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Yasujirō Ozu

Yasujirō Ozu

Japanese film director
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Japanese film director
A.K.A. Ozu Yasujirō, Ozu Yasujiro, Yasujiro Ozu, Yasujirou Ozu
Countries Japan
Occupations Film director Screenwriter Production designer
Gender male
Birth 12 December 1903 (Tokyo)
Death 12 December 1963 (Tokyo)
Star sign Sagittarius
Residence Tokyo, Matsusaka
Education Waseda University
Notable Works , , Equinox Flower, Late Spring
Yasujirō Ozu
The details

Yasujirō Ozu (小津 安二郎, Ozu Yasujirō, 12 December 1903 – 12 December 1963) was a Japanese film director and screenwriter. He began his career during the era of silent films. Ozu first made a number of short comedies, before turning to more serious themes in the 1930s.

Marriage and family, especially the relationships between the generations, are prominent themes in Ozu's work. His most lauded films include Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953), Floating Weeds (1959), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

His reputation has continued to grow since his death, and he is widely regarded as one of the world's most influential directors. In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, Ozu's Tokyo Story was voted the greatest film of all time by world directors.


Early life

Ozu was born in the Fukagawa district of Tokyo, the second son of five brothers and sisters. His father was a fertilizer seller. He attended Meiji nursery school and primary school. In March 1913, at the age of nine, he and his siblings were sent by his father to live in his father's home town of Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture, where he lived until 1924. In March 1916, at the age of 12 he entered what is now Ujiyamada High School. He was a boarder at the school and did judo. He frequently skipped school to watch films such as Quo Vadis? or The Last Days of Pompei. In 1917 he saw the film Civilization and decided that he wanted to be a film director.

In 1920, at the age of 17, he was thrown out of the dormitory after being accused of writing a love letter to a good-looking boy in a lower class, and had to commute to school by train.

In March 1921 he graduated from the high school. He attempted the exam for what is now Kobe University's economics department, but failed. In 1922 he took the exam for a teacher training college, but failed it. On 31 March 1922 he began working as a substitute teacher at a school in Mie prefecture. He is said to have travelled the long journey from the school in the mountains to watch films on the weekend. In December 1922, his family, with the exception of Ozu and his sister, moved back to Tokyo to live with his father. In March 1923, when his sister graduated, he also went to Tokyo.

Entering the film business

With his uncle acting as intermediary, Ozu was hired by the Shochiku Film Company, as an assistant in the cinematography department, on 1 August 1923, against the wishes of his father. His family home was destroyed in the earthquake of 1923, but no members of his family were injured.

On 12 December 1924, Ozu started a year of military service. He finished his military service on 30 November 1925, leaving as a corporal.

In 1926 he became a third assistant director at Shochiku. In 1927 he was involved in a fracas where he punched another employee for jumping a queue at the studio cafeteria, and when called to the studio director's office he used it as an opportunity to present a film script he had written. In September 1927 he was promoted to director in the jidaigeki (period film) department, and directed his first film, Sword of Penitence, now lost. Sword of Penitence was written by Ozu, with the screenplay by Kogo Noda, who would become his co-writer for the rest of his career. On 25 September he was called up to military reserves until November, and the film was partly finished by another director.

In 1928, Shiro Kido, the head of the Shochiku studio, decided that the company was to concentrate on making short comedy films without star actors. Ozu made a series of these films. The film Body Beautiful, released on 1 December 1928, was the first Ozu film to use a low camera position, which would become his trademark. After a series of "no star" pictures, in September 1929 Ozu's first film with stars, I graduated but..., starring Minoru Takada and Kinuyo Tanaka, was released. In January 1930 he was entrusted with Shochiku's top star Sumiko Kurishima in her new year film, An Introduction to Marriage. His subsequent films of 1930 impressed Shiro Kido enough to invite Ozu on a trip to a hot spring. In his early works Ozu used the pseudonym "James Maki" for his screenwriting. His film Young Miss, with an all-star cast, was the first time he used the pen name James Maki, and was also his first film to appear in film magazine Kinema Jumpo's "Best Ten" at third position.

