Action Cut: Screenplay Analysis of Yasujirō Ozu’s Equinox Flower (Higanbana)

Remarks on the Screenplay and the Aesthetics of Montage in a Transcultural Comparison

Andreas Becker


The text analyzes Yasujirō Ozu remarks in the original screenplay of Equinox Flower (Higanbana) and asks the question if Ozu used the special cutting technique intentionally. After a discussion of Edward Dmytryks theory of montage and the term ‘action cut’, the screenplay of Equinox Flower and a close reading of a scene the article comes to the conclusion that Ozu must have been well aware of his uncommon cutting style. This could be shown clearly by comparing his “a-c” remarks with the film.

Key words: Yasujirō Ozu, Screenplay, Equinox Flower


Forms of editing

In his book On Film Editing the director and cutter Edward Dmytryk distinguishes two forms of the montage: the ‘Hollywood’ montage and the ‘European’ montage. The former is based on a transition, which is often unnoticed and tells the story using indirect indications. The latter is characterized by “straight cuts“ (Dmytryk 1983: 135) and uses contrasts, which Dmytryk illustrates using Sergei Eisenstein’s famous staircase scene in Odessa in Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) (Dmytryk 1983: 135). I want to show the example of Yasujirō Ozu’s Equinox Flower (Higanbana, 1958b), where the Japanese director chooses a third type of [148] montage that combines the Hollywood and European styles. Ozus montage is transcultural in a way that he combines the two styles. He merges them. The main characteristic of his ‘Japanese style‘ is then a kind of hybridization which knows the contexts well but does not stick on them. Ozu tells his stories using a kind of montage, which is indeed inspired by the Hollywood aesthetics with its ‘invisible’ cuts, but breaks (western) conventions of montage by also showing uncommon contrasts. Regarding his space and dialogue presentation (the ‘shot-reverse shot’), this has been described previously by David Bordwell (1988), Kristin Thompson (1988), Edward Branigan (1976) and others who performed a structural analysis of the films. But it remains unclear whether Ozu used his technique of montage with an awareness of the existing contexts or if he just followed cultural habits of reception.

Herein, I will discuss these uncertainties using a close reading of the original working screenplay of Equinox Flower (Ozu 1958a) using at least one example: the action cuts, the cutting into the movement.

Reviewing the original Equinox Flower screenplay with Ozu’s remarks

The Equinox Flower screenplay was published by Kazuo Inoue in Ozu’s Collected Works in Japanese, but unfortunately without the remarks and abbreviations I want to discuss here (Ozu 2003: 305-340). In autumn 2014, I had the opportunity to sift through the original screenplay at the Kawakita- Foundation Tōkyō (Ozu 1958a) (Fig. 1). 1

As in most of his works, Ozu co-wrote the screenplay with Kōgo Noda; it is based on the novel with the same name by the Japanese writer Ton Satomi (Satomi 2003: 166-223). The screenplay is mainly a printed dialogue text with necessary additional information briefly provided. It is interesting that Ozu inserted many remarks regarding the shooting, and that he even [149]

Ill. 1

Ill. 1. The front page of Ozu’s screenplay Equinox Flower
(Printed with friendly permission of the Kawakita-Foundation).

supplemented and changed the dialogue in same parts. However, he primarily used a handwritten symbol and sign system throughout the whole screenplay, and provided notes on the way the screenplay would be put into a filmic and acting practice. Ozu uses this system in other screenplays so we can take a further examination on that topic. In addition, the questions should be raised if Ozu followed a Shōchiku standardized studio-technique, or if he used special notes for his own films. I provide my interpretation only after a close reading of the film Equinox Flower (Ozu 1958b).

As is usual in Japanese books, Ozu’s storyboard scrolls from right to left, and the script flows counterclockwise. Ozu’s remarks are written with a pencil or crayon, and are mostly placed in special text passages. What is first noticed is a broad red line, which runs continuously across the top margin. There are also some small graphic sketches and other references written by hand in the screenplay.

