Wednesday, October 3, 2012

End of Summer (1962): Ozu the Mahatma

Yasujiro Ozu has been called 'one of the greatest artists of the 20th century in any medium'. Yet only a serious film buff would have heard of him; compared to Picasso, or James Joyce, or the Beatles, he's a great artist who's shockingly under-appreciated. I've wondered about this accolade for a long time. I saw Tokyo Story a long time ago and thought it was a masterpiece but then this was by far his best known film. What about his other films? A great artist's reputation must rest on more than merely one work.

Well I've seen maybe five Ozu films by now and I've liked all of them. However, I thought only The End of Summer, made in 1962, came closing to matching the power of Tokyo Story. It helped me see why some cineastes get so excited about him, and I think the thing to remember about him is that he was first and foremost a great human being, and he managed to convey that humanity in his films. (But then perhaps that is the definition of a great artist anyway?) Watching The End of Summer I started to get an idea of what it would be like if Gandhi had made films. Ozu, likewise, seems to be a Mahatma, a 'great soul'. What shines through every scene I've ever seen directed by him is his amazingly infectious love for his fellow man, based on a deep sympathy with what people go through, especially perhaps because they have to come to terms with the fact of death: their own and that of others.

The End of Summer, like Tokyo Story, deals with the gradual death of an elderly family member. It shows how that family, and the friends and associates of the dying man experience worries and strains (albeit in restrained Japanese fashion) whilst the old man's health deteriorates, despite his good humour and evident wish to live. Certainly by the time of the scene where the family fears he is very close to death now, but he surprises them by springing back to life, I was caught up with all the characters' emotions, and on the verge of tears, much like the two young women in the film who idolise this old man.

The film is also a fascinating document of a rapidly changing, very Westernised early 60's Japan; even the the lurid colours of the film-stock seem to come from an American film of that era (the first scene in a bar seems as cheesy as a Doris Day film but don't let that put you off; things soon improve). And it is a wonderful portrait of how women's roles were changing in Japanese society at that time. Evidently the norm at that time was still for groups of matchmaking old men to play a large part in deciding who a young woman should marry, but the two young women targeted for this kind of paternalistic 'care' here are having none of it. On top of that you have a teenager who's completely rejected traditional Japanese hierarchies of power by going out with an American, and a grown-up daughter who gets the better of her errant father by some clever emotional blackmail.

Paul Schrader wrote a book called "Transcendental Style in Film : Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer", and to me this was a strange trio of film-makers to lump together, since Dreyer is a very austere Dane, whose films are hard work to say the least, and Bresson, though he can be moving in films like Pickpocket, also sometimes seems rather cold, standing above his audience rather than connecting with them. I think Ozu is completely different, and is far more accessible than both of them, because a warm and humble glow seems to come from every scene he directs. There's a lot of cineastes who will tell you about the importance of the way Ozu places his camera, unmoving, at head height to his characters as they sit on tatami mats in traditional Japanese houses. Though I can see how that helps the viewer watch their emotions unfold without distraction, I still think Ozu's greatness lies not in technical quirks such as these, but simply in the gentle way he treats every character.

And this cannot be adequately conveyed in words. You must simply see the films for yourself. I came away from The End of Summer feeling Ozu films (and there are dozens of them, from the silent era to the 60's, notably I Was Born, but...(1932), Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Floating Weeds (1959), and Late Autumn (1960)) should be shown in prisons to rehabilitate inmates, they should be shown to all abusive or hot tempered or anti-social people. Corny as it may sound, I think Ozu films might save souls.

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