10 Essential Yasujiro Ozu Films You Need To Watch

Yasujiro Ozu is known for his profound examinations of family, generational gaps, and the schism between tradition and modernity. He began his career by making short comedy films for the Shochiku Film Company, and subsequently segued to his signature dramatic features. From his titles (such as Early Summer, Late Spring, and The End of Summer) to his imagery (such as trains and clouds), Ozu examined the transitory nature of the human condition (youth to adulthood, life to death, etc).

Watching an Ozu film is a delicate experience because he doesn’t follow "traditional" cinematic techniques. His camera usually hovers low and barely moves, he disobeys the 180-degree rule, he avoids transitions, and he places the viewer in awkward places during character conversations. These techniques not only helped define Ozu’s style, but they also made his characters and films memorable.

He created splendid studies of fragility, the human condition, the tension between the past and the present, and the lasting effect of human relationships. Like any great filmmaker, Ozu’s films require undivided attention and multiple viewings, both of which will help the viewers embrace the beautiful depths of Ozu’s graceful simplicity.

1. I Was Born, But…. (1932)

Mr. Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito) moves into a new neighborhood with his wife (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) and their two sons, Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and Keiji (Tomio Aoki). While Yoshi makes a fool of himself at work (in order to please his boss), his sons endure an onslaught of bullying from the neighborhood children. The boys soon discover their father’s humiliating work antics, and the familial relationships are pushed to their limit.

Ozu takes his viewers on a journey through the perspective of his younger characters. As the children’s reverence for their heroic father soon begins to fade, Ozu is there to capture every delicate moment. "You tell us to be somebody," the children tell their father, "but you are nobody." I Was Born, But…is one of Ozu’s earliest and most rewarding experiences. It is a film about abandoning childhood idealism and moving into the risky terrain of adulthood.

2. The Only Son (1936)

"Tragedy in life starts with the bond of parent and child."

Shinshu, 1923. The widowed O-Tsune (Choko Iida) works at a silk factory, earning money in order to support her only son, Ryosuke (Masao Hayama). She makes the difficult decision to send Ryosuke to Tokyo, where she believes he will have the best opportunities. 13 years later, O-Tsune visits Ryosuke (now played by Shinichi Himori), only to discover that he is a geometry teacher at a night school. The two weep. Where did the mother go wrong?

The character’s emotions and Ozu’s distinct visuals combined to speak volumes to the audience. There is just as much poetry in the characters’ silent goodbyes as there is serenity in their familial conversations. Ozu’s first sound feature continued to examine the bonds between parents and children, reminding us of the sacrifices that parents make in order to provide their children with a better future.

3. Late Spring (1949)

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is ready to be married, but she is far too busy taking care of her widowed father, professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu). Fearing that his daughter will be left alone after his death, Shukichi reluctantly agrees to find a husband for Noriko. When Noriko refuses to marry, Shukichi lies to her by saying that he plans to remarry.

Noriko dates – and eventually agrees to marry – a man whom her aunt says resembles Gary Cooper ("around the mouth, but not the top part"), but before the wedding, the father and daughter plan to vacation in Kyoto.

Ozu paints a striking portrait of the bond between a father and daughter who refuse to let one another go. They go along with plans, not because they want to, but because they want to please one another. Neither is truly happy, but they make sacrifices for the sake of one another. It is also a film about squandered time.

In one scene, Noriko turns to her father while they are packing for their vacation and says, "Why didn’t we do this more often?" Immediately, you feel a spike go through your heart. Late Spring is one of Ozu’s most compelling films because he paints a range of human emotions like an artist paints on a canvas. He captures the truth about life, showing a daughter moving on even though it pains her to leave her father behind.

4. Early Summer (1951)

Noriko (the wonderful Setsuko Hara) lives with her parents, Shukichi (Ichiro Sugai) and Shige (Chieko Higashiyama), her older brother, Koichi (Chishu Ryu), and his family. Noriko’s parents pressure her to marry Mr. Manabe, but she falls in love with Kenkichi Yabe (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi), a friend of her dead brother. When Noriko agrees to marry Yabe, her family must deal with their daughter’s unexpected decision.

Early Summer explores the liberation of Japanese women from the conservative traditions of their parents. Ozu’s timeless story examines three generations who struggle to find a common ground. It is a film that not only speaks to Ozu’s contemporaneous audiences, but to future generations as well. The simple moments are what define the film, creating another heartfelt masterpiece about family, marriage, and generational gaps.

