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Film Club: Early Summer (Ozu, 1951)

Early SummerWelcome to the April 2012 edition of the Akira Kurosawa online film club, where we watch and discuss a new film every month. This month, our attention will be directed at Yasujiro Ozu’s 1951 work Early Summer (麦秋, “Barley harvest time”), while continuing to keep our last month’s feature, Kurosawa’s The Idiot, also at the back of our minds.

Early Summer and The Idiot have a number of things in common. To begin with, both films were released in 1951, in fact only four months apart from one other. They both star Setsuko Hara, although in very different roles and performances. The two films also share two other actors: Chieko Higashiyama plays a mother in both films, while Kurosawa regular Kokuten Kodo (10 Kurosawa films) makes his only appearance for Ozu, playing the role of the Uncle in Early Summer.

Thematically, both works can fairly straightforwardly be identified as post-war films. In March, we discussed the possibility of interpreting The Idiot as a “post-apocalyptic work” as suggested by Alexander Burry. Early Summer, meanwhile, concerns itself with marriage and topics such as changing family dynamics in post-war Japan. In doing so, it closely resembles Ozu’s 1949 film Late Spring, which we watched last year. With the two films sharing a very similar story, same core actors and even character names, the obvious question to ask is why Ozu felt like returning to the topic only two years after Late Spring and what the relationship between the two films really was meant to be. Together with Ozu’s 1953 Tokyo Story, which we will be watching in June, the three films constitute what is called Ozu’s “Noriko trilogy” after the fact that the three films all feature a main character called Noriko, played by Setsuko Hara.

An in-depth discussion of Early Summer can be found in David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, which can be downloaded for free from the Centre for Japanese Studies website (pdf, 423mb). I would highly recommend taking a look at the book and its section on Early Summer, and would especially like to point out Bordwell’s observation about Ozu’s use of narrative gaps, or how the film skips over sequences that one would consider central to the story, most importantly Noriko’s wedding at the end. This is a narrative technique which also Kurosawa was exploring at the time, first in Rashomon which was built entirely around the question of missing pieces of information, then in The Idiot (although due to the studio cuts it is difficult to say to what extent), Ikiru where the sequence of events is reconstructed after Watanabe’s death, and finally and perhaps most prominently in Seven Samurai, which repeatedly skips over exposition, arguably partly to confuse the audience and partly simply to move the story forward.

For information about the availability of Early Summer, see the Akira Kurosawa online film club page. The page also includes our full schedule.

For our discussion of Late Spring from last August, see these links:

Film Club: Late Spring
About that vase…
Noriko and the way she moves
Sexuality in Ozu and Kurosawa
Two Hattoris, one Satake and one half of Gary Cooper

In May, we will be watching Kurosawa’s Ikiru. For availability information, see the Kurosawa DVD guide.


Discussion

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Ugetsu

Great introduction as always, Vili.

A few years ago a friend gave me the ‘Noriko Trilogy’ as a birthday present – Tokyo Story, Late Spring and Early Summer. At the time, I thought Early Summer was a very inferior work compared to the other two, which I have watched several times while I only watched Early Summer the once.

I watched it last night and while I don’t think it has the depth of the very best of Ozu, I found much in it that is very intriguing. Its significantly longer than the other film (Ozu films are usually quiet short) and rambles a bit at times, it doesn’t have that subtle focus Ozu films usually have I think. It benefits from a terrific ensemble cast, lots of familiar faces in it from other Ozu and Kurosawa films, and unlike the other two ‘Noriko’ films it is very funny in spots. Oddly enough, as I’m a big fan, I thought that Setsuko Hara was one of the weak links in the film, she seemed a bit miscast in it for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. While in Late Spring her character is fascinating in her opaqueness, in this film I found her character a little irritating in her indecisiveness.

One striking point about the film is that it is almost devoid of serious character conflict – there is no ‘bad’ person in the film – the conflicts are almost entirely internal (the characters inner confliction about what to do), or entirely lighthearted (Noriko’s female friends are always bickering about whether its better to be married or single, but its really just good natured banter between friends). Without exception, the characters are well meaning and likeable, even if occasionally a little misguided. Ozu made other films like this of course, but this one seems to be at the extreme of his generally optimistic view of human nature and Japanese families.

