In this paper, I will apply the auteur (author) perspective of film theory in examining the work of Ozu Yasujiro, focusing particularly on his ‘Noriko trilogy’ of Late Spring (Banshun, 1949), Early Summer (Bakushu, 1951), and Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953). I will assert that the auteur perspective is methodologically useful when approaching Ozu’s films, and that, consequently, by regarding this theoretical perspective, one will be better equipped to understand Ozu’s material. In light of this, I will suggest that, while it may not always be the most fruitful approach for film analysis, the auteur perspective is valuable in certain cases: when the director is clearly and distinctly the creative voice behind a film. I will begin with an overview of the history of the auteur theory, followed by a description of ‘the auteur’. I will then parallel the films of Ozu’s ‘Noriko trilogy’ in regards to the following salient elements: characters, cinematography, and theme.
The film theoretical perspective of ‘auteurism’ was principally developed by French film theorists André Bazin and Alexandre Astruc (writers for the periodical Cahiers du Cinéma) in the late 1940s. They argued that films are the creative products of director’s, whom ought to be considered ‘authors’; in other words, films are vehicles for director’s to express personal concerns, just as books are vehicles for writers. The auteur theory was especially prominent in the mid-to-late classical film period (1940s-1970s), since films of this time were typically the achievement of a solely responsible filmmaker. This is significantly contrary to typical post-classical “assembly-line” productions where various people are credited for various aspects of a film.
Furthermore, the auteur theory is inherently self-reflective, since it presumes the fact that ‘auteurs’ exist. In order to apply the auteur perspective to a film, it must first be determined that the filmmaker is an ‘auteur’; however, how the filmmaker becomes defined as an ‘auteur’ seems to be precisely what the auteur theory seeks to discover. It seems that a director establishes himself as an ‘auteur’ by already being an auteur, and that there is a perceivable similarity in their films – an imprint of themselves – that clearly and distinctly separates their films from that of other director’s. Once ‘auteur status’ has been determined, the auteur theory may be applied in examining their films, in relation to each other, to discover what exactly that similarity is.
In applying the auteur theory to Ozu’s ‘Noriko trilogy’, I will use each film as a bearing for my analysis of each other film; in this way, I will not only attempt to discover what is characteristically ‘Ozu’, but I will become equipped to better understand the material of each film in particular.
The trilogy is named as such because the main character is a twenty-eight year old woman named Noriko (Hara Setsuko). On the surface, each film deals with Noriko’s age, the importance of marriage (or re-marriage in the case of Tokyo Story), and how Noriko’s apprehensions affect her family. Ryu Chishu, Sugimura Haruko, and Miyake Kuniko appear in each film beside Hara Setsuko, while others, such as Tsukioka, Yumeji, appear in two of the films. While the exact roles of each actor changes, their exercise in each film is roughly similar; most importantly, Ryu Chishu maintains a patriarchal role, and, in each film, attempts to attenuate Noriko’s apprehensions of marriage. Furthermore, the names of major characters, particularly family members, are exactly the same in each applicable film (Late Spring involves less characters); all three films incorporate a character named Noriko, Shukichi, Shige, and Aya, while two of the films incorporate a character named Fumiko, Koichi, Minoru, and Isamu. Moreover, the characters of each film can be effectively analyzed with respect to their identically named, and structurally similar, counterparts.
Furthermore, each film of the ‘Noriko trilogy’ is cinematographically similar. Ozu’s shots elucidate simplicity and stillness; there is virtually no camera movement (tracking, zooming etc.), almost every shot is of medium-length and medium-take, and the evenly spaced cuts maintain a consistent pace from the beginning to the end of each film. Moreover, Ozu positions the characters in a similar manner throughout each film. For example, within the first ten minutes of each film, there is a two-person conversation scene (each incorporating Shukichi), shot from the side, with the characters positioned laterally (one beside and slightly ahead of the other): in Late Spring, it’s a conversation between Shukichi and an associate; in Early Summer, Shukichi and his brother; and Tokyo Story, Shukichi and his wife. The character positions, angle, shot-length, and shot-take is remarkably similar in each film. In addition, the lighting throughout each film remains consistent; most scenes are indoors and compositionally identical. What’s more, Ozu utilizes tatami (low-angle) shots and recurrent pillow (aesthetically pleasing, seemingly non-plot related) shots, such as that of trains or the countryside, to enhance the ‘everydayness’ of the films’ narratives. Each shot is moderate and calculated.
Moreover, the central theme of each film of the ‘Noriko trilogy’ is the same.
In each film, Noriko is apprehensive about marriage because she worries about how it will affect her family: in Late Spring, she worries about her father who would be left alone; in Early Summer, she worries about splitting her family up; and in Tokyo Story, she worries about disrespecting the family of her late husband. In each film, the character played by Ryu Chishu makes a speech to Noriko attempting to attenuate her worries; he basically tells her that she will only find happiness by leaving the family and devoting herself, and all her love, completely, to another person – a husband. In the first two films, his words turn her around, she marries, and her worries come to fruition; in the third film it is unclear whether she will remarry, but apparent that she has taken his words to heart.
The notable parallels in the characters, cinematography, and theme of Ozu’s ‘Noriko trilogy’ suggest that each film is, more or less, a reflection of each other film, and that all three films are the reflection of Ozu’s creative vision. It seems as though, in each film, Ozu is attempting to honestly express some personal truth. By using film as a vehicle for his creative voice, and Ryu as a mouthpiece for his personal thoughts, Ozu attempts to artistically express some profound truth about himself. Consequently, what is perceived as a similarity between his films is not merely what is characteristic of Ozu, but the essence of Ozu’s character itself; there is a perceived simplicity, stillness, and sadness between each of the films which make them uniquely and ubiquitously Ozu.
In conclusion, when regarding the work of Ozu Yasujiro, the auteur perspective is certainly a useful approach for film analysis. Moreover, it articulates the importance of ‘auteur analysis’ in film theory; by understanding the author, we better understand the work. However, the auteur perspective may not be applicable in all instances; for example, it would not be nearly as fruitful to apply the auteur perspective in examining a film such as Tetsuya Nakashima’s Kamikaze Girls, since he is not clearly and distinctly an auteur. It seems that a true auteur doesn’t make a variety of essentially different films, he makes essentially the same film again and again, imprinting himself in each of them.