5. The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)

Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) is bored with her childless marriage to Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi). She escapes her dull life by going to the hot springs. A series of unexpected events unfold and test the Satakes’ relationship, but the two come together over a simple midnight snack of rice with green tea.

The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice breathes life (ironically) into a dying marriage. This may not be one of Ozu’s most revered works, but it is certainly one of his most visually stunning films.

The film not only examines an atypical subject for Ozu (the middle class), but it often reminds its viewers of the friction between tradition and modernity (evidenced by the opening scene of two women in a car, one wearing a modern dress and one wearing a kimono). It is a tragic story about two characters from different walks of life who are trying to save the remains of their marriage.

6. Tokyo Story (1953)

The aging Shukishi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) and his wife, Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), visit their children in Tokyo. Their son, Koichi (So Yamamura), finds his parents to be burdensome, so he sends them to his sister, Shige (Sugimura Haruko), who sends her parents to a hot spring spa. Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the wife of their missing son, is the only one who will accept them. Upon their return home to Onomichi, Tomi discovers she is critically ill and dies. The children return to pay their respects to their mother.

Tokyo Story revolves around the simple story of parents visiting their busy/uncaring children. Ozu delicately explores themes of conflicting morals, conflicting generations, and selfishness. He gives attention to time and space, using his signature "pillow shots" to create a lyrical study of frail human bonds. His honest and powerful storytelling makes Tokyo Story a timeless masterpiece that is still watched to this day.

"Greatest Films of All Time" lists are often considered incomplete if they don’t feature this marvelous masterpiece.

7. Floating Weeds (1959)

An acting troupe returns to the coastal town where its leader, Komajuro Arashi (Ganjiro Nakamura), fathered a son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), with Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura). The troupe disbands due to lack of attendance, leaving Komajuro to grow closer to his former lover. As his current lover, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), grows jealous, Komajuro must endure a series of events that will lead to the revelation of his paternity.

Floating Weeds is a remake of Ozu’s 1929 film, A Story of Floating Weeds. The film masterfully depicts Komajuro’s attempt to make up lost time with his lover and to recognize Kiyoshi as his son. As in any Ozu film, no choice is without its consequences. Floating Weeds is a superbly imagined film that takes characters and stories out of everyday life.

8. Late Autumn (1960)

Mamiya (Shin Saburi), Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura), and Hirayama (Ryuji Kita) look for a husband for the daughter of their late friend, Miwa. When the daughter, Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa), says that she prefers to take care of her mother, Akiko (Setsuko Hara), instead of marrying, the three men hatch a plan to marry one of themselves off to Akiko.

Late Autumn is, in some ways, a continuation of Late Spring. Ozu continues to depict the disintegration of familial bonds, especially those between parents and children. It is a refreshing story tinged with subtle humor, which in itself masks other emotions. The film closes with a powerful image of Akiko alone, again referring to inevitable separations that we encounter in life.

9. The End of Summer (1961)

Kohayagawa Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura) runs a failing sake business in Kansai. While his youngest daughter, Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa), and his widowed daughter-in-law, Akiko (Setsuko Hara), are getting married, Manbei secretly visits his mistress, Tsune (Chieko Naniwa), and his illegitimate daughter, Yuriko (Reiko Dan). Manbei’s death leads to revelations of family secrets, which force the younger generations to make tough decisions about their lives.

The End of Summer is Ozu’s penultimate film, examining Ozu’s signature themes of family, devotion, and marriage (albeit through a darker and more complex lens). The film follows three generations of people who struggle to adapt to social and emotional changes. The film also features shots of graveyards and "New Japan" in neon lights, alluding to the passage of time (Manbei’s death is even marked by a shot of crows perched on his headstone).

10. An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) is an aging widower with a married son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), and two unmarried children, Michiko (Shima Iwashita) and Kazuo (Shinichiro Mikami). Hirayama and his five friends frequently visit a restaurant (owned by one of the friends). During one of their outings, they meet an old teacher whose daughter (after years of caring for her father) is past her prime an unable to marry. Startled by this story, Hirayama sets out to find a husband for Michiko.

An Autumn Afternoon is Ozu’s visually captivating swan song. It combines all of Ozu’s signature themes and techniques, showing traditions and familial bonds that are trying to survive in a modern Japan. Throughout his career, Ozu has never abandoned the techniques and themes that have made his films so powerful. To examine and analyze Ozu’s body of work is to realize that he is one of the greatest filmmakers who understood the changing states of human life.

By by Nuwantha Fonseka. Nuwantha is an IT grad student from Sri Lanka with a passion for Arthouse and Indie cinema from all around the globe.