Urban Myths: Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tatami Shot”

Urban Myths: Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tatami Shot”

In a 1960 difficulty of Movie Quarterly journal, the eminent movie historian Donald Richie recalled a dialog with a Shochiku producer with whom he tried (unsuccessfully) to barter broader worldwide publicity for director Yasujiro Ozu. “However, Mr. Richie,” the producer insisted, “he’s so Japanese—nobody would perceive [his films].” Richie retaliated: “That’s merely not true — I perceive them.” The producer then smiled on the American expat and cited his a few years in Japan as a proof. “However, after all, you’ve been dwelling right here so lengthy now that your reactions are, properly, aren’t typical.”1 Richie finally organized an Ozu retrospective on the Berlin Movie Pageant, the place he confirmed 5 footage in the summertime of 1963.2 At the moment, the director was testing of the hospital, having undergone remedy for a painful development in his neck. By October, he was in pressing care once more—the expansion turning out to be most cancers that had metastasized3 and later, on December 12 (his sixtieth birthday), it killed him.

Throughout his lifetime, Ozu appeared ambivalent as as to if or not his movies would attraction to audiences outdoors Japan. “Sometime, I’m certain, foreigners will perceive my movies,” he as soon as instructed cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta earlier than sheepishly including: “Then once more, no. They are going to say […] that my movies aren’t a lot of something.”4 Ozu’s chosen topic was extraordinary Japanese life, which he filmed in a constantly easy model and with out the standard narrative strategies of attaining drama. (His films about households pushing daughters to marry, for instance, have a tendency to not present the precise ceremony; the drama facilities on the household the bride is leaving, not the one she’s becoming a member of, the story usually concluding with a mother or father sitting at dwelling in loneliness.) On the floor, his films appeared too culturally particular for non-Japanese; and but, once they had been fleetingly proven overseas within the Fifties and early ‘60s, the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Following a 1956 screening on the College of California of Tokyo Story (1953) — an image Shochiku declined to undergo the Cannes Movie Pageant for worry it couldn’t be understood5 — English teacher Earl Roy Miner wrote within the faculty’s journal: “Deaths — particularly of moms, women in love, and younger poets — should be banned by legislation from Japanese movies [but] Mr. Ozu’s sequence is an exception. He succeeds as a result of he handles it in the identical practical means as all the pieces else: the kids are tearful solely until they start to recall their very own affairs and divide up their mom’s belongings.”6

When knowledgeable by Richie of rave London critiques for Tokyo Story, Ozu appeared extra appreciative than enthusiastic.7 In any occasion, he by no means lived to see the true acclaim his work would garner abroad. Occasional screenings and retrospectives persevered in museums and festivals all through the mid-’60s, and in 1972 a number of footage performed in New York. Roger Greenspun of the New York Instances labeled the “just about unknown” Ozu a director “whose title must be acquainted to all movie lovers,”8 and that very same yr Paul Schrader devoted a complete chapter of his acclaimed guide Transcendental Fashion in Movie to the artist underneath dialogue. “Ozu’s movies haven’t proved to be as profitable on the field workplace overseas as they had been at dwelling,” wrote movie historian Audie Bock in 1984, “however there is no such thing as a doubt that viewers all over the place on this planet have understood his message of acceptance simply in addition to they’ve understood [Kenji] Mizoguchi’s mystical adoration of ladies and [Akira] Kurosawa’s samurai humanism.”9

Regardless of the unorthodox storytelling and continued emphasis on extraordinary Japanese life, audiences had no bother deciphering Ozu’s characters — as they expressed feelings and wishes felt by folks worldwide (love, disappointment, envy, and so on.). Movie critic and professor Stanley Kauffmann as soon as requested college students to write down what they knew about Charles Chaplin: “Certainly one of them started: ‘I don’t understand how a lot I learn about Chaplin, however he definitely is aware of so much about me.’ That appears to me one wonderful definition of superior artwork, and it applies to Ozu.”10 When Donald Richie printed his guide Ozu: His Life and Movies in 1977, time had proved him proper: worldwide audiences adored the filmmaker whose countrymen deemed probably the most Japanese of administrators.

