Many have done this, but this is the most nicely compiled set I have seen.
Every ten years, my idol and hero (and, no, I am not exaggerating), publishes a list of his choices for the ten greatest films of all time. He has done this in 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002. It’s that time again.
Here they are:
- Aguirre, Wrath of God (Herzog)
- Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
- Citizen Kane (Welles)
- La Dolce Vita (Fellini)
- The General (Keaton)
- Raging Bull (Scorsese)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
- Tokyo Story (Ozu)
- The Tree of Life (Malick)
- Vertigo (Hitchcock)
I’m going to use this as an excuse and opportunity to post a critique I wrote in 2008 about his number eight selection, Tokyo Story by Japanese director Ozu. I originally posted this to Knol, an experiment by Google to bring academic papers to the masses. As of this writing, it has received 1748 page views. Google is shutting down this service on May 1st, and now is as good a time as any to post for posterity my short paper.
Ozu the Absurdist
The relationship of film maker Yasujiro Ozu to western absurdist theatre
Japanese film maker Yasujiro Ozu’s works share much in common with western absurdist theatre and little in common with popular, US produced movies.
The contrast between the traditional Hollywood narrative movie and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is enormous. So vast is the difference that the two scarcely seem to belong to the same art form. Though the Hollywood film is very different from the work of Ozu, there is another Western narrative form that is surprisingly similar. That work is absurdist theatre. If the theatre of the absurd, with all its variety and richness, can be said to have a definable technique, that technique shares many commonalties with the techniques of Tokyo Story. Many theorists say that absurdist theatre is not so much a technique as a philosophy, a basis for examining the world. If this is the case, Ozu shares that philosophy.
“If a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of…” (Esslin xvii) The creator of the term “Theatre of the Absurd”, Martin Esslin, writes about the differences between the good play, either tragedy or comedy, and the absurdist play. He could just as easily have been writing about Hollywood movies and Ozu. Absurdism means pointlessness. Ozu presents us with a dish of life. Things happen, yet they scarcely seem to be truly meshed even though they are connected. Ozu drops each action, each event, each line of dialogue into the film like vegetables dropped into a pot of sukiyaki. The ingredients that make up life are mixed, yet they are highly independent. Ozu gives us one happening at a time. There is scarcely a plot at all. Never do two characters speak at the same time. Never does one person do anything of import while another does something else. What is the sum total of all their disparate actions? Nothing. By the film’s conclusion, no person has learned anything. No person has accomplished anything. No person has even attempted and failed to accomplish anything. It is true that one person died, yet this is merely one more ingredient dropped into the pot. Truly, nothing has changed. ”You’ll be lonely,” (Ozu) a woman says to the father. That is all. ”Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” (Beckett 141)
The following bit of dialogue illustrates the point.
GRANDMOTHER: Have you got the air cushion?
GRANDFATHER: Didn’t I give it to you?
GRANDMOTHER: It’s not here.
GRANDFATHER: I’m sure I gave it to you.
GRANDMOTHER: I can’t find it.
GRANDFATHER: I’m sure it’s here.
GRANDMOTHER: I found it after all. (Ozu)
What is the point of this exchange? Traditional Western technique would say this illuminates the characters in some way. Do we learn that they are forgetful? Is that the point? It cannot be since this issue is never again presented. ”If a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent ramblings.” (Esslin xviii) The dialogue is not exactly incoherent, but it is certainly rambling. Compare it to this extract from Waiting for Godot.
VLADIMIR: What about helping him?
ESTRAGON: What does he want?
VLADIMIR: He wants to get up.
ESTRAGON: Then why doesn’t he?
VLADIMIR: He wants us to help him to get up.
ESTRAGON: Then why don’t we? What are we waiting for? (Beckett)
The inanities of both of these dialogue groups provide us with something beyond character development or the furtherance of plot. The structure itself is revelatory. It is as simple and rhythmic as life itself.
The simplicity of Ozu communicates a complexity of concept. The camera does not move. Whenever a person speaks, the camera shows that person. Off-screen dialogue does not exist. We see everything from the vantage point of a person sitting on the floor. Like a metronome the happenings occur, plainly shown, one after another. This precision adds up to a deeply moving experience. Tokyo Story doesn’t look like life, and it is the difference that underlines the points Ozu makes. This notion of self-conscious technique combined with distortion is examined by Ellen Douglass Leyburn.
Since the writers of absurd comedy are highly conscious of the doubleness of their plays and use it with full artistic awareness and often with great artistic skill, their plays are much more profoundly disturbing than are those of the humorless writers of serious plays with weak heroes. The contradictions of pain and amusement in the best comedies of the absurd are evoked with clear intention and the most deliberate finesse.
Most absurdist writers do not reveal all in their dialogue. Harold Pinter in his play The Birthday Party has the lead threatened by individuals whose identity is never revealed. Jean Genet uses non-real locations, stylized concepts. Ozu too, keeps us in the dark. When the bus tour is taken, the people’s heads bounce about like buoys on the water; the guide tells us of the wonderful sights available, but we, the audience see none of it. We wonder whether the people on the bus can. Though the title of the film suggests we might learn something of Tokyo, nothing is. Mere fleeting glimpses shoot buy as we occupy ourselves inside the uncomfortable apartments.
The central tenet of absurdity is the notion that life is meaningless. The theatre of the absurd illustrates this in the structure of the plays by using meandering dialogue, distorted images, and the absence of Aristotle’s poetic structure. Ozu seems to embrace these same concepts. Entertainment is not the point. Dramatic tension is not the point. In fact, there is no point. In Ozu’s world, where the best thing you can hope for is to have above-average children, one simply lives.
“God is dead, as Nietzche wrote in The Gay Science, and the news is beginning to filter down to man; as soon as it has done so, man will see the world without plan or purpose or meaning; he will then see himself and his world as absurd. (Johnson, Bierman, and Hart p.365)
- Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1961
- Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. London: Faber & Faber, 1959
- Johnson, Stanley, Judah Bierman, and James Hart. The Play and the Reader. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1966.
- Leyburn, Ellen Douglass. The Play and the Reader. Eds. Stanley Johnson, Judah Bierman, and James Hart. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1966.
- Ozu, Yasujiro. Tokyo Story. 1958