Yasujirō Ozu

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Yasujirō Ozu
Date of birth: December 12 1903(1903-12-12)
Birth location: Tokyo, Japan
Date of death: December 12 1963 (aged 60)
Death location: Tokyo, Japan
This is a Japanese name; the family name is Ozu.

Yasujirō Ozu (小津 安二郎, December 12, 1903 – December 12, 1963), an influential Japanese film director, is regarded as one of the masters of Japanese cinema. Ozu became fascinated with the cinema as a youth, and joined Shochiku Film Company as an assistant cameraman in 1923. He directed his first film in 1927, and went on to produce 53 more, all but three of them for Shochiku. Ozu made a number of short comedies, before turning to more serious themes in the 1930s. The silent film Umarete wa mita keredo ("I Was Born, But…," 1932), a comedy about adolescence with serious overtones, received recognition from movie critics as the first notable work of social criticism in Japanese cinema. Although marriage and family were among the most persistent themes in his body of work, Ozu ironically remained single and childless all of his life.

Ozu’s style reached its full development after World War II. Ozu used unorthodox techniques, including training the camera directly on the actors during dialogs; and using shots of objects, landscapes or empty interiors to transition between scenes. He reduced camera movement to direct more attention to the characters, and invented the "tatami shot," in which the camera is placed at a low height. Though Ozu’s films were very successful in Japan, they were almost unknown in the West until the 1970s. Today they are admired by cinema lovers all over the world. His 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story, is considered by many critics to be among the best films ever made.


Early life

Yasujirō Ozu was born December 12, 1903, in the Fukagawa district of Tokyo. When he was ten years old, he and his siblings were sent by his mother to live in his father's home town of Matsuzaka, Mie Prefecture, where he spent most of his youth. In 1916, he entered middle school at Uji-Yamada (now Ise), where he was a mischievous pupil who frequently got into fights, drank alcohol, and kept a photo of actress Pearl White on his desk. (His drinking habit remained with him for the rest of his life.) Ozu often skipped classes and spent much of his time at the local cinema. His fascination with cinema was apparently inspired by a Matsunosuke historical spectacular at the Atagoza cinema in Matsusaka. In his biography of Ozu, "Ozu to iu Otoko" (A Man Called Ozu, Kinema Jumpo Tokushu, 1964) Kogo Nada, who collaborated with Ozu on his film scripts, recounts that at that time Ozu loved the films of Lillian Gish, Pearl White and William S. Hart, and later, of Rex Ingram and King Vidor. Ozu chose to watch The Prisoner of Zenda at the cinema instead of taking the entrance examination to the prestigious Kobe Higher Commercial School, which his elder brother, Shinichi, attended. Later, perhaps regretting his missed opportunity to go to college, he paid for the college education of his younger brother, Shinzo.

Though he had few qualifications, Ozu was accepted for a position as an assistant teacher in a small mountain village some distance from Matsusaka. Little is known about the years he spent there, except that he drank almost continually and that his friends came to visit and stayed for extended months-long drinking sessions. Finally, his father sent money to pay off his drinking debts, and in 1923 Ozu returned to Tokyo to live with his family.[1]

Ozu's uncle, who knew of his nephew's love of film, introduced him to Teihiro Tsutsumi, then manager of the Shochiku Film Company. Soon Ozu began to work for Shochiku, as an assistant cameraman. His father opposed his son’s desire to work in cinema, but was persuaded to allow it by the uncle.

Early career

Ozu's work as assistant cameraman involved pure physical labor, lifting and moving equipment at Shochiku's Tokyo studios in Kamata. Hiroshi Sakai, a cameraman for whom Ozu worked, remembered Ozu during summer shoots, wearing only shorts and carrying the heavy Berhauer camera on his shoulder. He also remembered that Ozu sat at the feet of director Kiyoko Ushihara, asking questions about movie-making, such as, "What should cinema of the coming generation be like?" Ozu enjoyed his early days at the studios in Kamata, saying once that he was happy because he was strong, and lugging the camera took all his strength.[1]

Within three years, Ozu became assistant director to Tadamoto Okubo. He knew that there was opportunity for advancement in Shochiku, but said, "the real truth is that I didn't want to. As an assistant I could drink all I wanted and spend my time talking. As a director I'd have to stay up all night working on continuity. Still, my friends told me to go ahead and give it a try."[1] Within a year, Ozu submitted a film script, Zange no Yaiba ("The Sword of Penitence," now lost), his only period piece, and directed it in 1927. Before shooting was complete, Ozu was called up into the army reserves, and when he later saw the completed film, he stated that he would rather not call it his own.