Numerous colored symbols and boxes are used to comment on the text. Furthermore, there are numbers enclosed in circles written in pencil in the upper margins. These are at the starting point of every scene, and are ticked [150] off with colored pencil. Perhaps these are attributions to the scenes, but this hypothesis must been proved; Ozu did not explain this symbol and sign system. Other preserved screenplays, storyboards, notices and diaries could clarify some of these notations (Ozu 1993), but a phenomenological analysis and the correlations with the film was the procedure I chose. The film as a phenomenon (as it appears) is our reference then.2

Even at first sight, the character abbreviations ‘a-c’ attract attention. They alternate between uppercase and lowercase letters, and sometimes are within round or angle brackets. Thus, one sees the variations ‘A-C’, ‘(A-C)’, ‘(a-c)’, or ‘<a-c>’ in the manuscript. Altogether, there are nearly 100 such notations (exactly spoken 96), 74 of which being ‘a-c’ notations. Therefore, I concentrate on that the latter notations.

An important remark was noticed in the Akibiyori screenplay (Late Autumn, 1960; Ozu 1960a). In this screenplay, two pages contain notes that were probably by hand with a fountain pen: “action cut” and “<action cut>“ (Ozu 1960a: d-4 and e-14). I used these clues to apply the 89 ‘a-c’ remarks including variations) written in the screenplay to the filmic material of Equinox Flower in an attempt to solve the mystery of the cipher. In all cases, I noticed that there was a montage, and all were easily and precisely identified. Ozu also cuts in other cases not marked with a-c in the screenplay, but the marked cases are obviously important moments for Ozu. Indeed, we see that the indicated montages are usually more complex and, in terms of content, more important than the unmarked montages. Sometimes, they do not seem so important; in these cases, the ‘a-c’ marks are perhaps practical notes for shooting because the director or the editor has to look more closely at the cutting and the connection of the movements.

About the practice of the action cut

Let us return to Dmytryk’s text, where he establishes different rules of montage. The first rule is that one should not cut without an intention: “Never [151] make a cut without a positive reason“ (Dmytryk 1984: 23, cursive printing in the original). According to the second rule, one should prefer cutting longer passages over shorter ones: “When undecided about the exact frame to cut on, cut long rather than short“. (Dmytryk 1984: 23, cursive printing in the original). The third rule is of greatest importance, because it is found in Ozu’s films so easily: One should cut into the movement, which means that the two parts of the fragments should both contain a movement: “The cutter should look for some movement of the actor who holds the viewer’s attention and use that movement to trigger the cut from one scene to the next. A broad action will offer the easier cut, but even a slight movement of some part of the player’s body can serve to initiate a cut which will be ‘smooth’ or invisible (Dmytryk 1984: 27). The viewer’s attention can only focus on one of the superimposed movements, either the intradiegetic of the protagonist or the extradiegetic of the cut. Usually, we would concentrate on the movement of the actor. Therefore, the montage uses its transition to establish a second, subliminal layer, which usually is in itself unperceived, even if it is the premise of the filmic reception. The viewer is misdirected, as in a magic trick, and is distracted by the body movements of the actor. Even if one knows that a cut has occurred, and even for the trained eye, it is hard to be attentive to the ‘unseen montage’ of the action cut. The protagonist is seen as an entity, but phenomenologically speaking, this impression consists of and is seen through a synthesis of kaleidoscope-like filmic perspectives, from which the virtual center is the body of the protagonist–or the portrayed room.

The continuous narration can only emerge if the Hollywood cutter has a micro timing. The cut must be adjusted very precisely; only then the subterfuge takes place: “Three frames too much or too little on one side or the other can effectively spoil the match” (Dmytryk 1984: 24).

This is surely a mostly transcultural signature of human perception that such a movement, which shifts between the montage, is unnoticed and that the scene seems to be moving fluidly. The difference between the aesthetic and narrative allocation of such montages differs greatly between cultures, and vary tremendously even from director to director. Mostly, this technique is used to show movement in space. I want to show through one scene of Equinox Flower how Ozu proceeds and where his style differs from Hollywood cutting. [152]

The cutter in Equinox Flower was Yoshiyasu Hamamura, who did the montages for 13 of Ozu’s films, beginning with Todake no kyōdai (The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, 1941), and for the late classics, including Tōkyō monogatari (Tōkyō story, 1953), Ohayōu (Good Morning, 1 959), Sanma no aji (An autumn afternoon, 1962), and Akibiyori (Late Autumn, 1960). However, Ozu obviously had such concrete ideas of how important the montages in some scenes were that he marked those sections of the screenplays.

