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Summary of Yasujirō Ozu, die japanische Kulturwelt und der westliche Film. Resonanzen, Prämissen, Interdependenzen by Andreas Becker, Bielefeld: transcript 2020. ISBN: 978-3-8376-4372-5 [Link transcript-Verlag]
Yasujirō Ozu, the Japanese Cultural World, and the Western FilmThe study localizes the oeuvre of Yasujirō Ozu (1903-1963) in the Japanese cultural world and in the global world of films. It focuses on the interdependencies, resonances, and phenomena of cultural and pictoral translation. By way of example, cultural globalization is described and analyzed with reference to comparative aesthetics and Husserlian phenomenology. Ozu’s working screenplays, drafts, and notes are included in the analysis and discussed in detail in the context of his films.
Chapter 1, Preliminary Considerations, elaborates the theoretical framework of the study, with Edmund Husserl’s term »world,« in its various shades, serving as a guide. In discussion of the term »cultural world« (Kulturwelt), the usually broad term »culture « is refined. As shown by Rolf Elberfeld’s work on comparative aesthetics, there are various valances of the concept »world.« Husserl distinguishes between »cultural world« (Kulturwelt), »environment world« (Umwelt), »foreign world« (Fremdwelt), and »home world« (Heimwelt), and also between »near world« (Nahwelt) and »distant world« (Fernwelt). These terms are founded in the »life world« (Lebenswelt). These concepts can be distinguished from one another by the way they deal with indeterminacy (Unbestimmtheit), in which Husserl’s concept of »places of interdeterminacy« (Unbestimmtheitsstelle) is of importance. That a culture seems to be foreign is due to its being experienced with a deficit of expectations and an incongruity of perceptual horizons (Wahrnehmungshorizonte); viewing it as »foreign« is a process of resonance with another, reciprocal view. The term »media world« (mediale Welt) is introduced as well, meaning the world as represented in visual media such as film and distributed globally. Through the media world, one can indirectly experience other cultural worlds and create an experience of foreignness. This study refers repeatedly to these worlds and exemplifies them using the example of Ozu’s films. The film, a Western import, links cultural worlds and produces specific global resonance effects of intercultural perception.
Chapter 2, Sources, provides an overview of the research literature and the source material on Ozu. As this study is a re-reading of Ozu’s films illuminated by his handwritten addendums, drafts, and comments, the sources used are listed here along with a discussion of the current state of research.
Chapter 3, Shakkei: Ozu and the Borrowed Space, is the first analytic chapter of this study. It shows in detail how Ozu transfers the term shakkei (transl. borrowed scenery) to the aesthetics of the film. This goes hand-in-hand with an emphasis on the field of the senses, but above all it offers a unique approach to handling the relationship of foreground and background and a different way of framing pictures. A comparison between Ji Cheng’s Yuanye (1635) and Christian Cay Lorenz Hirschfeld’s early romantic concept in his Theory of Garden Art (Theorie der Gartenkunst) (1779-1785) first explains how Hirschfeld’s theory of landscape gardening differs fundamentally from Ji Cheng’s. In Ji Cheng’s concept, the garden evokes forms of conscience and perception, while in Hirschfeld’s there is an illusion of a seamless harmony of garden and nature in the foreground. The underlying concept of space differs: there it is enforced by cuts and hard changes, while here it is illusionistic, based on a concept of the subject. By analyzing the garden of the Engakuji temple in Kita-Kamakura, which serves as the backdrop for some of Ozu’s films and is where his burial urn rests, the example of the priest’s hermitage is used to illustrate how shakkei is concretely realized. The chapter then discusses how the shakkei concept shapes Ozu’s film aesthetics. Ozu documents shakkei scenes that he finds in the Japanese environment (e.g., in temples), and then transfers them aesthetically to film (e.g., to rooms or the city) by means of equalizing foreground and background. Taking the films Late Spring (Banshun, 1949), Walk Cheerfully (Hogaraka ni ayume, 1930), There Was a Father (Chichi ariki, 1942), and Early Summer (Bakushū, 1951) as examples, I show how Ozu ›lures‹ the landscape over the architecture and its shōji sliding panels in depicting Buddhist sites. Thus viewed, central scenes of these films, such as the temple scene in Late Spring and the famous scene of the vase in the evening light in Kyoto, are re-interpreted. At the end of the chapter I show how shakkei serves as a way to activate the imagination and discover the character of an image, turning a landscape into a picture.
