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Yasujiro Ozu; Haiku behind Modernism or vice versa by Yuzo Ono

The British Film Institute selects "the greatest film in film history" once every ten years through votes by film directors and critics around the world. In the 2012 vote, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story was honoured with top place on the list in total of all the voting film directors [1]. Below the second place in this list are some historic works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Citizen Kane. Tokyo Story, which was produced shortly after the second world war, was regarded as "too Japanese" at that time, and its screening and evaluation overseas did not spread. Ozu's works have been gradually gaining popularity over the decades.



When Westerners talk about Ozu's works, the words frequently used in association are “simplicity", “absence" and “silence", which are similar to words used to describe Japanese traditional cultures in general, such as Zen and haiku. I myself am a Japanese haiku poet and studied in the UK for two years. Because of this background, I have often experienced similar comments from Westerners regarding haiku.


In fact, from early on, there were Western scholars who described Ozu’s works as ‘haiku-like’ in such a way, and there were objections by some Japanese scholars saying that this view was too stereotyped. Regardless of which view is correct, Ozu had been writing haiku enthusiastically throughout his life, from his twenties to his later years. He even had a haiku-penname “Tomindo (塘眠堂)" (literally, “embankment-sleep-house”), and at Shochiku film studio, he organised a haiku group with his colleagues and put a lot of effort into haiku. The following is one of his earliest haikus [2]:


sunflowers

taller and taller

already autumn

日まわりのたけたかだかと秋となり


Although this was made when Ozu was in his twenties, it reminds me of the images of his later films. In my view, in a sense, haiku is literature that has flourished on the dense power emitted from plants or flowers. That could be a reason Ozu sometimes uses plants as implicit but strong backgrounds in his films. In Early Summer, the memorable ending sequence was shot in a wheat field (Moreover, the Japanese title of Early Summer is literally 'autumn of wheat'). Although in Ozu films shooting cameras almost never move, the camera in this ending sequence shows a dynamic move as well as wheat moving in the wind.



Starting in his twenties, he continued creating haikus to the very end of his life as below [3]:

while fishing for sardines

I thought about

my helplessness

すべなさは鰯つりつり想ひけり


kissing is

also in the dream

—spring rain.

口づけも夢のなかなり春の雨


the glare

of rape blossoms in the eyes

that are still alive

未だ生きてゐる目に菜の花の眩しさ


rape blossoms

nights fell

yesterday and today

菜の花に昨日も今日も暮にけり


autumn fly

the eight-year war

was long.

秋の蝿八年のいくさ長かりき


petals

blow into

the knees of a Buddha statue

葩や仏の膝に吹きだまる


With this haiku about fishing, it is interesting that fishing may be one of the most striking scenes in his films. The film There was a Father has a scene in which a father and little son stand side by side fishing in a river, and a similar fishing scene decades later in this film is intentionally repeated to express the change of their relationship. Also, in the film Floating Weeds, you can see a scene in which an old father and young son sit side by side fishing at sea. 



Indeed, each of the other haikus seem to be connected to his film world in one way or another.


Aside from creating haiku, Ozu also enjoyed practicing renku. Renku literally means "lined-up haikus" and, roughly speaking, it is the method of creating a literary work as a whole by forming a group and connecting haikus created by each person in that group. And once, Ozu said that renku was hugely suggestive for his film creation.


"The composition in renku has something in common with film montage. We learned a lot from our renku experience” [4].


If there are some elements haiku-like in Ozu’s films, it is something that should be emphasized rather than the Zen-like "nothingness" or "absence" or seasonal Japanese emotions. As François Truffaut pointed out, Ozu's films have a strange sensibility of space, and I believe it must be an aesthetic cultivated from the sense of composition of haiku and renku.


Interestingly, in fact, even in the world of haiku in the same era as Ozu, innovation was occurring by introducing a new sensibility of space. Haiku is often considered a literary art that pursues the traditional beauty of Japanese culture, but this view is one-sided. In the 1930s, the modernism haiku movement took place, with haiku poets actively trying to describe little-experienced new spaces created by modern civilization, such as underground streets, aircraft, or mechanical warfare. Such modernist haiku was led by haiku poets of the same generation as Ozu.


Ozu's haikus in the era when the modernist haiku movement was going on contain the above-mentioned 'kissing' and 'glare' haikus. It is unclear how much Ozu was aware of such a new haiku movement, but those haikus of his have the vividness of images commonly found in the modernist haiku movement.


You can witness similar kinds of vividness in his films. Take a look at the famous 'sandals' scene here from Tokyo Story.


These sandals are left in the hallway of an inn which indicate an old couple is sleeping inside the room. It might be said this imagery implies a sort of emptiness like Zen. In a way, it may be true, but I don't think it is sufficient.


What about this imagery from Tokyo Story?



The old couple is walking down the staircase at a department store in Tokyo. This image is occupied by the rule of simplicity, you might say. But it is not Zen-like or even haiku-like. In my feeling, this sensibility is generated from somewhere between modernism and haiku-like essence.


Look at this imagery from the ending part of Floating Weeds which features a train passing away.



You may be able to call it a Zen-like image as well, but it is more than that. In my view, Ozu's sensibility in these scenes might be said to be something like modernized haiku essence or haiku essence behind modernism. Interestingly, 20th-century haiku history can be described as a struggle between modernism and tradition. It is often considered a conflict, but a few poets achieved the fusion of these two. I believe Ozu also accomplished this goal in the film field while learning a lot from haiku.


In any case, he began creating haiku in the era when haiku was about to be transformed under the influence of modern civilization, and he never let go of haiku while continuing to make films throughout his life.


NOTES


[2] Hidetaka Matsuoka, Yasujiro Ozu's Haikus, Kawade Shobo Shinsha publishing, 2020. Translations into English by Yuzo Ono.

[3] ibid.

[4] “The film director Ozu talks,” Kinema Junpo April 1st 1947 issue, Kinema Junpo Press.


Images in order of appearance: From Tokyo Story, Early Summer (2), There Was a Father, Floating Weeds, Tokyo Story (2), Tokyo Story, Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds.


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