Action cuts and ‘silent cuts’. Ozu ’s Equinox Flower notes: scene analysis

Dmytryk’s examples can be concretely traced in Equinox Flower, and one can show how Ozu’s work differs from the Hollywood system: “In a full shot, a player enters an office, approaches a desk, and sits down in the desk chair. The full shot has established the scene’s setting, and it is now necessary to zero in on the character as he proceeds about his business, so a close shot of him at the desk is in order” (Dmytryk 1984: 27).

Dmytryk described such a grounded, fundamental and (in Western filmic practice) self-evident convention that it seems unnecessary to waste words describing it. But it is interesting that Dmytryk tries to bridge the discontinuity of the cut with the movement of the actor, and that he thinks this is absolutely necessary. While sitting down, which is a fraction of a second; the temporal gap, is the most privileged moment for the cut: “[...] the cut would probably be made at just about the point where the seat of the chair and that of the player are about to collide” (Dmytryk 1984: 28).

Therefore the movement, enduring through the cut frames, seems to be homogeneous and links the images as a kind of red thread: “The important consideration here is that there be just enough movement to catch the viewer’s attention“ (Dmytryk 1984: 29).

How does Ozu work? Let us look at one scene of Equinox Flower (Ill. 2). It is set in Wataru Hirayama’s (played by Shin Saburi) office. His classmate Shukichi Mikami (Chishū Ryū) visits him and asks him for a favor. He is ashamed, one sees it even in the way he walks, of the behavior of his daughter Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga). She works in a bar, and this is why [153]

Ill. 2

Ill. 2. Montage in Ozu’s Equinox Flower.
Wataru Hirayama (Shin Saburi) and Shukichi Mikami (Chishū Ryū).

Mikami does not join the wedding of the daughter of his other classmate Toshihiko Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura). The conversation is superficial because Hirayama already knows the circumstances. So the whole dialogue is more gesture-like than content based. Noteworthy is the montage where Mikami waits before the door as he enters the office and talks with Hirayama; they are visually separated by cuts. The conversation partners are not shown even in one shot together. Only the edge of Hirayama’s desk, a motionless object, connects both because it is overlapped in the two shots. Even when Hirayama stands up, is in movement, the following cut does not show him. We see only Mikami, standing solitary in the doorstep. Here the two shots are optically stringed together, but the movement, as an interconnecting element that guarantees continuous narration, is being omitted. Then, a short dialogue follows (Ozu 1958a:14; Ozu 1958b, 16’ minute). Let us have a look at the screenplay (ill. 3): [154]

Ill. 3

Ill. 3. The passage from Ozu’s screenplay Equinox Flower and his remarks
(printed with friendly permission of the Kawakita-Foundation).

The Japanese in transcription (page 14, scene 17):

Hirayama: “dōshitandai”
Mikami: “--- choitodetakunakattanda.” Hirayama no a-c
Hirayama: “dōshite? dōkashitanokai”

Translated into English:
Hirayama: “What’s going on?”
Mikami: “... I likely will not want to go out” Hirayama’s a-c
Hirayama: “Why? What’s going on?”

The cut analyzed above is not commented on in Ozu’s screenplay, but now, as Hirayama sits on the armchair together with Mikami, Ozu notes: “Hirayama no a-c”. Let us read this abbreviation as Hirayama no action cut, which can be translated as: Hirayama’s action cut.

What is so special that Ozu makes such a remark? Let us just look at the montage-ensemble. Again Ozu breaks Dmytryk’s rule. Hirayama talks and sits down in a long shot. It is shown how he sits a moment and just after that he looks into the camera, which means the dialogue is intradiegetically spoken to [155] Mikami. One could reckon that, by such a connecting cut, one does not need to make a preparation because the body movement from one take to the other is in fact not undertaken. Ozu’s film pauses a little, and even the dialogue just begins with the frontal cut on Hirayama. Why does Ozu remark that there must be an action cut? Nothing moves.

