Obituary: Chishu Ryu
Saturday 20 March 1993
IN WIM WENDERS' documentary on Japan Tokyo-ga (1984) we see two people who had been closely associated with the great film director Yasujiro Ozu: his cameraman Yuhara Atsuta and his favourite actor, Chishu Ryu. They go to Ozu's grave in Kamakura. There is no name on the stone, only the character for mu, 'emptiness'. Ryu kneels and prays with folded hands, all dignity, humility and stillness, qualities he embodied on film and in real life. He was unique, inimitable.
Chishu Ryu was the second son of the priest of Raishoji Temple in a village of Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. His childhood and adolescence spent there certainly had a great influence on his character.
In 1924, he went to Tokyo, intending to study Indian philosophy at Toyo Daigaku. But, like many Japanese 'students', he rarely attended classes. In 1925, the Shochiku Movie Company held its first audition for young talent, and Ryu-san's classmates as a joke challenged him to go and take the test. He was not particularly good-looking, but to his astonishment he was accepted. Later, he was to say he impressed the selectors because he was wearing his university uniform.
At first, he played extras and bit parts, and he was a permanent member of what was called the obeya, or 'big room', where all the small fry of the movies waited for the big break. In 1928 he was noticed by Ozu, who saw promise in this awkward young man who seemed not very talented, and he was given a small part in the director's second movie, Wakaudo no yume ('A Young Man's Dream'). In 1929, he married a Shochiku script girl, and they lived together happily for the rest of his life, for he was unusual in the world of cinema in having no scandal attached to his name: he did not drink, did not gamble, had no hobbies, although he was good at judo at school.
In 1930, his name appeared for the first time in the film credits and on the posters for Ozu's Rakudai wa shitakeredo ('Though I Failed the Examination'). Then came one of Ozu's best early works, Umarete wa mita keredo ('I Was Born, But . . .', 1932), a very touching social comedy about two small boys who become disillusioned by their salesman father. Ozu made an updated version of this film as Ohayo ('Good Morning') in 1959, and this was practically the first film I saw on arriving in Sendai, to take up a post at the university. I at once fell under the spell of Ryu's unpretentious playing. Though he looked nondescript and colourless, he was obviously no ordinary man. From then on, I was his devoted fan. He seemed to me to be the very image of what a perfect Japanese gentleman should always be.
Ryu-san was chosen by Ozu to play older men, and in 1936, when he was only 32, he appeared as an old man in Hitori Musuko ('The Only Son') which was the first Ozu talkie. The coming of talkies to the movie studios of Japan had as traumatic an effect as it had in Hollywood. Ryu had the picturesque accent of his strong Kumamoto dialect, but it gradually became accepted as part of the unusual charm of his unassuming character. In 1949 he received the Mainichi Film Award for best actor, the first of many such prestigious acting awards.
There were no hidden secrets in Ryu's life: he was plain and clear as day, the perfect prism for refracting the subtle tones of Ozu's art. In his typically modest autobiography, Ryu- san disarmingly says he was not a natural actor, nor a good one, but for some strange reason Ozu detected possibilities in his unactorly acting, and brought out hidden qualities that made him a star. He was forever grateful for that, though the intensity of Ozu's direction often made him shake with nervousness.
It was in 1953 that Ozu made his greatest film, now a universally admired classic, Tokyo Monogatari ('Tokyo Story'). Ryu, 49, played an old man of 72 partnering as his wife the veteran actress Chieko Higashiyama, playing her actual age, 65. This wonderful film is about country parents visiting Tokyo children, and realising they are separated by more than years. The beautiful Setsuko Mara plays the widow of their son killed in the war, and shows them kindness somewhat lacking in their own children. They return to Onomichi, where the old lady dies. It is in this film that Ryu plays his typical Meiji period (1868- 1925) character to the best advantage. He tells us in his autobiography that Ozu kept telling him he was not 'acting old enough'. But he is convincing as a gentle, innocent old man, because all his art is based on reserve, silence, stillness: he makes a minimum of movements, and naturally adopts an old man's rounded back when sitting on the tatami (matted floor), so that the whole personality grows from within, and is not, as it were, plastered on the outside.
When his wife dies, the deep still centre of the actor's being comes into play: he does not weep, but sits silent. When another director wanted him to cry in a scene, Ryu refused, saying a Meiji-period man never weeps except at his mother's death. But the intensity of feeling flowing from his stillness and loneliness is overwhelming, heartbreaking.
For an actor who, according to Ozu, could not act, this is one of the great movie performances of all time. It is totally without those usual actorish faults of vanity and egotism, and such modesty allows his soul to shine forth in a way that made everyone love him. He tells us Ozu did not allow his actors to improvise and once told Ryu not to spoil his picture composition by moving; 'My frames are more important than your acting, so don't act]' But he was a benevolent tyrant. In 1962, Ozu made his last movie, Sanma no aji ('The Taste of Mackerel Pike').
Ozu died the next year, and with his death began the slow decline of the Japanese cinema. It was a terrible loss for Ryu, and for all who had worked with Ozu. In the Wenders documentary, we see his old cameraman, Yuharu Atsuta, famous for his floor-level shots with his favourite 50mm camera lens, struggling to control his tears as he says: 'Something has gone wrong with our lives . . .' Old Japan had died.
Ryu is best known in Japan for playing the part of a downtown Tokyo temple priest - something his early training well fitted him to perform - in the everlastingly popular series of sentimental comedies Otokowa Tsuraiyo ('Man's Life is Hard to Bear'), starring a great comic, Kyoshi Atsumi, as Tora-san. The part was a return to his beginnings for Chishu Ryu. There is no one to take up his place.
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