It would not be incorrect to treat Yasujiro Ozu’s works as a mere question of how geography intersects with modernity, but it would be incomplete. Surely, his mid-century, middle-class films about Japanese men and women both enlivened by and enveloped within the social structures around them do unearth great truths about the specific nature of life in post-war Japan and, particularly, about generational divides. His Late Spring, a story about a woman, Noriko (played by Setsuko Hara) in the late spring of her life and her father, Shukichi (played by Chisu Ryu), no doubt treats on the same issues. With the daughter aging beyond the father’s interest, he, a widower himself, feigns a fake marriage plan to convince his daughter that there will be no room for her in his house. Naturally, the hope is that she will find a marriage partner herself, and questions of gender oppression and the iron grip of social expectancy marinate throughout Late Spring, coursing through the veins of the diorama-like closed-spaces that Ozu relies on to ensnare his characters in the vise of social geometry.
Such views, however, are also necessarily too linearly particular for a film that refuses to limit itself to offering admittedly sublime commentary on the tensions of mainstream, modern society. It would be foolish not to admit that Ozu had post-war Japan on the mind with Late Spring, but it would also belie his genius not to examine the wider implications of Ozu’s intricate, square-speckled framing and the delicate, pristine, calm dance of his characters who always seems to sway within but never against the realm of the geometry they’ve set up around themselves.
The film’s famed train passage, bifurcating the prelude from the main narrative, is one such example of a specific crisis of modernity also doubling as a more elemental expression of the visual metronomy and entropy that structure our impressions of life itself. What initially approaches us as a modernist invasion of space by socially disruptive technology also hints at more fibrous, exquisite questions about life regardless of the specifics of time. Initially, we see the train almost disrupt the frame by entering from the right, a bludgeoning marker of chaos and an uproarious contrast to the stability and order of Ozu’s painterly frame. But as the train moves away from the frame, its pandemonium and tumult soon centers itself and occupies the empty space in the middle of the frame, surrounded by the symmetrical train poles and dwarfed by the omnipresent nature above. Thus, the homeostasis and lightly fluctuating balance persists even when no humans are in the frame, with the seeming disruption of the train actually fitting into the order of the space provided for it.
The pas de deux between order and chaos sublimated into the visuals bubbles to fruition throughout the film’s narrative, but, pointedly, it never shuns the manifest layer of the screen itself. Throughout Ozu’s film, disorienting, socially tempestuous subject matters are breached underneath the blanketed visage of organized domestic space, testing the ritualistic regimentation of the world around them. At one such moment, when Noriko’s father begs the question of Noriko’s love life, the camera shows the woman sitting on the left of the frame. A man walks up from the back-center of the frame, while a man sits in the foreground on the right, so the left, center, and right of the frame are all filled by people establishing tenancy, but only a tentative one. The man on the right foreground then moves into the center, destabilizing the frame and blocking the man in the background for a second, who then walks to the right to take up the new empty space on the right no longer occupied by the man who moved to the center.
They all sit around a table in the center of the frame, almost balancing or organizing themselves to alleviate the disruption of the touchy subject, and the seemingly chaotic visuals then recreate a sort of homeostasis, as if the chaos wasn’t a disruption of the order but instead something that cohabitates the frame with the order and creates a new order with three characters again in the left, center, and right of the frame around the table. It is as if the order is a sort of fluid, liquid space that allows for and creates room for human movement within it, but always maintains a roughly balanced or ordered texture more generally, never devolving into full disharmony. This is the dominant texture of Ozu’s films, of seemingly rigid, ascetic spaces giving way to barely glimpsed room for movement and human disorder, a sense of disruption that social structures and rules both limit and accommodate for, denying and developing at once. It’s a peculiar, undyingly precarious aura that coexists at the levels of character, narrative, visuals, and sound. On the aural realm: the rhythmic chirp of birds springing to life outside the frame bathes the screen like a Tati film, a constant reminder of life as it exists outside the frame and in a questionable harmony with the human characters inside the houses. Nature, Ozu understands, will always continue on.
