Urban Myths: Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tatami Shot”
In a 1960 issue of Film Quarterly magazine, the eminent film historian Donald Richie recalled a conversation with a Shochiku producer with whom he attempted (unsuccessfully) to negotiate broader international exposure for director Yasujiro Ozu. “But, Mr. Richie,” the producer insisted, “he is so Japanese—no one would understand [his films].” Richie retaliated: “That is simply not true — I understand them.” The producer then smiled at the American expat and cited his many years in Japan as an explanation. “But, of course, you have been living here so long now that your reactions are, well, are not typical.”1 Richie eventually arranged an Ozu retrospective at the Berlin Film Festival, where he showed five pictures in the summer of 1963.2 At that time, the director was checking out of the hospital, having undergone treatment for a painful growth in his neck. By October, he was in urgent care again—the growth turning out to be cancer that had metastasized3 and later, on December 12 (his sixtieth birthday), it killed him.
During his lifetime, Ozu seemed ambivalent as to whether or not his films would appeal to audiences outside Japan. “Someday, I’m sure, foreigners will understand my films,” he once told cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta before sheepishly adding: “Then again, no. They will say […] that my films aren’t much of anything.”4 Ozu’s chosen subject was ordinary Japanese life, which he filmed in a consistently simple style and without the usual narrative methods of achieving drama. (His movies about families pushing daughters to marry, for example, tend not to show the actual ceremony; the drama centers on the family the bride is leaving, not the one she’s joining, the story often concluding with a parent sitting at home in loneliness.) On the surface, his movies seemed too culturally specific for non-Japanese; and yet, when they were fleetingly shown abroad in the 1950s and early ‘60s, the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Following a 1956 screening at the University of California of Tokyo Story (1953) — a picture Shochiku declined to submit to the Cannes Film Festival for fear it couldn’t be understood5 — English instructor Earl Roy Miner wrote in the school’s journal: “Deaths — especially of mothers, girls in love, and young poets — ought to be banned by law from Japanese films [but] Mr. Ozu’s sequence is an exception. He succeeds because he handles it in the same realistic way as everything else: the children are tearful only till they begin to recall their own affairs and divide up their mother’s belongings.”6
When informed by Richie of rave London reviews for Tokyo Story, Ozu seemed more appreciative than enthusiastic.7 In any event, he never lived to see the true acclaim his work would garner overseas. Occasional screenings and retrospectives persisted in museums and festivals throughout the mid-’60s, and in 1972 several pictures played in New York. Roger Greenspun of the New York Times labeled the “virtually unknown” Ozu a director “whose name should be familiar to all film lovers,”8 and that same year Paul Schrader dedicated an entire chapter of his acclaimed book Transcendental Style in Film to the artist under discussion. “Ozu’s films have not proved to be as lucrative at the box office abroad as they were at home,” wrote film historian Audie Bock in 1984, “but there is no doubt that viewers everywhere in the world have understood his message of acceptance just as well as they have understood [Kenji] Mizoguchi’s mystical adoration of women and [Akira] Kurosawa’s samurai humanism.”9
Despite the unorthodox storytelling and continued emphasis on ordinary Japanese life, audiences had no trouble deciphering Ozu’s characters — as they expressed emotions and desires felt by people worldwide (love, sadness, envy, etc.). Film critic and professor Stanley Kauffmann once asked students to write what they knew about Charles Chaplin: “One of them began: ‘I don’t know how much I know about Chaplin, but he certainly knows a lot about me.’ That seems to me one excellent definition of superior art, and it applies to Ozu.”10 When Donald Richie published his book Ozu: His Life and Films in 1977, time had proved him right: international audiences adored the filmmaker whose countrymen deemed the most Japanese of directors.
Reviews continue to latch on to this label, primarily because of Ozu’s chosen subject matter and the manner in which he presented it: i.e., with a static camera situated low — and perfectly level — to the ground. This technique has often been cited as evidence of his “Japanese” filmmaking approach, the logic behind it reputedly to simulate the point of view of someone seated on a tatami mat.
Less discussed are behind-the-scenes factoids rendering much of the above distorted if not completely untrue. To begin with, Ozu was, from a young age, a fervent admirer of American and European cinema, dismissing the Japanese movies of his youth as “without emotional depth.” His directorial heroes included Charles Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, and Rex Ingram, with Thomas H. Ince’s Civilization (1915) inspiring him to become a filmmaker.11 His early movies featured mobile camerawork and situations imitative of Hollywood — to the extent that Japanese critics characterized them as “reeking of butter” (slang for excessive western influence).12 But even the aesthetic he developed later on took cues from the Occident: the subdued acting tone drew inspiration from scenes of Bette Davis in William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941) and Henry Fonda in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946);13 he once asked his editor to obtain a print of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) and count the frames in shots he deemed ideally cut.14 (On set, Ozu timed scenes using a stopwatch that simultaneously measured seconds and frames.)15 And contrary to what’s been repeated for decades, his reason for placing the camera low and level wasn’t to achieve a human perspective.
