Sacred Cinema: A Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective
Feb 3-March 10 at the Northwest Film Forum.

In his book Something Like an Autobiography, Japan's most famous filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, tells of a run-in with a panel of film censors at Japan's Ministry of the Interior. The occasion was the director's first film, Sugata Sanshiro, which the wartime censors had decided was far too "British American" for the country's national pride. As they scolded Kurosawa, the hotheaded 33-year-old grew so angry that he abruptly bolted up from his seat, intending to clobber the members of the panel with his chair. Before he could doom his career, however, a fellow director--one of three on the panel in favor of artistic freedom--quickly spoke up. "If 100 points is a perfect score," the director announced, "then Sugata Sanshiro gets 120!"

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) was that fellow director, and if you've never heard his name before it's because his films, unlike Kurosawa's, have struggled to reach our shores. Ozu made his first film in 1926, but it wasn't until 1972 that the two-decade-old Tokyo Story, the film most often pegged as his masterpiece, received distribution in America (even now, very few of his films are available on video or DVD). Such an oversight is a sin on par with watching Godard while ignoring Truffaut, yet it's only just now, 30 years later, that the problem is finally being corrected with a proper retrospective. Titled Sacred Cinema, the film exhibition arrives at the Northwest Film Forum on Thursday, where it will stay for more than a month--a true blessing for our city.

Ozu made more than 50 films in a career that stretched from silents to color. Thirty-four of those films will be shown during this retrospective (the silent works, which alone deserve their own article, will be screened with original scores Northwest Film Forum commissioned from local musicians), beginning with 1929's Days of Youth and ending with 1962's An Autumn Afternoon. The former is a silent comedy; the latter a family drama--both films adhere to Ozu's specific style, a style that can seem overly simple, even lazy, at first glance, but one that reveals itself to be surprisingly intricate the more that you watch it. Ozu rarely moved his camera (especially later in his career), choosing instead to keep it static and close to the floor; his characters often look directly into the lens, causing each conversation to feel extremely intimate, as if the audience is itself involved. It is a clean, trouble-free vision, void of flair but so perfectly realized that its apparent simplicity can obscure just how beautiful the images really are.

This simplicity extended to the stories Ozu chose to tell, stories that often revolved around families. In The Only Son (1936), his first talkie, a mother treks from her village to Tokyo to visit her son, only to find that he's married and had a child without her knowledge. In Tokyo Story (1953), a couple makes a similar journey, but they find that their children have very little time for the bother of their visit. Both stories find the younger generation dismaying the older, but like the surprising intricacy of Ozu's aesthetic, the rift is not cut and dried. Gaps between generations (and the guilt and resentment that often lie therein) are always fertile ground for storytellers, and for Ozu such gaps could expand beyond the scale of the family to that of the nation as a whole. His final film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), is an example: In telling the story of a widowed father (Chishu Ryu, an Ozu regular) who, at the urging of his friends, encourages his unwilling daughter to marry, the strain between pre- and post-war Japan is played out quietly in homes and bars, culminating in a heartbreaking final scene that finds the father drunkenly singing war songs by himself in the kitchen, perhaps mourning both a forgotten Japan and the loss of his daughter.

It's moments like these--quiet and plain, but always startlingly honest--that give Ozu's films their lasting reach. Few directors deserve an exhaustive retrospective like Sacred Cinema; Ozu doesn't just deserve it, he demands it. And it's not only because he's great, but because we've never really been given the chance to see that greatness before. Like most everyone, I've only been able to see a handful of Ozu's works up until now. Thankfully, I have an entire month in which to catch up.