Both scenes reflect wider truths about Ozu’s balance-seeking, harmony-testing camera, structuring order and human chaos not as antithetical but as mutually constitutive, almost as if they exist in a larger harmony in how they occupy the same frames without blocking each other from view. Humanity, for Ozu, is a dialectic between the two, just as it is a discursive region between everyday social ritual and everyday individual difference. The defining feature of Ozu’s film is the repetition of little human moments that don’t disrupt the rituals of everyday life but can coexist within the spaces provided by the rituals. Witness a scene of two professors hard at work, adopting a businesslike low-hum of a voice and regimenting their words, only to break into a cascading flow of conversation about a bet they had last week.
In the same scene, the heavily regimented, ordered, architecturally-lined framing replete with frames within frames within frames both contests the characters’ humanity and structures it, leaving just enough room, for instance, for the visible sight of socks swaying in the breeze let through in one of the frame-like windows to the outside. The socks invade the box-like frame, hanging into it, but they also reveal the ways in which the structures of the frame, like the structures of our lives, provide open spaces for dialect and disruption and disagreement, or in this case, socks. Order structures chaos, and disharmony begets harmony; rather than enemies, combatants, the two are in collusion, sides of a coin that do not exist as wholes without each other.
Ozu’s film, fittingly, doesn’t rebel against society or conform to it, but silently acknowledges its existence. Ambidextrously, Ozu both accepts the presence of social codes as the building blocks that allow for the bending of rituals in the first place, while also rejecting their total and complete supremacy over a woman, or people, who refuse to let the spaces and mindsets they occupy dominate their lives. Still, Ozu’s famous pillow shots, injections of usually static, seemingly permanent, harmonious nature, outside space, or, most famously markers of culture and tradition long-held such as a vase, all temporally pause the frame, always remarking on the persistence of time and structure even despite the silent upheaval at play in the character’s lives.
Of course, as Ozu suggests, real balance is balance achieved. And it isn’t easy, or even necessarily real. While the introductory portions of Late Spring are arrant in their commitment to symmetry, poise, and balance, the tremulous middle passage boldly disrupts, if not tarnishes, the quiet order of those moments. Harmonious pairings are replaced with restive contrasts and lone individuals walking away from one another, and images of people arriving are besieged with more ubiquitous shots of people walking away from each other. The apotheosis of the film, however, a late-blooming trip to Kyoto, re-entrenches the symmetry as a nominal visage of rediscovered sanity and order. Yet the duplicitous Ozu engenders an unease when, for instance, the daughter – now paired with her father again – speaks to him without knowing he is really asleep, not listening; the pairing, the balance, is merely a guise here. Shots of singularity inject themselves into this pas de deux, as balance and togetherness – ostensibly restored – are secretly threatened before our very eyes. Ozu sees balance in the world, but he doesn’t commit to it in an overweening way; there’s nothing sacrosanct about symmetry for him. Instead, he hints, the very order he builds his film out of belies a quietly festering discontent all along.
Endlessly reread, the central misunderstanding of Ozu’s cinema is not found in any particular claim, but in the idea that one can claim, or the misunderstanding that specific claims can totalize and control Ozu’s cinema at all. Scholars have pontificated on the nature of space and place in Ozu, whether the flow of images reflects endless cycles or disruptive critique of those cycles, whether Ozu sympathizes with clarity and tradition or laments society’s subsistence under those traditions. The problem, in essence, is the assumption that Ozu’s film must reflect a “closed thesis” on the nature of life, rather than simply providing a filmic tapestry or dialect within which we confront life. In Ozu’s view, life is a balancing act between mutable fluctuation and pillar-like consistency, rather than a particular argument about the nature of which of those sides ought to win out. Indeed, the pause shots of vases, train platforms, and wind-stricken trees don’t have to serve a high-minded, metaphorical, specifically argumentative purpose; instead, their effect is more experiential imaginative, and direct, pausing the film and rejecting the Western impulse of future-oriented point-to-point storytelling and instead relaxing, asking us to mentally attune to the moment and to live by and acknowledge the present around us rather than thinking of what will conspire two scenes from now.
So yes, as a visual encapsulation of humankind, a cinema of experiential life in all of its fragments, Ozu’s films interrogates the trapeze act of social ritual, individualism, community, the passage of time, and desire. However, an answer, or the hubris to locate one, would be foolish. Thus the endlessly static camera, willfully content to sit and marinate in individual images, and thus individual breaths of life. The film’s greatest hymn is simply to let us bask in the milieu of the present, freed from the mental shackles of always searching for a response and a conclusion.