Critiques proceed to latch on to this label, primarily due to Ozu’s chosen material and the style through which he introduced it: i.e., with a static digicam located low — and completely degree — to the bottom. This method has usually been cited as proof of his “Japanese” filmmaking method, the logic behind it apparently to simulate the perspective of somebody seated on a tatami mat.

Much less mentioned are behind-the-scenes factoids rendering a lot of the above distorted if not utterly unfaithful. To start with, Ozu was, from a younger age, a fervent admirer of American and European cinema, dismissing the Japanese films of his youth as “with out emotional depth.” His directorial heroes included Charles Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, and Rex Ingram, with Thomas H. Ince’s Civilization (1915) inspiring him to develop into a filmmaker.11 His early films featured cell camerawork and conditions imitative of Hollywood — to the extent that Japanese critics characterised them as “reeking of butter” (slang for extreme western affect).12 However even the aesthetic he developed in a while took cues from the Occident: the subdued appearing tone drew inspiration from scenes of Bette Davis in William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941) and Henry Fonda in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946);13 he as soon as requested his editor to acquire a print of Fred Zinnemann’s Excessive Midday (1952) and rely the frames in pictures he deemed ideally reduce.14 (On set, Ozu timed scenes utilizing a stopwatch that concurrently measured seconds and frames.)15 And opposite to what’s been repeated for many years, his cause for putting the digicam low and degree wasn’t to attain a human perspective.

To the perfect of my information, the “perspective” thesis started with Wim Wenders’s 1985 documentary Tokyo-ga, whereby the German filmmaker interviewed Ozu’s long-time cameraman, Yuharu Atsuta. Per the English language narration, the digicam was “all the time set on the eye degree of somebody seated on the ground.” To offer Wenders advantage of the doubt, a part of me suspects this assertion derived from mistranslation, however the declare itself is disproven by his personal movie. In Tokyo-ga’s final — and greatest — sequence, Atsuta recreates the signature Ozu setup, utilizing the identical Mitchell digicam from the duo’s previous few films; when completed, the lens stays considerably decrease than the eyeline of a seated particular person, the cinematographer nonetheless depending on crouching to look by the viewfinder. (That is in step with data in Audie Bock’s 1978 guide Japanese Movie Administrators: Ozu stationed his digicam a mere 40cm — lower than a foot and a half — off the ground when capturing mediums and close-ups.)16

Yuharu Atsuta establishing a shot in “Tokyo-ga” (1985).

Nevertheless, Wenders accurately cites the rationale behind Ozu’s insistence on holding the digicam completely degree (to keep away from picture distortion), which itself ties into his precise logic behind the low place. As movie critic Roger Ebert famous in his audio commentary for 1959’s Floating Weeds: “Ozu, greater than most administrators, positioned composition above all the pieces else.”17

Yasujiro Ozu’s fascination with low digicam placement materialized early in his profession. When capturing interiors on his sixth movement image — the misplaced silent Physique Stunning (1928) — he discovered himself inconvenienced by electrical cables strewn throughout the ground. The cables powered gear however wanted to be always moved in order to not be seen within the body. “Since it might take time and vitality to tidy them up earlier than capturing one other shot,” the director instructed Tokyo Shinbun in 1952, “I turned my digicam upward so as to not present the ground. I preferred the composition and was capable of save time as properly. Since then, it has develop into a behavior, and my digicam has develop into positioned decrease and decrease.”18

Fellow director Daisuke Ito claimed Ozu refined his setup after an evening of ingesting on the former’s dwelling. An alcohol fan since adolescence — his favorites included sake, scotch, and low-cost whiskey19 — Ozu inevitably grew to become tipsy and stumbled into Ito’s backyard. There he positioned a sake bottle atop a rock after which crouched to review it. “This low place is nice!” he cried out. “The sake bottle is exactly the place of the lens and the place one meter behind it’s mine. […] I’d by no means let anybody sit on this place, the constructive I’ve created.” Within the Nineteen Thirties, he started lowering cinematic motion and stored the digicam near the bottom — which, per director Masahiro Shinoda, previously an assistant to Ozu, was really applied “to stop it from having a human viewpoint.”20 (As evident within the movies themselves: typically compositions are shaped in order that the heads of actors within the foreground disappear past the highest of the body.) However what the low setup — and the superbly degree digicam angle — did obtain was integral to Ozu’s sensibilities: pictorial stability.

