Cinema and Media Studies Yasujiro Ozu
Daisuke Miyao
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0316


Yasujiro Ozu (b. 12 December 1903–d. 12 December 1963) was a Japanese film director. Growing up as a film fan in the modernizing city of Tokyo, Ozu made his directorial debut at Shochiku Company’s Kamata Studio in 1927 with a silent jidai geki (period drama) film, Sword of Penitence (Zange no yaiba). After that Ozu became specialized in gendai geki (contemporary drama) and initiated a genre shoshimin geki (lower-middle-class salarymen films) with such films as Tokyo Chorus (Tokyo no korasu, 1931) and I Was Born, But . . . (Otona no miru ehon: Umarete wa mita keredo, 1932). Many of his post–World War II films, including Late Spring (Banshun, 1949); Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953), the film that was voted the greatest film of all time in 2012 Sight and Sound Poll; and the last film An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, 1962), depicted everyday Japanese urban life, family matters (marriage, funeral, and dissolution), and relationships between generations. He directed fifty-three films by 1962. Ozu has been the object of critical attention by critics and scholars since the time when he was still working. In Japan, the status of Ozu as a foremost director of Japanese cinema was first established in the early 1930s. Early celebrations of Ozu emphasized his realism in faithfully depicting the reality of modern life in Japan. Critics regarded Ozu’s realism as a mode of social criticism. Later, especially after World War II, the primary focus of realism in Ozu criticism shifted to life’s vicissitudes and to a broader idea of humanism. This postwar critical tendency appeared to influence early scholarship on Ozu outside of Japan from the late 1950s the early 1970s, including the work by Donald Richie, which humanistically celebrated Ozu as an auteur. Then, it was Ozu’s unique film style, including the so-called pillow shots (spatially and temporally ambiguous shots that open scenes) and the use of 360-degree space that deviated from the narrational economy of Hollywood’s continuity editing, that made him a central figure during the period that saw the institutionalization of film studies in Euro-American academia in the late 1970s and 1980s. In the formation of the new academic discipline, emphasis was initially placed on formalism and Marxism. Thus, Ozu’s work served as a suitable example in demonstrating both the universal (“a humanist auteur”) and the particular (“a challenger to Hollywood”). Since then, a number of scholars and critics have studied the films of Ozu from various theoretical and historical standpoints.

Foundational Works

Early non-Japanese critics, journalists, and scholars tended to argue that Ozu was able to transparently represent Japanese national character, aesthetics, and cultural heritage. Influenced by auteurism imported from France, these early writers, in the end, regarded Ozu as a great auteur from a humanistic standpoint. This type of Ozu criticism initially influenced North American and European academic discourses on Ozu. Richie 1974 is the first book-length study on Ozu in English. In this book, Richie repeats the term “pictorial beauty” to describe the images in Ozu’s films and asserts that Ozu was close to the masters of sumie ink drawing, haiku, and waka. He also explains Ozu’s thematic motif by referring to a traditional aesthetic term “mono no aware,” by which Richie means transience of things, or pathos. Thus, Richie 1974 foregrounds the Japanese national characteristics in Ozu’s aesthetics. Similarly, while acknowledging various origins of Ozu’s aesthetic and incorporating cross-cultural, cross-medial comparative analysis, Schrader 1972 asserts that Ozu was an auteur whose personality and work were unmistakably influenced by Zen, “the quintessence of traditional Japanese art.” While Ozu’s films are culturally specific, as Schrader claims, they also achieved the “transcendental” style, a universal form that represented the transcendental or even religious experiences. For Schrader, ambivalently, that was possible also because of Zen. Thus, from a standpoint different from that of Richie, Schrader combines auteurism and national character studies in his reading of Ozu films. Being a prolific critic in Japan, Sato Tadao usually writes his own impressions on films with sociological and cultural claims. Sato 2003 (originally published in 1971) shares various perspectives with Richie. In the end both of them consider the filmmaker to be a great auteur from a humanistic standpoint.

  • Richie, Donald. Ozu: His Life and Films. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

    This is the first book-length monograph on Ozu’s films in English by an expert of Japanese culture and an experimental filmmaker. Richie’s work first established the status of Ozu as an auteur worth studying in English-speaking academia. This is a critical biography of Ozu with thematic discussions on his films, including “family.” While the book is structured around the script, shooting, and editing, Richie’s approach is not formalist but anecdotal, featuring various episodes. From a humanistic standpoint, Richie regards Ozu as a great auteur who represents Japanese national characteristics in his films.

  • Sato, Tadao. Ozu Yasujiro no geijutsu. Reprint. Tokyo: Asahi Shinbunsha, 2003.

    Originally published in 1971. While Richie was influenced by auteurism and Schrader had a cross-culturally comparative perspective, as a newspaper journalist who turned to a film critic, Sato explains his impressions on Ozu films with broader social and cultural claims in Japan. While often criticized for lacking close textual analysis, this book had limited circulation in translation and had some impact abroad as well. Translated as: “The Art of Ozu Yasujiro.”

  • Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

    Deeply indebted to his Calvinist background, Paul Schrader, who would become an acclaimed American director, analyzes the film styles of Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer in terms of what he called a transcendental style. It is a little problematic to juxtapose those three directors without substantial references to the historical contexts in which they directed their films. Yet, according to Schrader, the transcendental style foregrounded a spiritual state achieved by key stylistic features, including an austerity of means, a privileging of decisive narrative moments, a gap between setting and action, and an unusual use of stasis.

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