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Book Review: Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu directed some of the most profoundly moving films in cinema history. Despite skepticism during his lifetime that his simple stories about the joys and sorrows of everyday life couldn’t be appreciated outside Japan, he’s been celebrated worldwide. (One need not have grown up in Japanese society to recognize Setsuko Hara’s love for her father in 1949’s Late Spring and her frustrations with being pushed away from a status quo she’s comfortable with.) Being a director with universal appeal, Ozu is worthy of universally appealing studies: ones that educate readers and analyze his films in such a way that deepens appreciation for them.

Thus my disappointment that Ozu instead has become a bully pulpit for academic ramblings that are anything but universal. Notwithstanding a handful of exceptions (namely Donald Richie’s Ozu: His Life and Films), English language tomes on this director tend to be ostentatious and logy; and if Shiguéhiko Hasumi’s newly translated Directed by Yasujiro Ozu is any indicator, the same is true in Japan. Long celebrated in academe as a landmark study, Hasumi’s book—first published in Japanese in 1983—is, alas, gruelingly typical, using Ozu merely as an excuse to unleash indecipherable word salads such as:

“Only those moved by the fertile chatter between narrational structure and thematic system will be able to liberate themselves from the image of Ozu as defined through absences and negative rhetoric. And liberation, precisely, is the mission that any discourse about cinema should embrace.”

“The films that Ozu made in the late period are all narratives of the vivid present that progress toward the materialization of this tangible nothingness. […] We might provisionally call this a kind of realism, but a realism that cinema has not encountered anywhere outside of Ozu and may never encounter elsewhere.”

That, unfortunately, represents the bulk of the text. To Hasumi’s credit, he occasionally zeroes in on something interesting: e.g., Ozu’s general lack of interest in extreme weather. (Hasumi likewise salutes Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi for their pictures’ emphasis on fog and rain, and in doing so pushes the reader to think about the careers of all three directors.) The book also concludes with an appendix interview with Ozu’s long-time cameraman Yuharu Atsuta. The interview itself is not especially in line with the three hundred pages that came before, as Atsuta steers from waxing philosophy in favor of discussing Ozu’s personality and the challenges cinematographers face. For this reason, this appendix—vestigial as it is—is the book’s most stimulating section: a welcome escape from Hasumi’s prattling.

Directed by Yasujiro Ozu might be a classic in academic circles, but its appeal elsewhere will remain limited, and not due to a lack of interest in the filmmaker under discussion. For passionate moviegoers who admire Ozu for the feelings and thoughts his movies evoke, I continue recommending Richie’s Ozu: His Life and Films. Richie’s tome remains the most accessible study on this director for the simple reason that he had an authentic interest in educating readers on his subject and his fascination with human experience. The key to Ozu’s lasting cross-cultural appeal is not how his movies can be used to demonstrate academic concepts, but how they reflect what people across the globe experience in the natural course of life. A shame that Shiguéhiko Hasumi didn’t think to inject more human feeling when discussing one of cinema’s most beloved directors.

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