapore to produce films for the war effort. The imperialist “Home Ministry Code” of Japan cultivated a national audience, and discouraged certain film imports in a strong vertical integrated studio system of production, distribution, and exhibition. Cinema content was controlled in large part by government censorship and more specifically by military censorship during relative spans of wartime and occupation. Film production was considerably reduced, due to a rationing of resources between the years 1942 to 1945. During this time, Ozu produced the Kinema Jumpo award winning-film, There was a Father (1942), which was hailed as a national policy film. This film used a method of character development to bolster an ideology of a national tradition in self-sacrifice and acceptance of one’s military rank. Ozu was captured and remanded to a prisoner-of-war camp before returning to his native land following Japan’s surrender to the United States in 1945. On his return, as an older director, Ozu resumed making films centered on the Japanese family under the scrutiny of the occupation censorship. It was during this period, as Japan underwent its rapid evolution from imperialism towards a more westernized form of parliamentary government, that the “Tradition of Nostalgia” served both the national audience and occupational censors. Ozu’s films provided a haven of cultural nostalgia for national movie patrons, while also satisfying the social identity perceptions of the occupation censor board.
The body of work produced by Ozu is extraordinary. It includes fifty-three film releases between 1927 and 1962, with most being black and white and thirty five of which are silent films. It is not only the number of films, over the thirty-five year period, but rather the developed continuity in thematic, character, and stylistic form which makes them extraordinary. These three strands are interwoven and create a strong filmic identity of the cultural reference within the family, school, and work groups that served the collective society. Through the periods of imperialist expansion by colonization efforts in its War with China, World War II, and Post-War Occupation periods, the films of Ozu helped to preserve a historical reference of Japan’s national identity.
The primary theme in Ozu’s films center on vicissitude within the family by placing an emphasis on examining its subtle changing dynamics. Ozu families matched the ordinariness of Japanese middle class bourgeois lifestyle. The generational discourse can be found therein, “Often a parent is missing, dead or absconded, and the one remaining must rear the children. The dissolution of the family, already begun, is completed by the marriage of the only or eldest child or the death of the remaining parent.” The family in crisis is not handled as overtly dramatic but with a quiet resolve and acceptance. Examples of these melodramas within the text are found in Floating Weeds (1959), “The rest of the syuzhet is built around three melodramatic climaxes”.
Early films recount a pre-modernist era with images of parental homes, “They live in a traditional samurai-style villa and are connected to a variety of Buddhist images, including ceremonies at the time of and one year after the father’s death. Meanwhile, the mother moves about with a caged myna bird and a potted orchid (traditional hobbies) and a picture of father.” The films other iconographical elements include; tatami mats and pillows, close neighbors, kabuki dance, scroll painting, caged birds, tea ceremony, meals, and religious objects. Places once visited and family photographs play an important role in the remembrances of the characters’ lives. Often times, agency is imparted on the still life insert shot object, “When viewers look at the shot of the vase abruptly inserted into the scene, they cannot help staring at it. They are forced to think about the meaning of the vase and interpret it. For Ozu-san the vase in the moon light is an image of purification and redemption.”
The recurring nature of these thematic elements may have evoked a connectedness with the closed national audience. The frequent recasting of actors, in varying roles, also helped to foster identification with the audience. This continuity created a familial sense for the spectator longing to escape to perceived normalcy from the uncertainty of tumultuous periods that faced the nation. It should be noted that the “Tradition of Nostalgia” is less concerned with antecedent representation than acting as a progenitor to coming change. Geist supports this argument by stating “Evocations of traditional Japan offer comfort, but never solution” they also “never point ‘back to Japan’, but always to the future, even when the modern world seems bleak, or, as in Ohayo (1959), where ‘television threatens to create ‘100 million idiots’.