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Vili Maunula

Thanks, Ugetsu.

Your observations are quite similar to mine, after seeing Early Summer for the first time last weekend. I liked it a lot, but it felt like a lesser work than Late Spring or Tokyo Story. I too paid special attention to the humour in the film, which reminded me of some of the silent Ozu films that we watched earlier. Unlike you though, I had no problem with Hara’s character or performance. I actually thought that she was pretty excellent here in the role.

It’s an interesting observation that the film doesn’t have any negative characters (unless you consider the young boy). I’m trying to remember though, were there any in Late Spring, either?

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Longstone

I think for me it’s becoming increasingly difficult to choose between the three films that are bunched together as the Noriko trilogy the more I watch them . Mind you,I am a total Ozu convert now and I really can’t find a film of his I don’t enjoy.
Ozu didn’t make them as a trilogy, I assume it’s just critics and DVD manufacturers that have coined the phrase , I don’t know if he ever explained the repeated use of the same character name ?
Although Early Summer does explore the theme of marriage in post war Japan, just as Late Spring did, there are a number of differences that, given the amount of times in his career Ozu did revisit and rework ideas, make it quite a different film.
There are some simple things , the family structure is very different  e.g. Noriko’s parents are both still alive where as Late Spring is the story of a widower which adds a completely different spin on why his only daughter may not wish to get married. Late spring seemed a much sadder film , an exploration of loneliness to be endured in order to continue the traditions of pre war Japan. In Early Summer the tone is different and more light hearted , the family will ultimately be split up but no one will be lonely as three distinct family units remain. The Uncle and Noriko’s parents , Noriko and the husband she chose for herself and her brother his wife and children.
Early Summer seems to highlight some interesting things about the influx of western ideas post war using the group of girl friends behaviour , the eating of expensive cake , visiting of modern coffee bars ( not just the Japanese style restaurants common in other Ozu movies) even the fact that they discuss being single women is presumably a post war trait?
I admit Late Spring blew me away when I first saw it but I think Early Summer comes close , I love the performances especially Kokuten Kodo as the Uncle and the various children . I think Ozu’s direction of child actors was amazing as also demonstrated in “Good Morning” and “I was Born But” where pairs of brothers similarly misbehave .
It’s also interesting to see Chishu Ryu playing a younger character rather than the widower in Late Spring or Grandfather in Tokyo Story . I also thought Hara was excellent in all three Noriko roles. As always there are some wonderful scenes and I particularly like the visit to the Kamakura Buddha and the parents sitting in the park eating lunch reflecting on their life while spotting a balloon floating away.

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Vili Maunula

Longstone: Ozu didn’t make them as a trilogy, I assume it’s just critics and DVD manufacturers that have coined the phrase , I don’t know if he ever explained the repeated use of the same character name ?

I don’t know if he ever did, but I would say that if you make three films with the same actress in each playing a character of the same name, you must be doing it for a reason, or at least realise that you will be expected to be doing it for a reason. Moreover, Early Summer literally continues where Late Spring left off (the image of the waves) and their subject matters are very similar. In fact, in both films Noriko’s best friend is even called Aya.

Having said that, I fully agree with you that they are quite different films. I think that they can be looked at individually, although they do benefit from comparison as well.

Longstone: Early Summer seems to highlight some interesting things about the influx of western ideas post war using the group of girl friends behaviour , the eating of expensive cake , visiting of modern coffee bars ( not just the Japanese style restaurants common in other Ozu movies) even the fact that they discuss being single women is presumably a post war trait?

This is an aspect of the film that I find quite fascinating. There were Western references in Late Spring as well, but it seems to me that the two films approach them quite differently. The earlier film seemed to use them as references to the occupation, but in Early Summer they come across more as a fact of life. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that Early Summer was released just a month after the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco, which formally marked the end of the occupation.

Longstone: I think Ozu’s direction of child actors was amazing as also demonstrated in “Good Morning” and “I was Born But” where pairs of brothers similarly misbehave .

I didn’t really like the children in Early Summer, which is interesting because I really liked the children in I Was Born But…, and they are practically acting the same there. But I felt that their theatricality worked well in the silent film, while it felt a little out of place in the otherwise quite realistic Early Summer.