Chapter 4, Semiotic Spaces: Ozu’s Signs, undertakes a digression into linguistics and explores the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese writing system in comparison with the Western alphabet. Properties of Japanese writing such as its ideographic character, the segregation of writing and oral culture, the reference to Chinese culture, the composition of kanji characters from radicals, and calligraphy are described. Another section is devoted to the peculiarities of Japanese grammar, which knows sentences without a subject and which could be written with less effort using two existing syllabaries. Following this, Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, 1962) is focused upon. In one famous scene, the teacher Sakuma traces the character for sea eel (hamo, 鱧) in the air. The fine distinctions made possible by kanji characters are discussed here in detail. Another feature of Ozu’s films is described as well: their handling of signs and advertising in public spaces.
Chapter 5, Action-Cut: Screenplay Analysis of Equinox Flower (Higanbana), undertakes a detailed analysis of Ozu’s working screenplay of Equinox Flower, attempting to describe Ozu’s »a-c« marks in their variations. As shown by Ozu’s notes, including a detailed list of nearly one hundred »a-c« marks and their allocation to different film scenes, the marks are instructions for cutting, an abbreviation of »Action-Cut.« Ozu’s different way of using this technique is worked out with reference to montage theory. Even though this is a recognized area of Ozu research following the publications of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, it has so far gone unnoticed that Ozu is well aware of the fact that his way of using montage, of cutting the action, is different from that of Western filmmakers. Ozu makes cuts mid-gesture, mostly of seated people, changing the spin of the space with a clear awareness of the »otherness« of his style. Such cuts are quite different from those then customary in Hollywood films. While Hollywood cutting was used to make the movements of protagonists more dynamic, Ozu cuts into the gestures of people at rest, sitting. He takes the smallest movements, even hand movements, as an opportunity to cut. These distracting effects are intentional, as can be shown by his comments in the screenplays. Following this discussion, the chapter sketches a small montage theory of Ozu’s films. A reading of his essay Eiga no bunpō (The Grammar of Film, 1947) shows how extensively Ozu ref lects on and analyzes his own aesthetics. Ozu uses montage in a very progressive way, and anticipates, for example in Equinox Flower – though of course by more ordinary means – Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo zoom.
Chapter 6, Spiritual Space: Thoughts, Memories, and Trance, follows the esoteric Ozu who in a very subtle way represents spirits and the dead, and for whom presence is more than physical presence. In the beginning of Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960) we encounter the chabashira, an upright-f loating tea stalk, which is understood as an omen. The dead, and signs and omens of death, appear with increasing frequency in the dramaturgy of the late Ozu. In his late films Ozu not only blurs the boundaries between physical and spiritual presence, he also wanders back and forth between image layers, turning scenes into still lives in an instant. Carl Gustav Jung’s concept of synchronicity (Synchronizität), itself developed after his reading of the I Ching, is introduced to describe these aspects of Ozu’s oeuvre. The most memorable scenes from Tokyo Story (Tōkyō monogatari, 1953) – for example, the famous train scene at the end – employ such synchronicity, with the physical space being overlaid by the thoughts of the characters.
Chapter 7, Ozu’s Spaces, refers again to the filmmaker’s use of space, and shows how he creates backdrops, especially of bars and restaurants that produce a labyrinth-like structure. Across his films, the characters (often played by the same actors) slip into nearly identical rooms and bars of the same name. Ozu poured great effort, not only into his film scenery but also into scouting locations, as can be seen in his archival drafts. He places paintings by Japanese artists such as Kaii Higashiyama (東山魁夷), Meiji Hashimoto (橋本明治), and Eizō Katō (加藤栄三) in the background of scenes, where they interact with and inf luence the way characters behave and the way rooms are shown. Examples of Ozu’s location scouting photos show how he was inspired by urban everyday life, and how he uses architectural views, such as the Ginza, as well as fallow land and construction sites as models for his films.
Chapter 8, Ozu and John Ford, briefly outlines the stylistic and other similarities between these two directors and shows how Ozu was inspired by Ford, his favorite filmmaker.
Chapter 9, Gazes: Shame and Guilt Culture, takes up Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of gazes and shame and connects it with Ruth Benedict’s description of Japanese shame culture. Adopting this cultural anthropological distinction and transferring it to the film, the chapter shows how shame and guilt narratives are formed and how deeply Ozu’s films are imprinted by portrayals of shame. The films Equinox Flower, Early Spring (Sōshun, 1956), and An Autumn Afternoon serve as examples.
Chapter 10, Outlook, hazards a concise prognosis and points out promising areas for future Ozu research.