Since most Ozu footage primarily happened in interiors (he resented location capturing’s drawing the eye of passersby and being topic to modifications in climate and lighting),21 the director discovered himself contending with problematic design. “[T]he Japanese room has numerous sliding doorways,” he defined, “[so] whenever you look down from too excessive a place, the horizon is lowered. For those who body a scene that means, the highest a part of the body appears gentle and the stability appears incorrect.”22 Additionally irksome had been the tatami mats making up the ground—specifically their straight edges and the way they stopped abruptly upon reaching the wall.23 Conversing with cinematographer Atsuta, Ozu described his answer: “[I]t’s an actual ache attempting to make an excellent composition of a Japanese room—particularly the corners. The easiest way to take care of that is to make use of a low digicam place. This makes all the pieces simpler.”24 Ozu’s capturing method was designed merely to acquire a perfect shot. For this identical cause, he selected to maintain most of his compositions degree; displaying extra of the ceiling or the ground threw off the stability he regularly sought.

As Masahiro Shinoda’s testimony additional particulars, compositional perfection didn’t finish with digicam placement. On the set of Tokyo Twilight (1957), the assistant requested his senior why a cushion had been positioned in part of the room the place no person sits. Ozu instructed him to see by the digicam’s viewfinder, whereupon Shinoda realized the cushion improved the shot by obscuring tatami mat borders.25 As his assistant directorship continued into the ‘60s, Shinoda additionally got here to appreciate violating continuity was often crucial. As soon as throughout the making of Late Autumn (1960), he watched Ozu meticulously arrange beer bottles, dishes, and ashtrays on a desk—solely to rearrange them when composing the following shot. “I used to be so shocked that I mentioned that if he did that he would create a nasty break in continuity, that everybody would discover that the beer bottles had been now on the proper and the ashtray on the left. He stopped, checked out me, and mentioned: ‘Continuity? Oh, that. No, you’re incorrect. Individuals by no means discover issues like that — and this manner, it makes a a lot better composition.’ And he was proper, after all. Individuals don’t. After I noticed the rushes I didn’t discover something incorrect with these scenes.”26

Ozu likewise loved breaking the time-tested 180-degree rule as he composed pictures. “Once we shoot a dialog between actors A and B in close-ups,” he mentioned in describing the rule to Geijutsu Shincho, “the digicam should not cross a line connecting A and B. First we shoot a close-up of A a bit bit away from the road between the 2. A appears to the left of the display screen. Then we must always transfer the digicam to the other place, on the identical aspect of the road between A and B, and shoot a close-up of B. Thus, B appears to the proper of the display screen. On this means, their gazes cross above the viewers’ seats, and they look like speaking to one another.” Since he understood the rule and why it existed, he additionally knew find out how to break it. “I don’t care about crossing the road to shoot close-ups of A and B. Thus, each A and B look to the left. Their gazes by no means cross. However, they look like speaking to one another.”27 In lots of Ozu footage, actors in dialog are filmed gazing towards the identical fringe of the display screen in separate close-ups—whereas different administrators would have them face reverse sides of the body. And when editor Yoshiyaku Hamamura urged Ozu check a scene by capturing one model in compliance with the 180-degree rule and the opposite by way of his ordinary strategies, the director’s response upon evaluating the outcomes was famously: “No distinction!”28

Different members of the employees — and infrequently personnel within the entrance workplace — had been perplexed by his visible strategies. When making 1933’s Dragnet Woman, first-time assistant cameraman Keisuke Kinoshita stood astonished as Ozu regularly moved a wall-mounted image between takes. “I assumed, ‘Gained’t it look unusual if this image retains transferring round?’ Ozu would say, ‘Just a bit bit extra.’ He stored wanting by the viewfinder. Actually, he simply stored transferring it by fractions of an inch, up and down, aspect to aspect.”29 Upon transitioning to paint images within the late Fifties, Ozu dictated the shades of tatami bindings and even the fabric from which costumes had been made.30 He refused Shochiku’s request to tint his black-and-white movies — as he feared shade would flatten the pictures.31 And he remained stubbornly appalled by widescreen images. “Given the brief time I’ve left on this Earth […] I don’t need to shoot a movie as if I had been peering out from a mailbox slot.”32