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Ugetsu

Longstone

Ozu didn’t make them as a trilogy, I assume it’s just critics and DVD manufacturers that have coined the phrase , I don’t know if he ever explained the repeated use of the same character name ?

Perhaps its a big whimsical of me, but I’ve always thought of Ozu as a kind of jazz musician, constantly trying out variation on the same set of notes. I guess its one of the advantages Directors had in the days of the big Studios that they could do this – essentially keep working on a theme (so long as it was box-office of course), rather than as with modern Directors, where it is assumed they have to keep changing and advance, or be accused of being stale and repetitive, or Woody Allen.

I think its worth pointing out that in the pre TV/DVD/VHS days, cinema was a much more ephemeral art. Once a film completed its run, it was more or less history, unless it was popular enough to justify revivals or matinee showings (apart of course for private showings for small groups of academics, specialists or enthusiasts). So it would be no more unusual for a director to rework their own films than for a theatre director to do the same play many times in his career, but trying something a little different every time.

Vili

There were Western references in Late Spring as well, but it seems to me that the two films approach them quite differently. The earlier film seemed to use them as references to the occupation, but in Early Summer they come across more as a fact of life.

One of the scenes I’ve been wondering about is where Noriko’s friend says something along the lines of ‘I’ve always seen you married, with a refrigerator full of coca cola’, and then quotes her in Americanised English. It seems to suggest that American consumerism was very much considered an aspiration for more forward looking middle class Japanese at the time. In other films, Ozu seemed much more sceptical about westernisation, or more precisely, Americanisation of the culture.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: Perhaps its a big whimsical of me, but I’ve always thought of Ozu as a kind of jazz musician, constantly trying out variation on the same set of notes.

This is exactly, almost word for word, how I described my current view of Ozu to someone a little while ago!

Ugetsu: I think its worth pointing out that in the pre TV/DVD/VHS days, cinema was a much more ephemeral art.

Definitely!

Ugetsu: One of the scenes I’ve been wondering about is where Noriko’s friend says something along the lines of ‘I’ve always seen you married, with a refrigerator full of coca cola’, and then quotes her in Americanised English.

Indeed. I was wondering if Ozu and Noda (co-writer) were also thinking here about the “Drink Coca Cola” sign which made an appearance in Late Spring.

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cocoskyavitch

I’m sorry…I have a head cold, so this may not be the right place, but Ugetsu‘s mention of the ephemeral nature of film before the mass marketing of home video is so incredibly true…I think we all must contextualize the entire Benshi function in light of that ephemerality, and really really keep in mind how a film worked in the day before DVDs. It really WAS like a live show-you saw a film once if you were lucky~! It existed much as a play existed. Hmmm.

Ugestsu offered and Vili seconded

“Ugetsu: Perhaps its a big whimsical of me, but I’ve always thought of Ozu as a kind of jazz musician, constantly trying out variation on the same set of notes.”

Or, may I suggest…a little like the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi who used a limited set of props to create variations on a theme of still lifes. The reason I want to interject this qualifier is that I believe that Ozu is not, primarily a progressive artist-he is a wonderful, deeply introspective, occasionally hilarious, often quite painfully honest artist whose works “riff” off other cultures (minor melodies for the most part) and also are deeply embedded in his own culture. So, he is a bit more conservative than the experimental qualities that I think characterize Jazz. Unless, of course, you mean Jazz today-as it exists after the innovations of the earlier artists. But, then, I think Ozu was on the ground floor-not a “copying” or “post-innovation” or really a “post” anything artist. The exact nature of his work is delicate, though-and not so experimental as conservative in the very very best meaning of the word.

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Ugetsu

Coco

Or, may I suggest…a little like the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi who used a limited set of props to create variations on a theme of still lifes. The reason I want to interject this qualifier is that I believe that Ozu is not, primarily a progressive artist-he is a wonderful, deeply introspective, occasionally hilarious, often quite painfully honest artist whose works “riff” off other cultures (minor melodies for the most part) and also are deeply embedded in his own culture. So, he is a bit more conservative than the experimental qualities that I think characterize Jazz

I agree – I hadn’t really been thinking of Ozu as an experimentalist in the way good Jazz musicians were – I meant it more in the way that he was more interested in the performance rather than the song.

