Underrated: Art from the rising sun: The case for Yasujiro Ozu

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The Independent Culture
Rated by the critics, hated by the public': as facile, eight-word slogans go, that is not such a wildly misleading pocket history of 20th-century art. In one sense, then, there is nothing even mildly remarkable about the reputation of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) and his films. On the one hand, we have a small set of intellectuals who believe that he attained the loftiest peaks of cinematic art. On the other, a general public which has barely so much as heard of him.

And yet there are some curious aspects to the underrating of Ozu. Most of the modern artists who fail to reach beyond a coterie are 'difficult' - either dismayingly complex, or difficult in the way a child is: stubborn, messy, selfish. Ozu is none of these things. His films are calm, lucid, self-effacing, almost perplexingly simple. Moreover, their subject-matter is the stuff of which soap operas are made. They are about family arguments, marriages, working life, meals, nosy neighbours and money troubles. Part of the problem with Ozu, then, is that far from being too exotic for the West, he is actually too normal for the cinema-goers who relish Kurosawa's samurai or Oshima's luridly-doomed lovers.

A still stranger aspect of the Ozu case is that those who admire him can't seem to arrive at a consensus about what makes his work so exceptional. Some insist that he is so profoundly Japanese a director that his work is incomprehensible to the West, while others maintain that it is his peculiar genius to have made the domestic concerns of his country's lower middle class into dramas as universally affecting as those of Chekhov.

Humanist critics have concentrated on the 'truth' of the performances given by his repertory company of actors, while the religiously-minded have found Zen mysticism in his work. All parties can agree on the distinctive nature of Ozu's style. He hardly ever moves his camera; he relies on just one lens; he shoots from a low angle, about three feet from the ground, the height of a spectator seated on a tatami; he eschews the familiar syntax of editing.

It was a style he arrived at over a long career - 54 films in 35 years - of pruning and refining, and it is the very opposite of the violent, coercive style that television has taught us to regard as normal. (A character in his comedy Good Morning fears that the arrival of television will turn Japan into a nation of 'a hundred million idiots'.) And this is the main reason why Ozu's films are underrated by the public. To appreciate their brilliance, we have to learn a new language: not Japanese, but the language spoken by the cinema when it renounces gimmicks and rhetoric.

A season of films by Ozu begins at the Renoir Cinema, London, on Friday

(Photograph omitted)