To the best of my knowledge, the “point of view” thesis began with Wim Wenders’s 1985 documentary Tokyo-ga, wherein the German filmmaker interviewed Ozu’s long-time cameraman, Yuharu Atsuta. Per the English language narration, the camera was “always set at the eye level of someone seated on the floor.” To give Wenders benefit of the doubt, part of me suspects this statement derived from mistranslation, but the claim itself is disproven by his own film. In Tokyo-ga’s last — and best — sequence, Atsuta recreates the signature Ozu setup, using the same Mitchell camera from the duo’s last few movies; when finished, the lens remains somewhat lower than the eyeline of a seated person, the cinematographer still dependent on crouching to look through the viewfinder. (This is consistent with information in Audie Bock’s 1978 book Japanese Film Directors: Ozu stationed his camera a mere 40cm — less than a foot and a half — off the floor when shooting mediums and close-ups.)16
However, Wenders correctly cites the reason behind Ozu’s insistence on keeping the camera perfectly level (to avoid image distortion), which itself ties into his actual logic behind the low position. As film critic Roger Ebert noted in his audio commentary for 1959’s Floating Weeds: “Ozu, more than most directors, placed composition above everything else.”17
Yasujiro Ozu’s fascination with low camera placement materialized early in his career. When shooting interiors on his sixth motion picture — the lost silent Body Beautiful (1928) — he found himself inconvenienced by electric cables strewn across the floor. The cables powered equipment but needed to be constantly moved so as not to be visible in the frame. “Since it would take time and energy to tidy them up before shooting another shot,” the director told Tokyo Shinbun in 1952, “I turned my camera upward in order not to show the floor. I liked the composition and was able to save time as well. Since then, it has become a habit, and my camera has become positioned lower and lower.”18
Fellow director Daisuke Ito claimed Ozu refined his setup after a night of drinking at the former’s home. An alcohol fan since adolescence — his favorites included sake, scotch, and cheap whiskey19 — Ozu inevitably became tipsy and stumbled into Ito’s garden. There he placed a sake bottle atop a rock and then crouched to study it. “This low position is great!” he cried out. “The sake bottle is precisely the position of the lens and the position one meter behind it is mine. […] I’d never let anyone sit in this position, the positive I’ve created.” In the 1930s, he began reducing cinematic movement and kept the camera close to the ground — which, per director Masahiro Shinoda, formerly an assistant to Ozu, was actually implemented “to prevent it from having a human viewpoint.”20 (As evident in the films themselves: sometimes compositions are formed so that the heads of actors in the foreground disappear beyond the top of the frame.) But what the low setup — and the perfectly level camera angle — did achieve was integral to Ozu’s sensibilities: pictorial balance.
Since most Ozu pictures primarily took place in interiors (he resented location shooting’s drawing the attention of passersby and being subject to changes in weather and lighting),21 the director found himself contending with problematic design. “[T]he Japanese room has a lot of sliding doors,” he explained, “[so] when you look down from too high a position, the horizon is lowered. If you frame a scene that way, the top part of the frame seems light and the balance looks wrong.”22 Also irksome were the tatami mats making up the floor—namely their straight edges and how they stopped abruptly upon reaching the wall.23 Conversing with cinematographer Atsuta, Ozu described his solution: “[I]t’s a real pain trying to make a good composition of a Japanese room—especially the corners. The best way to deal with this is to use a low camera position. This makes everything easier.”24 Ozu’s shooting technique was designed simply to obtain an ideal shot. For this same reason, he chose to keep most of his compositions level; showing more of the ceiling or the floor threw off the balance he continually sought.