Ozu made 26 films in his first five years as a director, and all but three of his 54 films were made for Shochiku studios. Ozu made a number of short comedies, such as Daigaku wa Detakeredo (“I Graduated, But...)" before turning to more serious themes in the 1930s. Umarete wa mita keredo ("I Was Born, But…," 1932), a comedy about adolescence with serious overtones, marks the beginning of this transition. It won recognition from movie critics as the first notable work of social criticism in Japanese cinema.

In 1935, Ozu made a short documentary with soundtrack, Kagami Shishi, in which Kokiguro VI performed Kabuki dance of the same title. This film was made in response to a request by the Japanese Ministry of Education.

Like the rest of Japan's cinema industry, Ozu was slow to switch to the production of talkies: his first film with a dialogue soundtrack was Hitori Musuko ("The Only Son") in 1936, five years after the release of Japan's first talking film, Heinosuke Gosho's "The Neighbor's Wife and Mine." Ozu resisted the move to color until 1958.

World War II

Ozu's films are often categorized into those produced before and those produced after World War II. His early works show the influence of Hollywood melodramas are sometimes light-hearted and farcical. Those films are a great contrast to his later masterpieces, which exhibit a unique and rigorously contemplative style that indirectly defies convention.

In July of 1937, at a time when Shochiku was unhappy about Ozu's lack of success at the box office (despite the acclaim and awards he received from critics), 34-year-old Ozu was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army, and served for two years in China as an infantry corporal in the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The first film Ozu made after his return was the critically and commercially successful Toda-ke no Kyodai ("Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family," 1941). He followed this with an autobiographical movie: Chichi Ariki ("There Was a Father," 1942), depicting the strong bonds of affection between a father and son despite years of separation.

In 1943, Ozu was again drafted into the army to make a propaganda film in Burma. Instead, he was sent to Singapore, where he spent much of his time watching American films that the Japanese army had confiscated. According to Donald Richie, Ozu's favorite was Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.

Postwar career

Ozu's films from the late 1940s onwards were the most favorably received. Nagaya Shinshiroku (“Record of a Tenement Gentleman”, 1947) was followed by Banshun ("Late Spring," 1949), Tokyo Monogatari ("Tokyo Story," 1953, considered to be his masterpiece) Ochazuke no Aji ("The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice," 1952), Soshun ("Early Spring," 1956), Higanbana ("Equinox Flower," 1958, his first film in color), Ukikusa ("Floating Weeds," 1959) and Akibiyori ("Late Autumn," 1960).

Ozu often worked with screenwriter Kogo Noda; other regular collaborators included cameraman Yuharu Atsuta and the actors Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara and Haruko Sugimura.

Ozu's last film was Sanma no aji ("An Autumn Afternoon") in 1962. He died the following year of throat cancer, on his 60th birthday. His grave is at the temple of Engaku-ji, Kamakura.


As a director, Ozu was eccentric and a notorious perfectionist.

Chishu Ryu, who acted regularly in Ozu films, recounts:

”Mr. Ozu looked happiest when he was engaged in writing a scenario with Mr. Kogo Noda, at the latter's cottage on the tableland of Nagano Prefecture. By the time he finished writing a script, after about four months' effort, he had already made up every image in every shot, so that he never changed the scenario after we went on the set. The words were so polished up that he would not allow us even a single mistake." (From “Yasujiro Ozu by Chishu Ryu,” Sight & Sound, Spring 1964.)

