The World of Wataru Hirayama
by ELEANOR MORROW
dir. Yasujiro Ozu
When you're a young one you can never imagine that the hero of the story might actually be a Japanese businessman who works as a matchmaker on the side, but that is the protagonist of the vast majority of Yasujiro Ozu's films. We don't have this kind of character in America because men are usually not the ones deciding, in weirdly long drinking scenes with their high school buddies, who their daughters should marry.
The fact that Ozu's dearest customs appear utterly foreign to the American viewer actually heightens the experience of watching his films. Many of Ozu's contemporaries felt Ozu's rigidness rather limiting. To our eye this is a magnificent world of textual sorrow and regret between close families and friends, and not at all staid. Ozu's films are said to be highly Japanese, and it is true they are not highly variegated. They occur in the cities and towns of Japan, in rooms inhabited or about to be inhabited, between people scarred by a war they lost and an innocence they never reclaim. Revolution in Japan is the issuance of an order, or a sighing protest for an unexpected act, or singing along to music in your kitchen.
Equinox Flower was Ozu's first color film. Like most innovations to the Japanese cinema (talkies, for example), Ozu was not exactly jumping on board. Seven years after the first Japanese color film, his traditional muted toned and mirrored hallways are given a healthy, rosy glow. Color doesn't mean much, but it does show another side to a land that was never memorialized by a finer director.
As I said, most of Ozu's films include the resounding theme of intergenerational struggle. Equinox Flower famously has its businessman protagonist Hirayama arguing with his high school buddies about why exactly male and female children are born. "If the woman is stronger, a daughter," one claims, and he is then contradicted or remonstrated as one would correct a child.
Ozu takes great pains to show a tender side to a set of prototypically severe Japanese patriarchies. Despite the male dominated formalities afforded the head of the household (the wacky, business-doing Hirayama), the women are in a knowing control of everything, in what one might call the first position of feminism. Ozu's films are incredibly perceptive about the intersections of such customs, and the dignity of the individual.
Women in Ozu are afforded a few things - joy, sorrow, command - that their husbands are not. Ozu is suggesting that behind the formality lurks a different sort of truth. The three girls who wish to choose husbands for themselves bond together in a coven by which they outwit themselves into a less lucrative but more sexual future. Even Hirayama's youngest daughter dominates him in the end.
For his part, Ozu died childless and unmarried. He clung to a lifelong relationship with his mother; he died a mere two years after her death in 1961. Further speculation is unnecessary and possibly contradictory. When he served as a filmmaker in the Japanese army, he saw American films like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons that refined his sense of the possible and turned him into the psychologist of middle-class Japanese life. His experience with Orson Welles and other great directors of the period is probably the main reason his masterpieces are accessible to us at all.
In Ozu, a room is always waiting to be reclaimed. A door must shut before another is allowed to open, and if there is sake left in the bottle, pour it out. Ozu's characters drink endlessly, as if the very act of consumption were evidence of their existence. Ozu's male characters are frequently misguided, continually lost. In a subdued milieu, all the film's stakes hinge on their response to events. This is something of a cop-out as far as dramatic storytelling goes, and Ozu continually uses unexpected ellipses for events and conversations that turn the mundane into the magical.
The ideal way to understand another culture is through its art, and life in Japan after the Second World War was only more exactingly portrayed in Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of the Hills. Ozu's films are glass puzzles unwrapping themselves into larger, reflective mysteries, and before you even have a grip of what solution might be possible, they shatter.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages on the subject of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
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