In 1932, his I Was Born, But..., a comedy about childhood with serious overtones, was received by movie critics as the first notable work of social criticism in Japanese cinema, winning Ozu wide acclaim.

In 1935 Ozu made a short documentary with soundtrack: Kagami Shishi, in which Kokiguro VI performed a Kabuki dance of the same title. This was made by request of the Ministry of Education. Like the rest of Japan's cinema industry, Ozu was slow to switch to the production of talkies: his first film with a dialogue sound-track was The Only Son in 1936, five years after Japan's first talking film, Heinosuke Gosho's The Neighbor's Wife and Mine.


On 9 September 1937, at a time when Shochiku was unhappy about Ozu's lack of box-office success, despite the praise he received from critics, the thirty-four-year-old Ozu was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army. He spent two years in China in the Second Sino-Japanese War. He arrived in Shanghai on 27 September 1937 as part of an infantry regiment which handled chemical weapons. He started as a corporal but was promoted to sergeant on 1 June 1938. From January until September 1938 he was stationed in Nanjing, meeting Sadao Yamanaka, who was also stationed nearby. In September, Yamanaka died of illness. In 1939, Ozu was dispatched to Hankou, where he fought in the Battle of Nanchang and the Battle of Xiushui River. In June, he was ordered back to Japan, arriving in Kobe in July, and his conscription ended on 16 July 1939.

In 1939, he wrote the first draft of the script for The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice but shelved it due to changes insisted on by military censors. The first film Ozu made on his return was the critically and commercially successful Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, released in 1941. He followed this with Chichi Ariki (There Was a Father, 1942), describing the strong bonds of affection between a father and son despite years of separation.

In 1943, Ozu was again drafted into the army to make a propaganda film in Burma. However, he was sent to Singapore instead, to make Deruhi e, Deruhi e ("To Delhi, to Delhi") with Chandra Bose. During his time in Singapore, having little inclination to work, he spent an entire year reading, playing tennis, and watching American films provided by the Army information corps. He was particularly impressed by Citizen Kane. He occupied a fifth-floor room facing the sea in the Cathay Building where he entertained guests, drew pictures, and collected rugs. With the end of the Second World War in August 1945, Ozu destroyed the script, and the footage shot, of the film. He was detained as a civilian, and worked in a rubber plantation. Of his film team of 32 people, there was only space for 28 on the first repatriation boat to Japan. Ozu won a lottery giving him a place, but gave it to someone else who was anxious to return.


Ozu returned to Japan in February 1946, and moved back in with his mother, who had been staying with his sister in Noda in Chiba prefecture. He reported for work at the Ofuna studios on 18 February 1946. His first film released after the war was The Record of a Tenement Gentleman in 1947. Around this time, the Chigasakikan ryokan became Ozu's favoured location for scriptwriting.

Ozu's grave at Engaku-ji, Kamakura in 2018.

Tokyo Story was the last script written at Chigasakikan. After that, Ozu and Noda used a small house in the mountains at Tateshina in Nagano Prefecture called Unkosō to write scripts, with Ozu staying in a nearby house called Mugeisō.

Ozu's films from the late 1940s onward were favourably received, and the entries in the so-called "Noriko trilogy" (starring Setsuko Hara) of Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953) are among his best-reviewed works, with Tokyo Story considered his masterpiece. These three films were followed by his first colour film Equinox Flower in 1958, Floating Weeds in 1959, and Late Autumn in 1960. In addition to Noda, other regular collaborators included cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta, and the actors Chishū Ryū, Setsuko Hara, and Haruko Sugimura.

His work was only rarely shown overseas before the 1960s. Ozu's last film was An Autumn Afternoon in 1962.

He served as president of the Directors Guild of Japan from 1955 to his death in 1963.

Ozu was well known for his drinking. He and Noda measured the progression of their scripts by how many bottles of sake they had drunk. Ozu remained single throughout his life and lived with his mother until she died, less than two years before his own death.