As demonstrated, Ozu’s method — and certainly his total method to moviemaking — usually went in opposition to the instincts of his countrymen; and per some minds this really negated his well-known moniker as probably the most “Japanese” film director. “Here’s a man who adamantly refuses to alter his method,” wrote critic Shimba Iida. “His adherence to his personal authentic methodology will allow no outdoors recommendation.”33 Masahiro Shinoda bluntly opined: “Following a single precept to its excessive on this means is one thing I don’t consider is a really Japanese trait. So for me, Ozu is in a sure sense a really un-Japanese director.”34 And whereas the filmmaker underneath dialogue usually in contrast himself to a craftsman specializing in a sure commerce, different statements point out a somewhat individualist outlook on his personal artwork. “I comply with the final trend in extraordinary manners and ethical legal guidelines in critical issues, however in artwork I comply with myself,” Ozu instructed Kinema Junpo in 1958. “Even when one thing is unnatural and I prefer it, I’ll do it. […] From this comes my individuality—and that is most vital to me.”35


  1. Richie, Donald. “A Private File.” Movie Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1. (Autumn 1960)
  2. Sharp, Jasper. “Donald Richie obituary.” The Guardian, 21 February 2013
  3. Richie, Donald. Ozu: His Life and Movies. Berkeley: College of California Press, 1977, p. 251
  4. Aloff, Mindy. “FILM VIEW; How American Intellectuals Discovered to Love Ozu.” The New York Instances, 3 April 1994
  5. Schilling, Mark. Shiro Kido: Cinema Shogun. E-book, 2012
  6. Miner, Earl Roy. “Japanese Movie Artwork in Fashionable Gown.” The Quarterly of Movie Radio and Tv, vol. 10, no. 4 (Summer season, 1956), p. 358
  7. Richie, Donald. Early Summer season (Criterion DVD), recorded in 2002
  8. Greenspun, Roger. “Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’ Opens.” New York Instances, 14 March 1972
  9. Bock, Audie (ed). Mikio Naruse: A Grasp of Japanese Cinema. Chicago: The Movie Heart, Faculty of the Artwork Institute of Chicago, 1984, p. 3
  10. Kauffmann, Stanley. Residing Photographs: Movie Remark and Criticism. New York: Harper & Row, 1975, p. 101
  11. I Lived, However… A Biography of Yasujiro Ozu. Shochiku Co., Ltd., 1983
  12. Yomota Inuhiko. Translated by Philip Kaffen. What Is Japanese Cinema?: A Historical past. New York: Columbia College Press, p. 6
  13. Richie, Ozu: His Life and Movies, p. 259
  14. Ibid, p. 176
  15. Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton College Press, 1988, p. 75
  16. Bock, Audie. Japanese Movie Administrators. New York: Kodansha Worldwide, Ltd., 1978, p. 83
  17. Ebert, Roger. Floating Weeds (Criterion DVD), recorded in 2003
  18. Yoshida, Kiju. Translated by Daisuke Miyao and Kyoko Hirano. Ozu’s Anti-Cinema. Ann Arbor: Heart for Japanese Research, College of Michigan, 2003, p. 71
  19. Richie, Ozu: His Life and Movies, p. 27
  20. Bordwell, pp. 78-9
  21. Tokyo-ga. Wim Wenders Productions, 1985; Ozu’s Movies from Behind the Scenes. Shochiku Co., Ltd., 2004
  22. Richie, Ozu: His Life and Movies, p. 115
  23. Ibid, pp. 125-6
  24. Ibid, p. 115
  25. Bock, Japanese Movie Administrators, p. 82
  26. Richie, Ozu: His Life and Movies, pp. 125-6
  27. Yoshida, p. 65
  28. Richie, Ozu: His Life and Movies, pp. 152-53
  29. I Lived, However… A Biography of Yasujiro Ozu.
  30. Richie, Ozu: His Life and Movies, pp. 127
  31. Miyao, Daisuke. The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema. Durham: Duke College Press, 2013, p. 165
  32. Schilling, Mark. “Re-examining Yasujiro Ozu on Movie.” The Japan Instances, 7 December 2013
  33. Bordwell, p. 6
  34. Ibid, p. 294
  35. Richie, Ozu: His Life and Movies, p. 189

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