Having said that, I think he was very forward thinking in his own way – I know he was not happy (as were many film makers) with technological advances such as widescreen, but I think he seemed quite happy with experimenting, but only on his own terms. I think his use of colour in his later films was amazing – much better than Mizoguchi who didn’t seem to quite know what to do with it.

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Amnesty11

Oh, look at all the fun I’ve been missing! Gee how I’d love to be stuck in the corner of some boring old cocktail party with the lot of you, discussing AK and O!

First of all, I am new to Ozu and want to state that as a disclaimer — and so saying, may not be welcome in the corner after all once you read this post…

I had a very difficult time loving or liking Late Spring and almost as difficult a time with Early Summer. So sorry Coco, it may be that I’m not “ready” for Ozu yet? I have never had this happen before but during both films, I fell asleep three times. I kept trying to keep myself awake, but would find myself lulled by the pacing of both films into slumber.
I am not the type to sleep during films, no matter how late the hour. Hmmm….

If I had to choose, I would have to say Early Summer kept my attention the most. I enjoyed the discussion of marriage vs. Singlehood and was impressed by the discussion. It seemed so forward of the women to behave that way, though I think that speaks of my ignorance on just how much the occupation was changing the world view of the Japanese and how quickly that was happening.

I have to say, I did love the scene in the coffee shop with the wild modern art on the wall, so suggestive as to almost be pornographic and the four women, two kimono-clad and two western dressed, sitting having proper tea and cake beneath it. I also loved the connection of the two Single women and their endearing banter about how they didn’t have to rush home or make compromises, all punctuated with the cloyingly sweet but deeply meaningful “ne?” Loved that!

I also loved the very tight filming of the interior of homes, especially Noriko’s family home. That was beautiful and must have been very hard to design the seamless camera work around that small maze-like boxed setting. Does anyone know more about that?

I also was shocked and amused and then shocked again at the conversation between Noriko’s unmarried friend and Noriko’s boss near the end of the film when she goes to pick up Noriko and she’s not there. The boss basically cozies up to Norikos friend, which I felt she liked (I was curious, did she have a crush on him? Was this implied? Did I fall asleep at some point here too?!O). But then he ends up trashing her and implies that she is a sleep around. And has that creepy, awful laugh too. That scene was jarring and I didn’t exactly understand it.

I also found the men in Early Summer to be dullards. Chishu was a terrible actor, in my opinion. He looked half the time like he was reading off of cue cards, especially when Ozu cut to a medium shot of his reaction to something coupled with a monologue of about a paragraph’s length. Ugh. Sorry Chishu fans! The other men in the film seemed to move so slowly and have not an ounce of spark. Who could blame Noriko for feeling like marriage wasn’t for her? I’d have gladly stayed an old maid. Except that I would have had to live in that household with that bratty, disrespectful nephew! Another male with no potential!

From an earlier discussion here about Late Spring:

Vili

That is an interesting generalisation dylanexpert, and I think a fairly accurate one as well. The one thing that I would like to note is that many of Ozu’s shots do actually make me go “oooh” or “ahhh”. His compositions are simply brilliant, and although they rarely draw attention to themselves, it seems to me that you can freeze a frame pretty much at any point in an Ozu film, and what you are left with is a highly artistic arrangement of things.

I also went ooh and ahhh a few times and did love the setting, and the way one felt one was in the home with the characters. Many simple moments like eating cake and tea and hiding the cake from bratty son and watching him not only walk into the toilet area but start to lift up his robe…there were beautiful shots of simple living that I can’t deny weren’t totally worth the coma that the rest of the film put me into. And it’s true, there were many of these. But those little glowing embers of beauty never had enough wind or air to flame into a fire for me. I really feel like I must be missing something — it feels like something that I might feel if I were 12 and the adults around me were discussing a movie I’d seen too but they were getting something out of it that I just couldn’t grasp.

Well…maybe Tokyo Story will be the clincher.

P.S. I did enjoy Setsuko much more in this film (above The Idiot and Late Spring). She seemed believable, whereas in Late Spring she did not. Her coy smile and deflecting personality were much more subdued and believable here compared to LS.