Ozu’s films are possibly better-known for their technical style and innovation than for their narrative content. His style is most distinctive in his later films, and was not fully developed until his post-war talkies. He did not conform to most Hollywood conventions, most notably the 180 degree rule (where the camera always remains on one side of an imaginary axis drawn between two talking actors). Instead of using the typical over-the-shoulder shots in his dialog scenes, Ozu trained the camera directly on the actors, creating the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene. Ozu also did not use typical transitions, such as fades or dissolves, between scenes. Instead, he showed shots of certain static objects, outdoor landscapes (often showing railway lines or stations), or empty interiors as transitions, between scenes, or cut directly from one scene to the next. He moved the camera less and less as his career progressed, decreasing pans, dollying, and crabbing, and ceased using tracking shots altogether in his color films. He also invented the "tatami shot," in which the camera is placed at a low height, precisely where it would be if one were kneeling on a tatami mat.[1] His simplified techniques placed all attention on the characters.

Ozu was also an innovator in narrative structure, de-emphasizing the plot by using “ellipses,” in which major events are left out, and only the intervals between them are depicted. For example, in An Autumn Afternoon, a wedding is mentioned in one scene, and then in the next, a reference is made to the wedding that has already occurred. The wedding itself never occurs on screen. This is typical of Ozu's films.

“I formulated my own directing style in my own head, proceeding without any unnecessary imitation of others…for me there was no such thing as a teacher. I have relied entirely on my own strength.”[2]

Subject matter

The subject matter of Ozu’s films—family life, marital relationships, life at college and in the office—had little to do with his own life experiences. Ozu never married or had children of his own. He rarely depicted provincial life, such as he had experienced in Matsuzaka, and never included military experiences in his films, though he served in the military several times. His inspiration came from outside of his own life, from his observations of the lives of others.[3]

Ozu's films represent an examination of the Japanese family and the changes that a family unit experiences. His first great film, I Was Born, but... (Umarete Wa Mita Keredo, 1932) centered on two young brothers growing up in their new home in Tokyo and dealt with tensions between work and family. The films Late Spring, Tokyo Story, Good Morning and Early Summer all feature young brothers named Minoru and Isamu.

Ozu’s films are infused with mono no aware, a concept of Japanese aesthetics referring to the pure, emotional response to the beauty of nature, the impermanence of life, and the sorrow of death; a direct and sympathetic understanding of surrounding objects and the natural world without the need to resort to language or other mediators.[4]

Both Japanese and Western critics refer to Ozu as “the most Japanese of all filmmakers.” This impression led young filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave, such as Ozu’s one-time apprentice, Shohei Imamura, to regard him as old-fashioned and a social conservative. Some critics reject the idea that Ozu was “the most Japanese” of filmmakers, pointing out that his innovative techniques and his use of bright summer sunlight were not typical of the Japanese aesthetic.[5] Until the 1960s, film distributors were reluctant to show Ozu’s films to Western audiences because their subject matter was considered “too Japanese” to be understood and appreciated. Today, Ozu’s films are widely acclaimed in the West, as well as in Japan.

Tokyo Story

In 2000, film critic Derek Malcolm named Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953) as the best in his Century of Films. Sight & Sound magazine has called it "one of the three greatest films of all time," and it continues to appear in the Sight and Sound poll of best films, which is voted on by film directors every ten years. In 2005, Halliwell's Film Guide named Tokyo Story as No. 1 in its list of the 1,000 Best Films.[6]

Ozu's understated stories about family life and relationships culminated in Tokyo Story, which examined the father-child relationship and the damage to family life caused by post-war society.[7] Hara Setsuko and Ryu Chishu, regular actors in Ozu films, starred in the film. Tomi and Sukichi, an elderly couple, make the arduous journey to Tokyo to visit their grown-up children, only to discover that their presence is a burden. The children are too busy with their professional lives and young families to find any time for them. Their daughter-in-law Toriko (played by Setsuko Hara), widowed after their son was declared missing during World War II, is the only one who takes the time to connect with the elderly couple, repeatedly asking her boss for time away from the office. After Tomi dies, Toriko remarks to her sister that children gradually drift away from their parents. "Isn't life disappointing?" replies her sister quietly.[8]

After Tokyo Story, Ozu made another eight films, all of them critically acclaimed, but none of which achieved the same depth of feeling.