Ozu died in 1963 of cancer on his 60th birthday. The grave he shares with his mother at Engaku-ji in Kamakura bears no name—just the character mu ("nothingness").

Legacy and style

Yasujirō Ozu (far right) on location of Tokyo Story (1953)

Ozu is probably as well known for the technical style and innovation of his films as for the narrative content. The style of his films is most striking in his later films, a style he had not fully developed until his post-war talkies. He did not conform to Hollywood conventions. Rather than using the typical over-the-shoulder shots in his dialogue scenes, the camera gazes on the actors directly, which has the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene.

Ozu did not use typical transitions between scenes, either. In between scenes he would show shots of certain static objects as transitions, or use direct cuts, rather than fades or dissolves. Most often the static objects would be buildings, where the next indoor scene would take place. It was during these transitions that he would use music, which might begin at the end of one scene, progress through the static transition, and fade into the new scene. He rarely used non-diegetic music in any scenes other than in the transitions. Ozu moved the camera less and less as his career progressed, and ceased using tracking shots altogether in his colour films. However, David Bordwell argues that Ozu is one of the few directors to "create a systematic alternative to Hollywood continuity cinema, but he does so by changing only a few premises."

Ozu invented the "tatami shot", in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat. Actually, Ozu's camera is often even lower than that, only one or two feet off the ground, which necessitated the use of special tripods and raised sets. He used this low height even when there were no sitting scenes, such as when his characters walked down hallways.

Ozu eschewed the traditional rules of filmic storytelling, most notably eyelines. In his review of Floating Weeds, film critic Roger Ebert recounts

[Ozu] once had a young assistant who suggested that perhaps he should shoot conversations so that it seemed to the audience that the characters were looking at one another. Ozu agreed to a test. They shot a scene both ways, and compared them. "You see?" Ozu said. "No difference!"

Ozu was also an innovator in Japanese narrative structure through his use of ellipses, or the decision not to depict major events in the story. In An Autumn Afternoon (1962), for example, a wedding is merely mentioned in one scene, and the next sequence references this wedding (which has already occurred); the wedding itself is never shown. This is typical of Ozu's films, which eschew melodrama by eliding moments that would often be used in Hollywood in attempts to stir an excessive emotional reaction from audiences.

Ozu became recognized internationally when his films were shown abroad. Influential monographs by Donald Richie, Paul Schrader, and David Bordwell have ensured a wide appreciation of Ozu's style, aesthetics, and themes by the English speaking audience.

Tributes and documentaries

Five (2003 film), also known as Five Dedicated to Ozu, is an Iranian documentary film directed by Abbas Kiarostami. The film consists of five long takes set by the ocean. Five sequences : 1) A piece of driftwood on the seashore, carried about by the waves 2) People walking on the seashore. The oldest ones stop by, look at the sea, then go away 3) Blurry shapes on a winter beach. A herd of dogs. A love story 4) A group of loud ducks cross the image, in one direction then the other 5) A pond, at night. Frogs improvising a concert. A storm, then the sunrise.

In 2003, the centenary of Ozu's birth was commemorated at various film festivals around the world. Shochiku produced the film Café Lumière (珈琲時光), directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien as homage to Ozu, with direct reference to the late master's Tokyo Story (1953), to premiere on Ozu's birthday.

Ozu was voted the tenth greatest director of all time in the 2002 British Film Institute's Sight & Sound poll of Critics' top ten directors. Ozu's Tokyo Story has appeared several times in the Sight & Sound poll of best films selected by critics and directors. In 2012, it topped the poll of film directors' choices of "greatest film of all time". 

In 2013, director Yoji Yamada of the Otoko wa Tsurai yo film series remade Tokyo Story in a modern setting as Tokyo Family.

In the Wim Wenders documentary film Tokyo-Ga, the director travels to Japan to explore the world of Ozu, interviewing both Chishū Ryū and Yuharu Atsuta.