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Longstone

Hi Amnesty
I was wondering what you would make of your first Ozu , personally I was hooked straight away , ( I saw Tokyo story first ) . However I have known a few people that had the same reaction as you , though they perhaps didn’t have a particular interest in Japanese cinema .
I can see that his style wouldn’t be for everyone but I have to agree with David Bordwell that Ozu is one of the greatest of all film makers. I love the detail in the shots ( especially the interiors ) as far as I know all the buildings were sets constructed to give the exact effect he required , frames within frames and objects placed exactly to his requirements.
Perhaps you should try watching ” Good Morning ” before Tokyo Story .
I have converted a few people with that wonderful light comedy .
Part of the charm for me is the apparent slow pace , but I always find so much to enjoy on repeated viewings.

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Amnesty11

Longstone,

I will take you up on your suggestion to watch “Good Morning” first before Tokyo Story. I find that it takes me awhile to get to the films, much less comment. But am doing my best to keep up. So hopefully can fit that one in.

After reading all the commentary here (especially about the possibility of Noriko’s lesbianism and the thought of her soon to be mother-in-law as her maybe her soon-to-be lover) I feel I should take another look. I also think I should watch it while the sun is up. The pacing might indeed be too slow for me to keep me interested in the evening hours.

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Ugetsu

Hi Amnesty, it is important I think to be alert watching older films to really get what they are about, its so easy to miss subtleties. For a long time I’ve struggled with my schedule to watch them earlier in the day – so often I’d only start watching quite late in the evening, so I’m starting to snooze near the end (not with Kurosawa films though, they always keep me alert!). I’m sure there are lots of films I’ve been a bit ‘meh’ about, but I would have enjoyed much more if I’d watched them when fully awake.

Now if only I could persuade my employer to let me take afternoons off so I could properly enjoy my dvds…..

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Amnesty11

Yeah, really Ugetsu! We all need our employers to be a little more forgiving of our creative pursuits!

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Vili Maunula

My original reaction to Ozu was similar to yours, Amnesty. I had just discovered Kurosawa and Oshima, and was extremely excited to see my first Ozu films. What a disappointment! I simply couldn’t understand how one could stay awake through his snoozefests, let alone find something meaningful in them.

It took me a few films to get into the rhythm. Then, something somewhere clicked. One thing that probably also helped was my year in Japan in the late 90s. You obviously don’t need to move there in order to appreciate his films, but for me it gave some perspective to understand what he is talking about.

These days, I notice that almost every Ozu film that I watch makes me appreciate him more. I must also say that the silent Ozu films that we watched last year had quite a huge impact on the way I see Ozu. If you have the chance to check out I Was Born, But…, do that.

As for Chishu Ryu, I’m with you there. I actually like him, but he certainly isn’t among my favourite actors. The films might have been better with someone else in his roles.

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Amnesty11

I’m sure that you’re right Vili. This is tangential, but I often think about that very idea, living here in Los Angeles. How one can’t really know LA until you’ve lived here – it’s an easy place to judge. I moved here in the late 80s and it was just one large mosh pit to me. I hated it. But as time has gone by, there are subtleties to the neighborhoods that make it a city full of small hamlets, if you will. Each hamlet has its own rules of conduct having to do with how one dresses, what one does for a living, how one speaks, where one’s kids are more likely to go to school, how one recreates, what one might be doing in their free time. Now I can tell where someone lives very quickly. Not a judgement, but recognizing the subtle differences in dress and manner, conduct. I’m a bit Henry Higgins like, I guess in that way.

That seems to have nothing to do with Ozu, sorry, but what I mean by it is so often easy to judge something without really having an understanding of it at all. I’m certain that Ozu must be the same way, I am new to understanding Japanese society and yes, I think that being able to live there for any length of time would open up my head (and heart) to a film master like Ozu, who is currently just out of my scope of understanding.

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Amnesty11

And just to follow through on that comparison, I love LA now. Couldn’t imagine not living here! Maybe I will come to love Ozu as well…

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lawless

Ozu’s films are simply not to my taste. Of the ones we’ve watched so far, the only one I’ve enjoyed is Tokyo Chorus.

I don’t think anyone has any reason to apologize for not liking his movies, just as there’s no need to apologize for not liking any director’s movies. It’s not just a matter of merit but also of preference.

In this case, too much of the dialogue struck me as trite (and sometimes contradictory) and many of the character motivations baffled me. Like Vili, I found the movie somewhat meandering, with shots that, while beautiful, were unclear in their purpose.