The second strand that comprises the “Tradition of Nostalgia” is that of character. It is primarily through use of character that Ozu imparts the larger ideological messages of his films. Characterization is consistent as “The father or brother is typically shown sitting in his office and the mother or sister doing the housework or serving tea to guests that are always appearing in the Ozu household, the children often study English and the daughter of house can type in English.” Situational events between similar character family members recur in varied form from picture to picture. The family dissolution often results from the daughter leaving the family as in, Late Autumn (1960). Bordwell notes that, “Akiko Miwa and her daughter live happily together, three businessmen, old friends of the family, decide to help Ayako get married.” There is an emptiness that exists around the characters in conjunction with the narrative that “gives the characters no past or childhoods, little expository fleshing-out and still less psychological motivation.” How the characters reach decisions are masked by their subjective mental states. This seems to evoke certain frustrations in some film scholars more accustomed to the cause-effect and goal oriented classical cinema or the ambiguous art-cinema character. The dedramatization permits an openness with the character and hence a strong suture vessel for the spectator. The character existence, similar to a porcelain vase, is filled with the spectators’ own experiences equated to the on-screen events being portrayed. This “drawing out” of the spectators’ internal perceptions through character representation entwines the second strand within the “Tradition of Nostalgia”.
The camera and editing techniques, employed within an Ozu film, complete the final strand of theme, character, and style. Yoshida Kiju explains that very early works by Ozu and his contemporaries, in the late 1920’s, were often influenced by Hollywood “not only in terms of cinematography and lighting, but also for storyline, gags, acting style, and actor’s body movements”. Despite these initial conventions of western cinema practices, the young director soon developed a trend which represents the unique characteristics of an Ozu film. Most notable is a low angle camera shot utilized in the shooting style which forms a familiar image. This quintessential point of view in Japanese society is used in conjunction with eye-line match and creates a marker of national identification. The mise-en-scene low tables, sitting pillows, and Tatami mats, are staples of the Japanese home, and can also be considered as traditional symbolism of Japan nationality.
Moving camera practices were considered by Ozu to be a representation of the director’s authorial commentary. The use of pans, tilts, dolly, and tracking shots were rejected by the director in favor of the static shot with balanced frame. Doorways, windows, and screens are often used to create a frame within the frame. These stylistic practices produce an inverse of the “action film” wherein the image and its cause-effect meaning is thrust upon the spectator. Instead, “When Ozu relinquished, one by one, most of the grammatical elements of cinema, obviously he sacrificed a great deal – most of the means, in fact, and through which film directors ordinarily express themselves”.
This ambiguity in camera shooting style is paralleled by a rejection of film editing conventions. The films do follow a subtle narrative course, but the potential for directing narrative interpretation through editing is avoided. Preferences lean toward the use of linear straight cuts over dissolves, or fades, “One reason was the editing, a process of selection, is so fraught with opportunities for editorializing. Editing, as has been pointed out often enough, offers the director his last and best opportunity to interpret the material. But as we have seen, Ozu did not want to interpret: he wanted to present”. What Ozu had developed was a stylistic image, in a narrative form, through ambiguous camera and editing technique, which is non-imbued by directorial comment. While early experimentation with stylistic Hollywood techniques were quickly abandoned by him, as stated, “Eventually, he excluded all of these and achieved that famous image that resembles a still photo.” The tradeoff for Ozu’s sacrificing of conventional production techniques was that he gained a refinement in advanced balanced composition and framing. Ozu also refuted advancements in cinema technology through continuing black and white film production long after color film stock was available to him, “He started using color very late and never used widescreen or cinemascope.” The “Tradition of Nostalgia” created an illusion of the contentment for a surrendered society engaged in nation rebuilding. While the cinematic surface represented a setting of peaceful tranquility it also may have masked the voice of restlessness in a new generation that grew hungry to shed oppression of the former occupation.
The new trends of the transnational era of filmmaking, during the early 1960’s, had an influence on modernized Japanese cinema. One of the rising star filmmakers that incorporated stylistic form of “nouvelle vague” directors, such as Jean Luc Godard, was Nagisha Oshima. Controversy surrounded the early political issues found in Oshima’s films. The fourth film produced by Oshima, through Shochiku studios, was entitled Night and Fog (1960). This film was so politically overt that the studio was forced to retract it only a few days after its release. This decision caused the director to part ways with the production company that had first brought him recognition by its release of, Cruel Story of Youth (1959).