I think we can answer this question only when we assume that Ozu understands even waiting, pausing as an action. That is why he treats even the quiet moments in ways that, in the following cut, everything is attuned: gesture, facial expression, posture and even the order of the objects. The center of Ozu’s attention is not the movement in the sense of moving forward, but the quietness, that even in exterior space nothing must happen between shot and shot–and that this nothing knows valence: the inward movement, the imagination. Thus, he uses a ‘silent cut’, which he adopted from Hollywood cinema for action, and adapts it to the silence. Silence knows many varieties, and to picture that is as difficult as adopting a Hollywood action-cut to the movement in the scene that was analyzed above. One needs to think of the metaphysics of nothingness, emptiness, renunciation. We are irritated because in the Hollywood system there is no rest without a reason. Ozu’s film is made of such an unspoken, silent space. But we must shift our attitude to be receptive enough to follow his narration. Even in the micro-narration of the montage, a shifting of the premises is taking place. And Ozu marks it even with action cut (‘a-c’), but that means a cultural adaption without the premise from Hollywood cinema. Transculturality in this regard is a way of overlaying contexts and a kind of hybridization of filmic conventions with other cultural traditions. Seen from the point of the filmic spectator it is a process of resonance in perception. Ozu is making something new out of something old by restructuring it in a creative and open-minded way, a reminiscence to Hollywood without repeating it. Ozu brings the rules of narration which we mostly have taken for granted in a process of resonance. He explores the filmic history and refreshes it by crossing the (narrative) borders.

Biographical Note

Andreas Becker is Assist. Prof. at the Keiō-University/Faculty of Letters, Tōkyō. He has studied New German Literature and Media Sciences, [156] Philosophy, Political Science and Psychology at the Philipps-University Marburg (1993-1998). His dissertation thesis is about time-lapse and slow motion-movies (1999-2003). He worked as a post-doc and research fellow at the Institute for Theatre-, Film- and Media Studies at the Goethe- University Frankfurt/Main (2004-2014). From 2014 to 2016 he managed the DFG-project Yasujirō Ozu and the Western film – a Comparative Analysis (Temporary Positions for Principal Investigators, »Eigene Stelle«). Since 2016 he teaches as Assist. Prof. at the Keiō-University/Faculty of Letters, Tōkyō. Private homepage:, project homepage: www., e-mail: becker.andreas[at]


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Ozu, Yasujirō (1958b): Higanbana, Equinox Flower, Yasujirō Ozu 1957-1962 DVD-Box meisaku serekushon II, Shōchiku.
— (1958c): Higanbana (Equinox Flower), Criterion Collection (2007).
— (1960b): Akibiyori, (Late Autumn), Yasujirō Ozu 1957-1962 DVD-Box meisaku serekushon II, Shōchiku.
— (1960c): Akibiyori (Late Autumn), Criterion Collection (2007).

(This is a shortened version of chapter 5 of Becker 2020b: 124-177, with friendly permission of the publisher transcript)

1 Thanks to the Kawakita-Foundation, especially Yukiko Wachi, Akiko Ozu, Shōchiku, especially Kiwamu Satō and Hiromi Fujī, for the opportunity to investigate and publish parts of the screenplays and other materials. Also thanks to Kentarō Kawashima, Chisa Tanimoto for helping with some Kanji-readings and Simon Frisch for the productive discussions.
2 For a reading of Edmund Husserls phenomenological picture theory as a film theory, the importance of comparative aesthetics and the term ‘cultural world’ (‘Kulturwelt’) see Becker (2020b: 11-33), for a summary in English and Japanese see also Becker (2020b: 334-339).

(Published in: Marcos P. Centeno-Martin and Norimasa Morita. 2020. Japan beyond Its Borders: Transnational Approaches to Film and Media. Chiba: Seibunsha, ISBN: 4-901404-32-6: 147-157. Thanks to the editors!)

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