On the other hand, I found the Noriko in this movie more appealing and understandable than the Noriko in Late Summer. But one of the puzzlements of the film (for me, anyway) is why, other than it being her idea and not theirs, Noriko’s family reacts so negatively to her marrying Kenkichi. Although she implies that they’ll be scrimping and saving, earlier Kenkichi told his mother that he’d be receiving a substantial raise. Plus one would expect that living expenses in the country would be less than in Tokyo.

It makes so much more sense to me that she’d want to marry someone she’d known a long time than a complete stranger and, as she says, she likes children and seems to have a better relatiionship with her nephews, and an ability to get them to obey her, than their parents do. In fact, I had already thought that Kenkichi would be a better match for her before his mother even mentioned it to Noriko and was gratified to see that Ozu thought so too.

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Longstone

I agree it’s simply a matter of taste , it certainly doesn’t follow that if a person enjoys Kurosawa that they will enjoy Ozu . Or that if you enjoy one film by a director you will like all his work.
I think I’m easily pleased when it comes to Japanese film , and extremely grateful that modern technology have given us much easier access to such a wide range of titles.
Personally I can’t get enough Ozu , but I totally understand why other people might not enjoy watching his films. There is a pretty distinct divide between his silent comedies and later sound work and I know people that enjoy the silents a lot more than the later work and vice versa .
I like the fact that we have the opportunity to compare and discuss these directors and it’s more interesting because we have different tastes .

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Ugetsu

I surprised myself in liking Ozu. I came across Ozu more or less randomly when I was persuaded to go to a showing of Tokyo Story in my local art cinema. I mainly went because I was thinking of going to Japan for the first time so I thought I’d try to absorb as much Japanese culture as I could (not exactly easy if you are living in Dublin). I’d only very vaguely heard of Ozu before and I wasn’t enthusiastic about going as I had (and still have) a bit of an allergy to small scale domestic cinema, maybe as a result of having seen too many English kitchen sink dramas on TV. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had at the cinema. The small cinema was about 70% full. I was a little bored and confused at first, trying to get used to the pace and the odd camerawork. At the end I was crying and I was gratified to see I wasn’t alone. In fact, virtually everyone in the cinema was just sitting, weeping as the titles ended. I think everyone was embarrassed leaving the theatre, I don’t think anyone was expecting to have that emotional reaction to it. I’ve been fascinated by his films ever since, even though I do prefer the dynamism and complexity of Kurosawa’s work.

Lawless

But one of the puzzlements of the film (for me, anyway) is why, other than it being her idea and not theirs, Noriko’s family reacts so negatively to her marrying Kenkichi. Although she implies that they’ll be scrimping and saving, earlier Kenkichi told his mother that he’d be receiving a substantial raise. Plus one would expect that living expenses in the country would be less than in Tokyo.

I found that a little odd too, but I think the main reason why they react negatively (apart from the blow to their pride that she has undermined all their plotting) is that while Kinkichi is not a loser, it seems clear that Noriko’s family consider his family to be a little below them – he is well behind Noriko’s brother in his career (despite being apparently about the same age). I think there are a lot of little hints that although the families have friendly relationships, mainly through the children, there is a distinct class difference between them.

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lawless

I saw a film of Ozu’s — I’m pretty sure it was Tokyo Story — while I was in law school, well after I’d seen my first Kurosawa films. All I remember about it is that it featured an elderly man and the gulf between him and his family. I liked it, but what happened in it didn’t stick with me afterward the way Kurosawa’s movies did.

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cocoskyavitch

Taste, schmaste. What I mean is, don’t make everything taste-relative. Let’s just say it out loud: Ozu is a film great.

We hear this “taste” thing in art all the time, yet there is, emphatically, a difference between the very highest achievements and those that don’t hit the mark. Sorry to be treading on dangerous territory…

What I hear in your words, Amnesty, is a willingness to say that a deeper knowledge sometimes affords one a deeper appreciation. Your illustration of life in LA means that you understood more intimately that life than when you first arrived-and could appreciate difference in a deeper way over time, with experience.

Having just been through InterCultural Development Inventory training in Portland, I believe that I can speak to that openness and willingness to see things from different perspectives-we think there is a continuum of cultural knowledge from denial to adaptation, and that points along the spectrum include minimization through acceptance and adaptation.

