Yasujirō Ozu ( 12 December 1903 – 12 December 1963) was a Japanese film director and screenwriter. He began his career during the era of silent films. Ozu first made a number of short comedies, before turning to more serious themes in the 1930s.
Marriage and family, especially the relationships between the generations, are prominent among the themes in his work. His most lauded works include Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), and Floating Weeds (1959).
His reputation has continued to grow since his death, and he is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential directors.
Ozu was born in the Fukagawa district of Tokyo, the second son of five brothers and sisters. His father was a fertilizer seller. He attended Meiji nursery school and primary school.
In March 1913, at the age of ten, he and his siblings were sent by his father to live in his father’s home town of Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture, where he lived until 1924. In March 1916, at the age of 13 he entered what is now Ujiyamada High School. He was a boarder at the school and did judo.
He frequently skipped school to watch films such as Quo Vadis? or The Last Days of Pompei. In 1917 he saw the film Civilization and decided that he wanted to be a film director.
In 1920, at the age of 17, he was thrown out of the dormitory after being accused of writing a love letter to a good-looking boy in a lower class, and had to commute to school by train.
In March 1921 he graduated from the high school. He attempted the exam for what is now Kobe University’s economics department, but failed. In 1922 he took the exam for a teacher training college, but failed it.
On 31 March 1922 he began working as a substitute teacher at a school in Mie prefecture. He is said to have travelled the long journey from the school in the mountains to watch films at the weekend. In December 1922, his family, with the exception of Ozu and his sister, moved back to Tokyo to live with his father. In March 1923, when his sister graduated, he also went to Tokyo.
With his uncle acting as intermediary, Ozu entered the Shochiku Film Company as an assistant in the cinematography department on 1 August 1923, against the wishes of his father. His family home was destroyed in the earthquake of 1923, but no members of his family were injured.
On 12 December 1924, Ozu started a year of military service. He finished his military service on 30 November 1925, leaving as a corporal.
In 1926 he became a third assistant director. In 1927 he was involved in a fracas where he punched another employee for jumping a queue at the studio cafeteria, and when called to the studio director’s office he used it as an opportunity to present a film script he had written.
In September 1927 he was promoted to director in the jidaigeki (period film) department, and directed his first film, Sword of Penitence, now lost. Ozu’s story was dramatized by Kogo Noda, who would become his co-writer for the rest of his career. On 25 September he was called up to military reserves until November, and the film was partly finished by another director.
In 1928, Shiro Kido, the head of the Shochiku studio, decided that the company was to concentrate on making short comedy films without star actors. Ozu made a series of these films. The film Body Beautiful, released on 1 December 1928, was the first Ozu film to use his trademark low camera position.
After a series of “no star” pictures, in September 1929 Ozu’s first film with stars, I graduated but…, starring Minoru Takada and Kinuyo Tanaka, was released. In January 1930 he was entrusted with Shochiku’s top star Sumiko Kurishima in her new year film, An Introduction to Marriage.
His subsequent films of 1930 impressed Shiro Kido enough to invite Ozu on a trip to a hot spring. In his early works Ozu used the pseudonym “James Maki” for his screenwriting. His film Young Miss, with an all-star cast, was the first time he used the penname James Maki, and was also his first film to appear in film magazine Kinema Jumpo’s “Best Ten” at third position.
In 1932, his I Was Born, But…, a comedy with serious overtones on adolescence, was received by movie critics as the first notable work of social criticism in Japanese cinema, winning Ozu wide acclaim.
In 1935 Ozu made a short documentary with soundtrack: Kagami Shishi, in which Kokiguro VI performed a Kabuki dance of the same title. This was made by request of the Ministry of Education.:p. 221 Like the rest of Japan’s cinema industry, Ozu was slow to switch to the production of talkies: his first film with a dialogue sound-track was The Only Son in 1936, five years after Japan’s first talking film, Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine.
In the Wim Wenders documentary film Tokyo-Ga, the director travels to Japan to explore the world of Ozu, interviewing both Chishū Ryū and Yuharu Atsuta.
In 2003, the centenary of Ozu’s birth was commemorated at various film festivals around the world. Shochiku produced the film Café Lumière, directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien as homage to Ozu, with direct reference to the late master’s Tokyo Story (1953), to premiere on Ozu’s birthday.
John Walker, former editor of Halliwell’s Film Guide, placed Tokyo Story top in a list of the best 1000 films yet made.
Ozu’s Tokyo Story has appeared several times in the Sight & Sound poll of best films selected by critics and directors. In 2012, it topped the poll of film directors’ choices of “greatest film of all time”.
In 2013, director Yoji Yamada of the Otoko wa Tsurai yo film series remade Tokyo Story in a modern setting as Tokyo Family.