In 2003, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, a project was launched to hold commemorative events in various cities such as screenings of his films.[9]

“I portray what should not be possible in the world as if it should be possible, but Ozu portrays what should be possible as if it were possible, and that is much more difficult.”[10]

Partial filmography

Of the 54 films produced by Ozu, 18 have unfortunately been lost. The following 33 films survive:

  • Days of Youth (1929, 学生ロマンス 若き日)
  • Walk Cheerfully (1930, 朗かに歩め)
  • I Flunked But... (1930, 落第はしたけれど)
  • That Night's Wife (1930, その夜の妻)
  • The Lady and The Beard (1931)
  • Tokyo Chorus (1931, 東京の合唱)
  • I Was Born, But... (1932, 大人の見る繪本 生れてはみたけれど)
  • Where Now Are The Dreams Of Youth (1932, 靑春の夢いまいづこ)
  • Woman of Tokyo (1933, 東京の女)
  • Dragnet Girl (1933, 非常線の女)
  • Passing Fancy (1933)
  • A Mother Should be Loved (1934) (no complete prints known to exist)
  • A Story of Floating Weeds (1934, 浮草物語)
  • An Inn in Tokyo (1935, 東京の宿)
  • The Only Son (1936, ひとり息子)
  • What Did the Lady Forget? (1937, 淑女は何を忘れたか)
  • Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941, 戸田家の兄妹)
  • There Was a Father (1942, 父ありき)
  • Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947, 長屋紳士録)
  • A Hen in the Wind (1948, 風の中の牝鶏)
  • Late Spring (1949, 晩春)
  • The Munakata Sisters (1950, 宗方姉妹)
  • Early Summer (1951, 麥秋)
  • Tea Over Rice (1952, お茶漬けの味)
  • Tokyo Story (1953, 東京物語)
  • Early Spring (1956, 早春)
  • Tokyo Twilight (1957, 東京暮色)
  • Equinox Flower (1958, 彼岸花)
  • Good Morning (1959, お早よう)
  • Floating Weeds (1959, 浮草)
  • Late Autumn (1960), 秋日和)
  • The End of Summer (1961, 小早川家の秋)
  • An Autumn Afternoon (1962, 秋刀魚の味)


  • In the movie Tokyo-Ga, director Wim Wenders travels to Japan to explore the world of Ozu, interviewing both Chishu Ryu 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 (珈琲時光), 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, editor of the Halliwell`s Film Guides, placed Tokyo Story top in a list of the best 1000 films yet made.
  • The 2003 movie Five Dedicated to Ozu, by Iranian filmaker Abbas Kiarostami, is a tribute to Ozu. The film consists of five long shots, averaging about 16 minutes each.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Nick Wrigley, Ozu's Life Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  2. Yasujiro Ozu, Boku wa eiga no mame-kantoku (I Am a Miniature Film Director) (Tokyo: Maki Shoten, 1953).
  3. Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors (Kodansha International, 1985), 73.
  4. Richard Hooker, Japan Glossary (Washington State University).
  5. Hasumi Shigehiko, Kantoku Ozu Yasujiro (Director Ozu Yasujiro, Tokyo: Chikumashobo, 1983), from which the chapter “Sunny Skies” has been translated into English by Kathy Shigeta and reprinted in David Desser (ed.). Retrieved May 24, 2008
  6. Peter Bradshaw, The quiet master, The Guardian, Friday, June 10, 2005. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  7. Japan Zone, Movie Directors: Yasujiro Ozu Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  8. Nick Wrigley, Senses of Cinema.
  9. Yasujiro Ozu, Guide to Japanese celebrities’ graves. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  10. Masahiro Shinoda, “Mizoguchi Kenji kara toku hanarete,” Kikan Film, No.3, 1969.

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External links

All links retrieved May 23, 2023.

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