So, I would ask the universe to give the same courtesy to art (which is, after all-deeply rooted in culture) that they give to other manifestations of culture-that is; to wait and see what you learn, be open to difference, and see if you can wrap your head around it, and then, accept and embrace it. Ozu is very great-one of the super novas of film-by all accounts a master. I am talking about lists of greats that are devised by critics who see a LOT of film. Ozu gets a star. His profound understanding of the human condition contains deep humor, sadness, loss, regret, longing, and pathos.

What I have learned from watching Ozu films is that a slower pace and timing allows the evolution of a story to develop like time-lapse photography of a flower.” I Was Born, But…” is hilarious and deeply moving. “Floating Weeds” is as entertaining as anything I have seen by anyone with considerable pathos and a happy but wry ending (the second version is my favorite), and Tokyo Story is utterly heartbreaking. (Ugetsu-I am with you! I cried like a baby!)

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Vili Maunula

Coco: We hear this “taste” thing in art all the time, yet there is, emphatically, a difference between the very highest achievements and those that don’t hit the mark.

While I agree with this, I would also say that taste matters a great deal.

There are plenty of artists whose works I don’t like, yet whom I admire. Quentin Tarantino is a good example that’s on my mind today because I just read an interview with him: I don’t like anything that I have seen from him, yet I very much admire his passion and recognise his works as high achievements in film art. Granted, I haven’t seen everything that he has done, in fact nothing recent from him, but that’s only because the ones that I have seen I haven’t liked, so I have decided to spend my time with other things that I perceive as giving a better return to my time invested.

There is too much to experience in this world to spend time on something that you don’t seem to get anything out of.

I will, of course, make an exception when something comes out that I feel I might like, or at least find interesting. As I will do once Django Unchained comes out. I love the original Django, plus this one has DiCpario who doesn’t really do bad films.

So, I can perfectly understand someone who says that they don’t like Ozu (or Kurosawa for that matter). What I wouldn’t understand, however, is someone denying that Ozu was a great artist. At least not without a book-long treatment on the subject to back up that argument.

Similarly, I can perfectly understand if someone gets a lot out of something that, on the scale of “achievements in art”, is not perceived to be very high. If a TV soap opera works as the catalyst that allows you to understand or experience something profound that you otherwise wouldn’t have, then good for you.

Ultimately, for me “high achievements in art” and “stuff worthy of your time” aren’t the same thing. Unless you are simply trying to educate yourself about high achievements in art, in which case you should stay away from TV soap operas.

You also wrote that when confronted with something unfamiliar (at least in art), you hope that people would “wait and see what you learn, be open to difference, and see if you can wrap your head around it, and then, accept and embrace it”. I totally agree with this with sentiment, but would stress that rather than automatically accepting and embracing something, just form an informed opinion about it. If it’s not something that you want to accept and embrace, it’s perfectly ok not to. Just keep in mind that some other people may still accept and embrace what you don’t. The important thing is to understand the difference, not necessarily to accept it.

A typical example often used in cross-cultural studies is bullfighting. For some people it is art. For others it is animal cruelty. Arguments can get quite heated. I don’t think that anyone has to accept and embrace bullfighting, I personally don’t think that I do. But I strongly feel that before judging, one should at least try understand it.

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cocoskyavitch

I first must apologize deeply to lawless for being so dismissive and abrupt in my criticism of “personal taste”. I am sorry, lawless. Your gentle statement hit a trigger that is a particular irritant-a bit of sand under the eyelid so to speak- I found myself exploding with crabbiness.

Let me state unequivocally: we all are entitled to our own aesthetic responses-this is untouchable truth-something I would argue, even fight for! This forum has been a wonderful place to hear the responses of others and to share one’s own ideas and feelings about film arts. Please accept my heartfelt apology for minimizing that.

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cocoskyavitch

And, now on to Vili‘s statement:

A typical example often used in cross-cultural studies is bullfighting.

Well, in the Intercultural Development Inventory Qualifying Seminar I attended last month in Portland, we did discuss cultural relativism-and morality. I will say that cross-cultural ethical and moral behavior is more complicated than “some people like bullfighting, some find it animal cruelty”. Hammering out universal standards will continue to be work for organizations such as UNESCO and all those magnificent unsung heroes in the trenches of grassroots and community organizations-especially those working with political refugees. And the university has it’s work cut out for it as well. We are now past the era of biting our tongues and grudgingly “tolerating” difference-and must learn to understand and deal more deeply with complex differences. However, universalism is still a sticking point-minimization works because it “erases” uncomfortable differences. That’s what stops real growth.

