Yasujiro Ozu has been widely touted as the most Japanese of Japanese film directors. In fact, Japanese distributors initially refused to release Ozu's work abroad, fearing that the West wouldn't appreciate its subtle beauty at a time when films of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi were winning award after award at international film festivals. Fortunately, such fears proved to be unfounded and Ozu is now recognized as one of cinema's truly great filmmakers.
Yasujiro Ozu was born in the old Fukagawa district of Tokyo, to a fertilizer merchant, in 1903. He proved to be an indifferent student in middle and high school, frequently choosing to watch movies rather than tend to his studies. Later in life, he proudly recalled how he watched Rex Ingram's Prisoner of Zenda when he should have been taking the entrance examination for the Kobe Higher Commercial School. In 1923, after a couple of years as an assistant teacher in rural Japan, Ozu was hired as assistant cameraman at the Shochiku Motion Picture Company.
Early in his career, Ozu began to experiment with an idiosyncratic film style that ran contrary to the conventions of Japanese or Hollywood cinema of the day. He strove to reduce and simplify his film style. He cast such mainstays as the fade, the dissolve, and the pan from his cinematic palette. He shot solely from a low camera angle, using a 50mm lens, and he subordinated spatial continuity to visual aesthetics.
Ozu directed his first film in 1927, an otherwise unremarkable period film called The Sword of Penitence. In 1932, he began to hit his creative stride with the touching comedy I Was Born, But..., which was his first commercial success and is considered to be one of his finest pre-World War II movies. It was also at this time that Ozu began to develop his signature film style. During World War II, he made few films and those that he did, such as There Was a Father, all but ignored the conflict. After the war, Ozu reached his creative peak and made some of his finest films, including Late Spring, Early Summer, Floating Weeds, An Autumn Afternoon, and his masterpiece Tokyo Story, which is generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
Far from the muscular narratives of Kurosawa samurai epics, the films of Ozu are simple, contemplative, and edged with nostalgia and sadness. Through the course of his long career, from 1927 to 1962, Ozu refined and narrowed the scope of his films to the bare essentials. His oeuvre, which is almost completely confined to that of domestic dramas or shomen-geki, is thematically quite coherent from one film to the next. Though the particulars of the characters might differ, they are all snugly enmeshed in the same quiet world. There are no heroes or villains, no wild successes or great failures. his characters are ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Conflict arises from natural changes in the relationship between parent and child, be it a daughter who is reluctant to marry and abandon her widowed father in Late Spring or a pair of young sons who realize the modest social position of their father in I Was Born, But.... Ozu's remarkable sensitivity to the human condition and his nuanced understanding of the patterns of everyday life give these seemingly mundane conflicts a tremendous emotional power rarely found in conventional Hollywood dramas.
Late in his career, Ozu became the target of criticism by the iconoclastic directors of the Japanese New Wave. Many decried his film style as rigid, while others criticized his refusal to address social issues. His quiet, transcendent vision of humanity, however, has stood the test of time and has been an influence on such diverse Western directors as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, and Martin Scorsese. Ozu died of cancer in 1962.