To compare the works of Ozu with Oshima’s first notable film is paramount to contemplating the porcelain vase before and after it has fallen from its pedestal and shattered. The family model found within the “Tradition of Nostalgia” era is now completely eradicated as its foundational structure has disintegrated. In its place rises a somewhat disturbing image of self-servitude, lack of traditional values, and absolute disregard for authority.
The nonexistence of thematic consistency in Oshima’s films provides the opposite of all the comfortable familiarity of his predecessor. These films fall into generalized genres of crime, drama, and soft porn. In fairness to the director, Oshima’s career path follows the transnational filmmaking trend of cultivating a youth demographic structured around commercial profitability. In doing so, Oshima readily abandons any responsibility to provide his audience a narrative based upon absolute meaning, opting instead for stories of multi-hypothetical variances. Nowell-Smith states, “It is just that once the hypothesis is formulated its consequences are pursued with a rigor that makes few concessions to ordinary audience expectations”.
Modernized characters, such as the four male students in Sing a Song of Sex (1967), are errant and rebellious with grandiose fantasies of rape and murder. The fantasies are blended with sequences that depict the acts potentially being carried out. There is no firm cause-effect established in this blurring of the characters’ subjective and objective reality coding. The parents in Oshima’s films are rarely mentioned and have little or no positive bearing on the radicalized youth generation. This movement of “Nuberu bagu” also borrows from European and Western cinema movements in its use of documentary footage. In Cruel Story of Youth (1960), this character technique displays the ineffectual protests of students to the American Japan Protection Treaty, a remnant of the post-World War II occupation. The male and female protagonists are ambivalent to this political effort and are instead narcissistically enveloped in their own self-gratification exploits. The young couple is repulsed by members of the former generation and through racketeering and sexual extortion of older businessmen seeks to advance their own fortunes for engagement in frivolous pleasure seeking.
The stylistic camera component in Oshima’s films raises the camera to a western point of view. Moving camera is often utilized and combined with frenetic editing that imparts a directorial influence on the audience. A heightened non-diegetic sound perspective is provided to evoke emotive response in similar fashion to new European and Western film movements. Unlike Ozu, the new films of Japanese cinema are designed to impart an auteur vision of social commentary.
The “Tradition of Nostalgia” served a useful purpose, in providing a haven of Japanese culture for national patrons, and a complacent image of a surrendered society for occupational censors during its tenure. The movement retains its importance in preserving historical references of traditional and modernized images through Japan’s post World War II transition. At its conclusion, in the early 1960’s, the “Tradition of Nostalgia” created by Ozu was replaced by the “Nuberu bagu” film. The definitive shift away from family-oriented cinema towards rebellious youth films provides a marker for the social changes occurring within Japan through the 1960’s. As the shadow of occupation slowly lifted from Japan, an undercurrent of repressive anger, vexing of intervening authority, sexual deviancy, and resentment of apathy in the older generation, bubbled to the cinematic surface. The previously cultivated audiences, raised as children under the occupation known as “MacArthur’s Children”, were summarily dismissed by the youth culture as ineffectual to change. As a reflection of social identity, it may be considered that this new generation stripped away the veneer that Ozu’s “Tradition of Nostalgia” had provided, and in doing so, it revealed the repressive desires which had existed unseen within Japanese society. The centuries of strong governmental rule and strict social hierarchy of family, school, and work were replaced with a degree of individual freedom that had never before been experienced.
Ozu. The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1939), There was a Father (1942),
Floating Weeds (1959), Late Autumn (1960),
Oshima. Cruel Story of Youth (1959), Night and Fog (1960), Sing a Song of Sex
Guttentag Bill, Sturman, Dan. Nanking (2007)
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 Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. “The World; A History”. (London: Prentice Hall, 2010), 659.
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 Donald Richie, “Ozu”. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 1.
 David Bordwell, “Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema”, (London : British Film Institute ; Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1988), 10.
 Yoshida Kiju, “Ozu’s Anti-Cinema”, (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies: University of Michigan, 2003), 40.
 Katherine Geist, “Ozu and the Nation”, in Theorizing National Cinema, Vitali, Valentina., Willamen, Paul. (London: British Film Institute, 2006), 120.
 Bordwell. 1988, 360.
 Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, 2010. “Oshima Revisited”, Film Quarterly, 64., (Winter, 19-23).