Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63) was a quiet, almost hypnotic storyteller; interested in the relationships between parents and...

Share story

Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63) was a quiet, almost hypnotic storyteller; interested in the relationships between parents and children, the tension between traditional and modern values, and in the wistful stillness of an empty room.

His career began in the silent-film era and continued through midcentury; through the advent of talkies and color, his deceptively simple style took shape. Ozu was popular in Japan by the ’30s, but it took longer for his work to cross the Pacific. “Tokyo Story,” his poignant 1953 masterpiece of family dynamics, was his first film to be released in the U.S. — in the early ’70s, nearly a decade after his death.

Though he’s now recognized as a master of world cinema, Ozu’s films remain difficult to find, particularly on the big screen. (A few are available on video/DVD.) Now, at the Northwest Film Forum through March 10, Ozu lovers can finally get their fill. Twenty-seven of his 54 films, including 10 of the rare early silent works, will screen over the next five weeks, many with live musical accompaniment and all in 35mm.


The 1953 masterpiece “Tokyo Story” was Yasujiro Ozu’s first film to be released in the U.S.

“To me, he’s the last frontier, the last auteur out there — people haven’t seen a lot of his work, don’t know a lot about him,” said Jaime Keeling, NWFF program director and curator of the Ozu series.

“It wasn’t until after his death that the world outside of Japan discovered him. It’s exciting to actually be in a generation that’s just discovering an auteur filmmaker.”

She cited contemporary filmmakers from around the globe — Aki Kaurismaki, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jim Jarmusch, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders — for whom Ozu has been an influence.

Coming up

Sacred Cinema: A Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective

Tomorrow through March 10, Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle; $7.50 ($5 NWFF members/children/seniors) for regular films; $15 ($12.50) for those with live accompaniment; Ozu six-pack: five regular films and one live score for $40 ($30). For tickets and information, see www.nwfilmforum.org/ozu or call 1-800-838-3006.

The NWFF’s series, part of a travelling retrospective of Ozu’s work, is not the first Ozu tribute in Seattle. Seattle Art Museum film curator Greg Olson (who served as a consultant for this series) presented an Ozu series in the 1980s, and continues to occasionally program Ozu films in his Asian film series at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. But this program, in the works for nearly two years, is certainly the most extensive.

And it includes a number of special events. The NWFF has commissioned live scores from a variety of Seattle-area musicians and composers, including Wayne Horvitz, Robin Holcomb, John Atkins (of 764-HERO and The Can’t See), Carla Torgerson (of The Walkabouts), the Aono Jikken Ensemble, Lori Goldston (of the Black Cat Orchestra), and koto players John and Elizabeth Falconer. Each score will be recorded live at its NWFF screening, for possible inclusion on later DVD releases.

The Criterion Collection, the DVD company known for its impeccable restorations of world-cinema classics, is in the process of restoring and releasing a number of Ozu films. “Seattle’s major contribution to these DVD releases is that we are recording the scores that we’ve commissioned, recording them live, and they’re going to be used as reference material for Criterion when they do go to release these DVDs,” said Keeling. “These scores will either be used as alternative soundtracks, or as the soundtracks.”

Tomorrow’s opening-night film, the 1932 silent comedy “I Was Born, But … ” will be accompanied by Goldston on cello and Elizabeth Falconer on koto. Other films with live accompaniment include “Woman of Tokyo,” “Dragnet Girl,” “That Night’s Wife,” “The Lady and the Beard,” “An Inn in Tokyo,” “A Mother Should Be Loved,” “Tokyo Chorus,” “I Flunked, But … ” and “Passing Fancy.”

Though he’s recognized as a master of world cinema, Yasujiro Ozu’s films remain difficult to find, particularly in theaters.

During the course of the series, film critic Richard T. Jameson will introduce evening screenings of “Tokyo Story” and “Late Spring.” And the retrospective also includes several events aimed at families: the comedies “I Was Born, But … ” and “Ohayo/Good Morning” will receive special Saturday-morning screenings, with the subtitles read aloud by a cast of actors.

Watching Ozu’s films, you’re struck by his unhurriedness, and by the quiet power they convey. Film critic David Thomson describes his appeal well, writing that “Ozu is worthy of attention by the highest claims of an international art; demurring from rhetorical outburst, expressive camera angles, and the turmoil of melodrama, he insists on the photographic substance in faces, interiors and the spaces between people.”

Keeling remembers watching Ozu’s films last fall in preparation for this series, “during the election, during all that tension and anxiety. I think [these films] come at a very good time for Americans — he’s so soothing, there’s something about the depth of humanity of his characters. It kind of calmed me down and made me move to his pace, it quelled anxiety.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com