It's my first Yasujiro Ozu film. He was mostly unappreciated during his lifetime, but apparently these days he often gets called the greatest filmmaker of all time by film scholars. He didn't do samurai movies, which is a good start. Instead his films are about the subtle conflicts in middle-class Japanese family life, with a visual style striking enough that it hit me even though I'd gone into the film cold and hadn't known about it beforehand. I can't say I always liked it. He breaks a whole bunch of filmmaking conventions, including the 180-degree rule, and will point the camera straight at his actors in dialogue scenes instead of doing over-the-shoulder shots. This should have the effect of putting you directly between them, but the actors' eyelines won't match up and if you've also got some stiff or staccato performances in the mix, then it's going to look ridiculous. The worst scene in this film looks like a shitty TV advert. As far as I'm concerned, the first 10-15 minutes of this movie suck.
Roger Ebert has an Ozu anecdote. The guy 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!"
There's other stuff, but for me that was the startling one. Other tricks include an avoidance of fade or dissolve scene transitions, instead either directly cutting to the next scene or inserting a shot of a static object with some background music. Apart from transitions, there's not much non-diegetic music in an Ozu film. He also invented the "tatami shot" (with a tatami being a Japanese mat) while he'd move the camera less and less through his career until his colour films don't use any tracking shots at all. Narratively he was a pioneer in ellipses, simply jumping over the big dramatic stuff that a Hollywood film would milk for all it was worth. In other words, he's a minimalist. His films are character-driven and tend to be basically a bunch of quiet, intelligent conversations. Several Japanese directors (including Akira Kurosawa) didn't like his work, but he's been a huge influence on the modern art film, with directors like Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Mike Leigh, Deepa Mehta, Aki Kaurismaki and Pedro Costa all saying they were influenced by him.
That's just background, though. What about this film?
It took me a while to warm up to it. It should have been charming, but you've got one character who's a bitch and another one whose line delivery feels brittle and fake. I didn't believe that these people were really holding a conversation with each other. Imagine Noel Coward delivery, but in Japanese and without trying to be witty. It's not quite that clipped, but it's not far off and furthermore that lady who runs her own shop seems to say everything she says in exactly the same tone. I had to stop and go back a couple of times because I'd missed what they were saying through being too distracted by the misfiring performances (and, to be fair, some rather loose subtitles).
The scene with the bitch and her husband worked, though, because their relationship's like that anyway. You don't have eyeline problems because they're not even looking at each other! Admittedly they weren't hostile or anything, but instead had a distant kind of familiarity, like casual cellmates. Those two I could believe in, after which I either relaxed into the movie or else it improved... either way, I stopped having a problem with it.
The movie's about marriage. The main characters are the bitch (Michiyo Kogure, in her most famous role) and her husband (Shin Saburi, who starred in several Ozu films), but almost everyone in this circle of female friends is facing some kind of marital situation. Keiko Tsushima is young, single and being pressured by her family to have an omiai, which is like a blind date that's been organised for you by your relatives with a view to marriage. Meanwhile Chikage Awashima's husband goes out with other women, which gives rise to an "only in Japan" moment when they catch him at it. No one's angry about it! They don't even go and confront him, but simply sit and watch, complimenting the girl's prettiness and saying that Chikage can make use of this to make her husband buy her something nice. Brrr. There's something horrible underneath the traditional Japanese approach to marriage.
However the heart of the film involves Kogure and Saburi. He's a nice guy, if perhaps a bit boring and of course originally from a lower social class than her, but she's dissociated from him and merely happens to live in the same house. She calls him an idiot and enjoys lying to him. The girls make fun of men in the "feed the carp" scene. They got married because of an omiai and it's not really a marriage in any sense of the word, since they're hardly even capable of having a proper conversation together. There's a nice guy called Non-chan who ends up going out with Sachiko and believes in the traditional ways like omiai, saying that it's not important to love your husband before you get married because that will come afterwards. This would have been more convincing if it weren't for Kogure and Saburi.
This is all very realistic, subtle and for a Western viewer disconcerting... until the ending. There's a happy ending! Kogure and Saburi have something that you can imagine as a massive fight, but then circumstances lead them to have an unexpected meal together and the film turns into a gigantic cliche. It's sensitive and well played, but even so. Ironically though I'm sure this would have worked really well in the original version of the script, which was written during wartime and would have ended with Saburi being called up to fight in the Japanese Army. Obviously that's far stronger. I'd have believed what happens in the finale had it been for all they knew the last time they'd ever see each other again, but unfortunately in 1940 the Japanese censors wouldn't let them shoot it and so twelve years later when the time Ozu eventually made the film, the best he could manage was to send Saburi off to Uruguay on a business trip. Nope, sorry. Doesn't cut the mustard. Personally I think Ozu should have done it as a period piece and set it during wartime anyway, but I can see how Japan at the time might not have been ready for that.
It's an interesting film to watch as a Westerner, if only to study one's own reactions. I was sympathetic to Keiko Tsushima while being hostile towards Kogure, even when the latter's done nothing to anyone while the former's done something self-centred and rude. I think Ozu would agree with me, at least to some extent, but how much was I being swayed by my own cultural bias? After all, Tsushima's character is wilful, comparatively frivolous and so more in tune with a Western viewpoint. I've also heard it said that Ozu is a bit of a proto-feminist, especially in his Noriko trilogy (Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story). His films have independent, intelligent female characters compared with the cultural norms of Japan at the time... but by today's standards, this finale doesn't look so much "proto" as "Neanderthal".
I found the men more sympathetic than the women. Shin Saburi is lovely and I'm looking forward to seeing him in other films. His character here will be working at any hour of the day or night, but he's also gentle, entirely free of anger and will talk to the maid about how her family are doing. Non-chan seems like a decent chap. Awashima's husband is letting the side down, but even there his wife not only knows what he's up to but almost seems to condone it. However I was surprised by the scene where Saburi meets up with one of his old platoon-mates and they start talking about how they miss the war.
It would be wrong to dismiss this as "quite good", which I nearly did. It's an intelligent, sophisticated piece of filmmaking that gets ever more engaging and entertaining as it goes on. The very last scene made me laugh, for instance. I'm sure an Ozu film that's firing on all cylinders could be as classy as anything you'd care to name. It's fascinating both for its emotional honesty and for its insight into these alien worldviews, as for instance in the scene where Saburi tries to say something important to his wife, fails (of course) and then just puts it from his mind as almost the expected outcome and goes back to his work as usual. When this film's good, it's outstanding. However it also has two massive problems, the first being the rubbish in the first 10-15 minutes and the second being the finale. Obviously I'd still recommend this, but there's no way it's going to be Ozu's best film.