PEOPLE TALKING in rooms is generally a recipe for the dullest kind of cinema, yet that's the basic formulation for Yasujiro Ozu (1903–1963), whose career is being showcased with 27 titles between Friday, Feb. 4, and Thursday, March 10, at the Northwest Film Forum. How did the prolific director wring so much drama out of the same essential situation? A typical Ozu scene—indeed movie—consists of two generations of a family kneeling on tatami mats, sipping tea, ignoring their food, waiting in strained silence after someone rashly dared to speak. The dynamic here is one of people not talking in rooms, and the action often consists in how and where they sit or kneel—next to whom, favoring which relative by pouring sake or fetching rice, pointedly ignoring someone or something they don't wish to discuss.
In the films of Ozu, absence is more powerful than presence, silence counts more than words, and the consolation of being with one's family members is always haunted by the knowledge of their future demise. Negation and loss are the plot drivers in his minimalist stories. There are more funerals than weddings. Rather than featuring heroes who overcome obstacles or beat the odds to succeed, Ozu often turns his camera toward those who are failed, disappointed, and left behind. In Western cinema, they might be called society's losers. In fact, they're most representative of normal human life: dependent on one's parents for a while, teetering on one's own, then totally unprepared for when they die.
Among the first week's five titles, 1953's Tokyo Story is perhaps Ozu's best-known work. (Much of his cinema actually came to Western notice after his death.) It's also typically mournful and intent on the passing of generations. An older (but not elderly) mother and father visit Tokyo from their distant rural home. Their youngest daughter remains behind, while they visit one married son (a doctor) and a married daughter (a beauty-shop proprietor). The widow of another son, Noriko (wonderful Setsuko Hara, Ozu's favorite actress), also helps look after the couple during their stay. Their grandkids have no interest in the visitors, and their kids are too busy with their busy lives to be good hosts; their idea of a favor is to send their parents to a noisy, rowdy spa—anything to get the old folks out of their hair.
"I'm surprised how children change," marvels the father. "We should consider ourselves lucky," his wife replies. Amid the hardships of Japan's fast-rebuilding postwar economy, at least their ungrateful offspring have jobs, spouses, and roofs overhead. Neither is surprised by their kids' busy indifference. In Ozu's world, this is the price for seeing one's children get ahead: being left behind.
Yet not all among the harried younger generation are so hard-hearted toward their elders. The youngest daughter lashes out at her siblings, then confesses to Noriko, "Isn't life disappointing?" The response is sad, not bitter: "Yes, it is." She, like her in-laws, is content with what basic human decency can be summoned—or salvaged—out of the relentless new urban order. Ozu periodically frames smokestacks and electrical wires looming overhead: This is progress, he says, and no amount of pining can turn it back.
ALSO IN THE FIRST week is Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947), about an old widow who takes in an orphan boy. There's more than a trace of De Sica and neorealism here; Ozu may not show bomb craters and rubble in the street, but the war still echoes through privation and pathos. Nobody in Tané's tenement wants to help her feed the urchin, nor let the chronic bed-wetter sleep inside. She drags him to his village by the beach to look for his father, then says, "Get me some shells," and ditches the kid! He catches up to her, of course, and the two eventually bond. Love is a luxury she can scarcely afford, and there's the implication that the boy's father simply abandoned him. "Times have changed," marvels Tané at the new spirit of every man for himself, but that same impulse is necessary for some to survive.
In Record, Tané is fast becoming a figure of the past, just like those slowly, politely disappearing parents in Tokyo Story. Each generation has to get out of the way of the next. It's a bit of a shock, in our own youth-besotted culture, to see acceptance of this organic fact instead of denial. Everybody has to leave sometime. As Ozu said of his work, "The end of a film is its beginning." So, too, in the cycle of life.
Not previewed but certainly of note, Ozu's 1932 silent comedy of childhood, I Was Born, But . . . , will be screened twice this week: first with a live musical score on Thursday, then with actors reading the subtitles—in English, presumably—on Saturday.
For series schedule, ticket information, and other details: 206-267-5380 and www.nwfilmforum.org.