As Masahiro Shinoda’s testimony further details, compositional perfection didn’t end with camera placement. On the set of Tokyo Twilight (1957), the assistant asked his senior why a cushion had been placed in a part of the room where nobody sits. Ozu instructed him to peer through the camera’s viewfinder, whereupon Shinoda realized the cushion improved the shot by obscuring tatami mat borders.25 As his assistant directorship continued into the ‘60s, Shinoda also came to realize violating continuity was occasionally necessary. Once during the making of Late Autumn (1960), he watched Ozu meticulously organize beer bottles, dishes, and ashtrays on a table—only to rearrange them when composing the next shot. “I was so shocked that I said that if he did that he would create a bad break in continuity, that everyone would notice that the beer bottles were now on the right and the ashtray on the left. He stopped, looked at me, and said: ‘Continuity? Oh, that. No, you’re wrong. People never notice things like that — and this way, it makes a much better composition.’ And he was right, of course. People don’t. When I saw the rushes I didn’t notice anything wrong with those scenes.”26
Ozu likewise enjoyed breaking the time-tested 180-degree rule as he composed shots. “When we shoot a conversation between actors A and B in close-ups,” he said in describing the rule to Geijutsu Shincho, “the camera must not cross a line connecting A and B. First we shoot a close-up of A a little bit away from the line between the two. A looks to the left of the screen. Then we should move the camera to the opposite position, on the same side of the line between A and B, and shoot a close-up of B. Thus, B looks to the right of the screen. In this way, their gazes cross above the viewers’ seats, and they appear to be talking to each other.” Since he understood the rule and why it existed, he also knew how to break it. “I don’t care about crossing the line to shoot close-ups of A and B. Thus, both A and B look to the left. Their gazes never cross. Nevertheless, they appear to be talking to each other.”27 In many Ozu pictures, actors in conversation are filmed gazing toward the same edge of the screen in separate close-ups—whereas other directors would have them face opposite sides of the frame. And when editor Yoshiyaku Hamamura suggested Ozu test a scene by shooting one version in compliance with the 180-degree rule and the other via his usual methods, the director’s reaction upon comparing the results was famously: “No difference!”28
Other members of the staff — and occasionally personnel in the front office — were perplexed by his visual methods. When making 1933’s Dragnet Girl, first-time assistant cameraman Keisuke Kinoshita stood astonished as Ozu continually moved a wall-mounted picture between takes. “I thought, ‘Won’t it look strange if this picture keeps moving around?’ Ozu would say, ‘Just a little bit more.’ He kept looking through the viewfinder. Really, he just kept moving it by fractions of an inch, up and down, side to side.”29 Upon transitioning to color photography in the late 1950s, Ozu dictated the shades of tatami bindings and even the material from which costumes were made.30 He refused Shochiku’s request to tint his black-and-white films — as he feared color would flatten the images.31 And he remained stubbornly appalled by widescreen photography. “Given the short time I have left on this Earth […] I don’t want to shoot a film as though I were peering out from a mailbox slot.”32
As demonstrated, Ozu’s technique — and indeed his entire approach to moviemaking — often went against the instincts of his countrymen; and per some minds this actually negated his famous moniker as the most “Japanese” movie director. “Here is a man who adamantly refuses to change his approach,” wrote critic Shimba Iida. “His adherence to his own original method will permit no outside advice.”33 Masahiro Shinoda bluntly opined: “Following a single principle to its extreme in this way is something I don’t believe is a very Japanese trait. So for me, Ozu is in a certain sense a very un-Japanese director.”34 And while the filmmaker under discussion often compared himself to a craftsman specializing in a certain trade, other statements indicate a rather individualist outlook on his own art. “I follow the general fashion in ordinary manners and moral laws in serious matters, but in art I follow myself,” Ozu told Kinema Junpo in 1958. “Even if something is unnatural and I like it, I’ll do it. […] From this comes my individuality—and this is most important to me.”35
- Richie, Donald. “A Personal Record.” Film Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1. (Autumn 1960)
- Sharp, Jasper. “Donald Richie obituary.” The Guardian, 21 February 2013
- Richie, Donald. Ozu: His Life and Films. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977, p. 251
- Aloff, Mindy. “FILM VIEW; How American Intellectuals Learned to Love Ozu.” The New York Times, 3 April 1994
- Schilling, Mark. Shiro Kido: Cinema Shogun. E-book, 2012
- Miner, Earl Roy. “Japanese Film Art in Modern Dress.” The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television, vol. 10, no. 4 (Summer, 1956), p. 358
- Richie, Donald. Early Summer (Criterion DVD), recorded in 2002
- Greenspun, Roger. “Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’ Opens.” New York Times, 14 March 1972
- Bock, Audie (ed). Mikio Naruse: A Master of Japanese Cinema. Chicago: The Film Center, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1984, p. 3
- Kauffmann, Stanley. Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism. New York: Harper & Row, 1975, p. 101
- I Lived, But… A Biography of Yasujiro Ozu. Shochiku Co., Ltd., 1983
- Yomota Inuhiko. Translated by Philip Kaffen. What Is Japanese Cinema?: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 6
- Richie, Ozu: His Life and Films, p. 259
- Ibid, p. 176
- Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 75
- Bock, Audie. Japanese Film Directors. New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1978, p. 83
- Ebert, Roger. Floating Weeds (Criterion DVD), recorded in 2003
- Yoshida, Kiju. Translated by Daisuke Miyao and Kyoko Hirano. Ozu’s Anti-Cinema. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2003, p. 71
- Richie, Ozu: His Life and Films, p. 27
- Bordwell, pp. 78-9
- Tokyo-ga. Wim Wenders Productions, 1985; Ozu’s Films from Behind the Scenes. Shochiku Co., Ltd., 2004
- Richie, Ozu: His Life and Films, p. 115
- Ibid, pp. 125-6
- Ibid, p. 115
- Bock, Japanese Film Directors, p. 82
- Richie, Ozu: His Life and Films, pp. 125-6
- Yoshida, p. 65
- Richie, Ozu: His Life and Films, pp. 152-53
- I Lived, But… A Biography of Yasujiro Ozu.
- Richie, Ozu: His Life and Films, pp. 127
- Miyao, Daisuke. The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013, p. 165
- Schilling, Mark. “Re-examining Yasujiro Ozu on Film.” The Japan Times, 7 December 2013
- Bordwell, p. 6
- Ibid, p. 294
- Richie, Ozu: His Life and Films, p. 189