When asked about great Japanese directors, I'm supposed to mention giants like Kurosawa, who gave us The Seven Samurai and Ran. Or else I'm expected to mention Miyazaki, the creator of the marvelous Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro (perhaps my favorite film). But really, when I think of Japanese cinema, I recall the work of Yasujiro Ozu.
Ozu directed dozens of films, from the late 1920s to the '50s. Since film itself was still emerging as an art form, he had an easier time developing his personal style than he might have if he had become a filmmaker later in the century. Tokyo Story, released in America in the '60s, is Ozu's masterpiece, and it perfectly illustrates the features that make him greater than almost any other director.
Tokyo Story takes as its topic the middle-class endeavors of modern Japan, and casts a respectful gaze on them, making them resemble historic scroll paintings and Japanese prints. In fact, it was only after noticing how Ozu focused on everyday details that I realized that much historic Japanese art depicts ordinary activities or people. In Tokyo Story, an elderly couple travels to Tokyo to visit their children; they're dismissed and ignored as burdens and throwbacks. It's not that the children are cruel; they're just afraid to confront the terrifying truths of love and mortality that their parents represent.
So much of Japan's social tension is caught by Ozu, who frames his potent scenes in a still, un-moving frame. The camera remains at a fixed position, and the actors and actresses, if they move much at all, tend to make their entrances and exits on Ozu's harmonious and beautiful compositions. The effect very quickly becomes like watching a photograph or painting come to life. It's both disconcerting and comforting, which is even more remarkable, considering that Ozu achieves the effect through restraint.
Criterion, the only DVD company with impeccable taste, has released a much-needed edition of this classic film. More will follow - this is Ozu's centennial. And undoubtedly, a movie this refined and perfect will last hundreds of years more. If you love film at all, seek out this set, along with other pieces by Ozu. More than any other director, he has made film art.