- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

“The end of a film is its beginning” is one of the neatest paradoxical observations attributed to Yasujiro Ozu, the esteemed Japanese director whose surviving films will be revived this month and next at three participating institutions: the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, the Freer Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art.

The movies of the mature Mr. Ozu were variations on recurrent themes of domestic comedy and pathos, often situations of estrangement between family members, especially parents and grown children. These misunderstandings or crises were depicted with a banal intimacy that could prove exceptionally disarming, poignant and revealing.

Mr. Ozu, whose most famous movies were contrived in symbiotic (and evidently sake-lubricated) collaboration with a trusted screenwriter, Kogo Noda, specialized in using the placid, static and commonplace as a kind of secret passageway to submerged feelings of a far more turbulent and painful kind. Nevertheless, for Mr. Ozu, the highest form of emotional wisdom and humane behavior demands resignation to traditional obligations, social change, misfortune and aging.

The posthumous discovery of Mr. Ozu (1903-1963) by American admirers began more or less with a 1972 New York revival of a definitive tear-jerker, “Tokyo Story,” originally released in Japan almost two decades earlier.

Associated with only one Japanese studio, Shochiku, throughout his career, Mr. Ozu entered the industry as a third assistant cameraman in 1924, apprenticed to a house specialist in slapstick. He began directing in 1927 with “The Sword of Penitence,” an incongruous costume drama derived from a Hollywood prototype.

The retrospective consists of 19 talking features, 14 silent features and two silent fragments. Note that the talking transition was delayed in Japan: It began in 1936. The first Ozu talkie, “The Only Son,” is part of the series. The silent programs will be enhanced by live piano accompaniment at the Freer and National galleries and live organ accompaniment at the AFI Silver, where the invaluable Ray Brubacher returns to the keyboard.

Judging from a dead-silent video copy of Mr. Ozu’s 1932 comedy “I Was Born, But … ,” it is inadvisable to let any vintage movie try to ingratiate itself anew without musical assistance. “Born” was delight- fully modernized by Mr. Ozu in 1959. That improvement, titled “Ohayo,” literally “Good Morning,” is available in an attractive DVD edition from the Criterion Collection.

Mr. Ozu had shifted to color in 1958. “Ohayo” has a wonderfully muted color design. The plot revolves around the pouting spell of two brothers, Minoru and Isamu, who improvise a silent protest in hopes of coercing their parents into buying a television set, the most coveted single appliance of their generation. Their father, Chishu Ryu, by that time the definitive paternal figure in Ozu pictures, is reluctant to humor them. He has read predictions that the medium will transform Japan into “100 million idiots.”

Probably the most blithe of late Ozu movies, “Ohayo” enjoys a fondly vulgar renown because the boys in the neighborhood are keen on simulating rude flatulent noises, cued by a push on the forehead. The sounds are cleverly orchestrated for contrasts that run a scale from the squeaky to the rumbling. Nutty and endearing, the movie seems a granddaddy of superior sitcoms.

The screenings at the Freer and National galleries are free. However, early arrivals probably are advisable, and tickets are required for entrance to the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium. The AFI Silver, which charges admission, will host the fewest titles, but they include one-week revivals of three famous Ozu pictures: “Late Spring,” circa 1949; “Tokyo Story,” released four years later and also available in a Criterion Collection DVD; and “An Autumn Afternoon,” the final Ozu feature.

“Late Spring” is an optimum starting point for newcomers. It preserves a trademark Ozu situation: a devoted daughter, reluctant to leave her widowed father, is persuaded by the father himself that she should acquiesce in the matchmaking schemes of friends and relatives.

Played by Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu, who echoed the roles in later Ozu movies, child and parent are evident soul mates, comfortable with their domestic status quo. In a uniquely wrenching scene, the father makes an admirably reasonable but probably insincere case for courtship, and the young woman bows to his argument, obviously against her will.

Intimations of loss and deprivation during the World War II years remain cloudy sources of inhibition and sorrow in Ozu characters. For example, we hear that Noriko, the daughter of “Late Spring,” has suffered some kind of physical breakdown in the recent past, while working in a forced-labor detachment during the war.

“Late Spring” also helps contradict the notion of a severely stilted pictorial style that clings to Mr. Ozu’s reputation. Some accounts would suggest that every shot reflects a seating position in a typical middle-class home. Low-angle and deep-focus vantage points are favored by the director, but “Late Spring” doesn’t lack for exteriors or pictorial variety, including a biking excursion that pretty much demands a moving camera.

It also incorporates a pivotal visit to a Noh play and climaxes with one of the most extraordinary walking interludes in movie history, when the separation of father and daughter is anticipated by Noriko crossing to the opposite side of a street. The metaphoric impact of the two characters walking in the same direction, yet suddenly and poignantly apart, is sufficient to make you an emotional wreck.

Yasujiro Ozu at his most accomplished was one of the screen’s masters of profoundly understated heartbreak.

Calendar of screenings:

The AFI Silver: “Late Spring,” daily through Thursday, 8:50 p.m. daily, 6:40 p.m. daily except tonight, plus 12:30 and 2:40 p.m. today, 2 and 4:30 p.m. tomorrow; “Tokyo Story,” Friday through March 18, 6:30 and 9:10 p.m. daily, plus 1:15 and 3:50 p.m. March 13 and 14; “I Was Born, But … ,” March 19, 7 p.m. and March 20, 6:40 p.m.; “An Autumn Afternoon,” March 26-April 1, 6:30 and 8:45 p.m. daily, plus 2 and 4:15 p.m. March 27 and 28 and 11:30 a.m. March 27; “That Night’s Wife” and “Woman of Tokyo,” April 3, 4 p.m.

The Freer Gallery: “An Inn in Tokyo,” tomorrow, 1 p.m.; “What Did the Lady Forget?” tomorrow, 2:45 p.m.; “The Lady and the Beard,” tomorrow, 2 p.m.; “The Munekata Sisters,” March 19, 7 p.m.; “A Story of Floating Weeds,” March 21, 2 p.m.; “Dragnet Girl,” March 26, 7 p.m.; “Walk Cheerfully,” March 28, 2 p.m.; “I Flunked, But … ,” April 2, 2 p.m.; “A Hen in the Wind,” April 4, 2 p.m.; “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice,” April 16, 7 p.m.; “Equinox Flower,” April 18, 2 p.m.; “The End of Summer,” April 23, 7 p.m.; “Floating Weeds” (a 1959 remake of his similarly titled silent film), April 25, 2 p.m.

The National Gallery: “Days of Youth,” today, 2:30 p.m.; “A Mother Should Be Loved,” today, 4:30 p.m.; “The Only Son,” tomorrow, 4:30 p.m.; “Where Are the Dreams of Youth?” March 13, 2:30 p.m.; “Tokyo Chorus,” March 13, 4:30 p.m.; “Early Spring,” March 14, 4:30 p.m.; “Passing Fancy,” March 20, 1 p.m.; “Early Summer,” March 21, 4:30 p.m.; “There Was a Father” and “The Record of a Tenement Gentleman,” March 27, 3 p.m.; “Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family,” March 28, 4:30 p.m.; “Tokyo Twilight,” April 4, 4 p.m.; “Late Autumn,” April 10, 2:30 p.m.

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