Filmography of Yasujirō Ozu
Year Japanese Title Rōmaji English Title Notes
Silent films
1927 懺悔の刃 Zange no yaiba Sword of Penitence Lost
1928 若人の夢 Wakōdo no yume Dreams of Youth Lost
女房紛失 Nyōbō funshitsu Wife Lost Lost
カボチャ Kabocha Pumpkin Lost
引越し夫婦 Hikkoshi fūfu A Couple on the Move Lost
肉体美 Nikutaibi Body Beautiful Lost
1929 宝の山 Takara no yama Treasure Mountain Lost
学生ロマンス 若き日 Gakusei romansu: wakaki hi Student Romance: Days of Youth Ozu's earliest surviving film
和製喧嘩友達 Wasei kenka tomodachi Fighting Friends Japanese Style 14 minutes survive
大学は出たけれど Daigaku wa detakeredo I Graduated, But... 10 minutes survive
会社員生活 Kaishain seikatsu The Life of an Office Worker Lost
突貫小僧 Tokkan kozō A Straightforward Boy Short film
1930 結婚学入門 Kekkongaku nyūmon An Introduction to Marriage Lost
朗かに歩め Hogaraka ni ayume Walk Cheerfully
落第はしたけれど Rakudai wa shitakeredo I Flunked, But...
その夜の妻 Sono yo no tsuma That Night's Wife
エロ神の怨霊 Erogami no onryō The Revengeful Spirit of Eros Lost
足に触った幸運 Ashi ni sawatta kōun The Luck Which Touched the Leg Lost
お嬢さん Ojōsan Young Miss Lost
1931 淑女と髭 Shukujo to hige The Lady and the Beard
美人と哀愁 Bijin to aishu Beauty's Sorrows Lost
東京の合唱 Tōkyō no kōrasu Tokyo Chorus
1932 春は御婦人から Haru wa gofujin kara Spring Comes from the Ladies Lost
大人の見る繪本 生れてはみたけれど Umarete wa mita keredo I Was Born, But...
靑春の夢いまいづこ Seishun no yume ima izuko Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?
また逢ふ日まで Mata au hi made Until the Day We Meet Again Lost
1933 東京の女 Tokyo no onna Woman of Tokyo
非常線の女 Hijōsen no onna Dragnet Girl
出来ごころ Dekigokoro Passing Fancy
1934 母を恋はずや Haha wo kowazuya A Mother Should be Loved
浮草物語 Ukigusa monogatari A Story of Floating Weeds
1935 箱入娘 Hakoiri musume An Innocent Maid Lost
東京の宿 Tokyo no yado An Inn in Tokyo
1936 大学よいとこ Daigaku yoitoko College is a Nice Place Lost
Sound, black-and-white films
1936 菊五郎の鏡獅子 Kagami jishi Kagami jishi Short documentary
ひとり息子 Hitori musuko The Only Son
1937 淑女は何を忘れたか Shukujo wa nani wo wasureta ka What Did the Lady Forget?
1941 戸田家の兄妹 Todake no kyodai Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family
1942 父ありき Chichi ariki There Was a Father
1947 長屋紳士録 Nagaya Shinshiroku The Record of a Tenement Gentleman
1948 風の中の牝鶏 Kaze no naka no mendori A Hen in the Wind
1949 晩春 Banshun Late Spring Ozu's first film with Setsuko Hara
1950 宗方姉妹 Munekata kyōdai The Munekata Sisters
1951 麥秋 Bakushu Early Summer
1952 お茶漬けの味 Ochazuke no aji The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice Adapted from censored 1939 script
1953 東京物語 Tokyo monogatari Tokyo Story
1956 早春 Sōshun Early Spring
1957 東京暮色 Tōkyō boshoku Tokyo Twilight
Colour films
1958 彼岸花 Higanbana Equinox Flower Ozu's first film in colour
1959 お早よう Ohayo Good Morning
浮草 Ukigusa Floating Weeds Remake of A Story of Floating Weeds
1960 秋日和 Akibiyori Late Autumn
1961 小早川家の秋 Kohayagawa-ke no aki The End of Summer Ozu's last film with Setsuko Hara
1962 秋刀魚の味 Sanma no aji An Autumn Afternoon Ozu's final work
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