Friday, January 25, 2008

Screen Test

The other night, I was asked whether I prefer Ozu or Kurosawa. I'm a big fan of both directors. I've been a Kurosawa fan for over twenty years, since being amazed by "Ran" on the big screen. Not longafter, I saw "Throne of Blood" in one of my film classes. Just prior to coming to Japan, I watched nearly every one of his films over a couple months. Ozu I came to later. I remember being bored by "Tokyo Monogatari" a year or two into my stay here. I've since changed my position. This past year, I've seen all of his post-war films, and have come to love his slow and steady pace. His films have become a Sunday night tradition, pleasant as a warm bath.

So coming back to the original question. How to answer? I've begun to watch Kurosawa again this winter, and aside from "Seven Samurai," which may be my favorite film of all time, I find his stories to be a little over the top sometimes. I don't love him any less; just that I find his hyperbole tiring. Like spending time with a talkative friend, enjoyable yet.... Last weekend I watched "Dodeskaden' again, a film I didn't enjoy very much 15 years ago. I think less of it today. Granted, I'm watching these old films with 2008 eyes, eyes that are subject to change. But lately, my criteria for disliking a film is based on there being more drama than characterization. I found "Dodeskden" to fail miserably here. Supposedly a character study, the stories are overwrought. It's a film of all peaks and no valleys. Then it hit me. It had no "ma." This simple concept (or lack of concept) is what makes a work of art Japanese. Ozu's films are "filled" with ma. Aside from his half dozen or so best films, Kurosawa's works lack it somewhat. Which is bizarre because to most, his films represent Japanese cinema worldwide.

On the turntable: The Waterboys, "The Best..."

On the reel table: "Room 666" (Wenders, 1982)

1 comment:

PM said...

Interesting, this issue of Ozu vs. Kurosawa came up earlier this year when I stated that last year I discovered Ozu in my round up of films watched in 2009. I finally saw Tokyo Story and got Criterion’s Eclipse Late Ozu Box Set (Early Spring / Tokyo Twilight / Equinox Flower / Late Autumn / The End of Summer). A friend of mine who has moved from Japan said that living outside of Japan he appreciated the subtleties of Ozu and his representation of Japanese society and culture. And I can understand that and I do appreciate his films, but I have a couple of issues with his films:

1) Reliance on “kata” (specific forms). In Japanese culture it seems that many arts are based on variations of a single form: temples that vary in slight details, the endless variations of ramen, traditional dances that are essentially the same in form, etc. Ozu’s films are all variations on the same theme of the family. So if we were to apply Isaiah Berlin’s concept of the hedgehog and the fox. Ozu is the hedgehog that knows one great things and Kurosawa is the fox who knows many. I appreciate that Kurosawa has made film noir, period dramas, contemporary films, as well as adaptations of western and Japanese classics. I will concede to your point of his sometimes being overly dramatic and perhaps overly simplistic in his humanism. After watching all those Ozu films is was sometimes difficult to differentiate between them and I noticed in some films that the used the same sets-which comes across as bit lazy to me since they are supposed to be connected plot wise in any fashion. This is not to say that his analysis of the breakdown of traditional family values isn’t important or worthwhile is beside the point. I just prefer the dynamism of Kurosawa.

2) In some ways I resent his “official” view of Japan, because I don’t think it gives a true picture of Japanese society His milieu is extremely limited to middle class households with long suffering wives and dutiful daughters. This doesn’t ring true to me, nor did it ring true to Shohei Imamura who worked for Ozu (most notably on his classic Tokyo Story) and his career is a case study in the “unofficial” version of Japanese history since postwar Japan. Not all of Kurosawa’s characters are virtuous doctors or crusading cops or selfless samurai. Kurosawa features gangsters, pimps, whores, and drug dealers in some of his films not to mention attacks on the media, yakuza, the government, the military, and other negative institutions that exist in Japanese society. I am drawn to moral vision.

I think both directors have a distinct place in the pantheon of great Japanese directors. But it may say more about the viewer’s sensibilities than anything. I have some viewing projects that I haven’t gotten around to and one of them is Ozu’s Late Spring, which might create a different effects since I will be watching it almost a year removed from when I saw many Ozu films within a fairly short period of time. I might appreciate it more or find more to latch on this time around.