Everyone Comes to Ozu

“Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu.”

Roger Ebert loved saying that1. It’s wildly optimistic, of course, but wild optimism is required when championing a film or filmmaker, hoping that everyone will eventually see what you see, with the blissful enthusiasm you hold. And championing is what Ebert did best; he was famous for calling attention to small films he felt deserved a national spotlight, but he also made sure to point that light at older films he felt were slipping away.

Yasujiro Ozu

After all, one of Ebert’s strongest and most recurring themes in his essays is the lack of potential for discovery among modern film buffs. In his youth, he often wrote, there were campus film societies eager to program retrospectives celebrating the vintage, the foreign, the underground. The rise of video meant the demise of the film society and left young cineastes with no guiding force to introduce them to movies long forgotten or, worse, never remembered. Of course he knew it wasn’t a total wasteland; there were film festivals and museum programs and eventually the internet, where websites and blogs could act as a virtual film society, pointing the way.

But as any critic should, he took it upon himself to speak loudly and often about the movies he loved, especially when it looked like those movies were fading away. Such as Yasujiro Ozu, who never quite found fame in America in his lifetime; as Ebert described in this essay, very few of his films played Stateside. Since then, his stature rose, enough for Tokyo Story to land on Sight & Sound’s top ten polls, eventually topping the directors’ poll last year. Several other Ozu titles have found new audiences via Criterion Collection releases.

It was never enough, not to Roger. He felt Ozu wasn’t a name mentioned in modern film buff circles as often as, say, Kurosawa, and he set out to correct it. He name dropped Ozu regularly, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, as if to say, look, you really need to check this guy out already. And so he opened his Great Movies piece on Floating Weeds with the above quote – and notice how he phrased it. It’s not “everyone who loves movies should come to Ozu.” No, that would be too forceful, to pushy. Like homework. Instead he got sneaky: “everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu,” period. We’re all here, the sentence hints. You’ll catch up with the cool kids eventually.

And so, eventually, I did. Yesterday, in fact. After years of putting it off, I finally came to Ozu. More specifically, I came to his 1959 film Good Morning, skipping over Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds for the simple fact that Good Morning is what the library had in stock that day.

Ebert was right. Ozu is a marvel, his film a treasure. The genius of Good Morning is in its simplicity: there is room here for complication, but Ozu refuses the temptation, for that would interfere with the gentleness of its story and of its people. These are universal characters just living life. There is conflict, yes, but it is minor, and it is greeted by Ozu with a grin. When two young brothers embark on a protest against the grown-ups where they refuse to speak, not even in school, Ozu follows them with an eager eye but adds no melodramatic stakes. The same holds true for a subplot involving a housewives’ group and some missing money; there is gossip, and then discovery and apologies, and Ozu makes nothing of it, asking only that we enjoy this glimpse of people being themselves. There is also a love story buried in the corners of the film, but we don’t need more of it because we get precisely enough to make us smile.

It’s a minimalist approach to social satire that’s not really interested in bite or mockery. This is a great filmmaker finding gentle humor in the quiet moments real life. He also tosses in a running gag involving flatulence, because, hey, even the greats love a good fart joke.

So, yes, I came to Ozu, and now I will stay here.

1It feels weird to write about Ebert in the past tense.

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