There are several levels past minimization that need to be accomplished.

But, my distaste for minimizing qualitative differences in aesthetics is not on a moral or ethical level-this is strictly on the aesthetic plane-the hierarchy of excellence exists beyond personal taste and cultural relativism.

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lawless

Coco – Apology accepted. I didn’t even see your post until after Vili‘s, and I could tell I had hit a hot button of some sort.

Perhaps “preference” is a better term than “taste,” because “taste” implies something quantifiable and objective, which I only think is achievable at the extremes. I don’t like Citizen Kane, which many critics consider one of the best movies ever made, mostly because I don’t care about the characters (a problem I have with many of the Ozu films I’ve watched so far). I understand why it’s rated so highly, but it doesn’t speak to or engage me, so I didn’t enjoy it. Just because someone is an accomplished director or other type of artist doesn’t mean everyone is going to like their work.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

Perhaps “preference” is a better term than “taste,” because “taste” implies something quantifiable and objective, which I only think is achievable at the extremes.

I’d agree with that, ‘preference’ is a good term, although even that doesn’t quite encapsulate it. I would make the distinction between not liking an esteemed work of art because it doesn’t work for you personally (i.e. taste or preference), and having an honest intellectual opinion that its overrated. Personally, Tarkovsky (and most Russian literature and film) leaves me a bit cold, but I can see exactly why he is so highly praised. The same for Antonioni, another film maker who does nothing for me, but I can see why he is so respected. On the other hand, there are some film makers who I think are simply over-rated – in particular a few modern Asian art film makers who in my opinion are simply catering to western cinephiles who don’t know they are being ‘played’. But I think if I’m going to criticise them, I should be willing to back up my arguments (as should anyone).

With regard to classic Japanese film, Mizoguchi is actually to my ‘taste’ – I love the exoticism and beauty of his films and I’m a sucker for those romantic historical tragedies he was so good at making. But my ‘rational’ side is convinced he is over-rated, at least relative to Ozu and Kurosawa, who I consider to be superior artists by a significant degree.

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lawless

Ugetsu:

With regard to classic Japanese film, Mizoguchi is actually to my ‘taste’ – I love the exoticism and beauty of his films and I’m a sucker for those romantic historical tragedies he was so good at making. But my ‘rational’ side is convinced he is over-rated, at least relative to Ozu and Kurosawa, who I consider to be superior artists by a significant degree.

I see this as having more to do with others’ assessment of Mizoguchi than with the intrinsic worth of Mizoguchi’s ouevre. In my opinion, he’s not on quite the same level artistically as Kurosawa and Ozu, although having only seen The 47 Ronin, Ugetsu, and Sansho the Bailiff, perhaps I haven’t seen enough of his movies to tell.

For one thing, his movies don’t seem to be as consistent as Ozu or Kurosawa’s. This may be due to his interests being more diffuse than theirs, but it is to his discredit when the resulting movies are of varying quality and interest. However, his point of view and interests coincide with mine much more than Ozu‘s do, making even his flawed movies more enjoyable for me to watch than Ozu‘s.

This discussion in itself reaffirms the place of preference or taste (take your pick) in determing which artists’ works are worth spending one’s time on. Irrespective of where an artist is on the quality spectrum, the real point is how the viewer responds to the artist’s work. A work can be technically and artistically accomplished, yet if it doesn’t speak to you, there is no purpose in spending more time on it rather than something that does.

Similarly, these other directors whose work you consider overrated may simply be doing things that don’t interest you. Whether they’re as artistically gifted as others think they are is a separate issue. I find that oftentimes reviews and critiques that are couched in terms of artistic giftedness are really about personal preferences because critics think it gives more of a veneer of objectivity not to discuss how their preferences and biases inform their response to a work.

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Vili Maunula

Coco: I will say that cross-cultural ethical and moral behavior is more complicated than “some people like bullfighting, some find it animal cruelty”.

Absolutely! It is so complicated that even the question whether bullfighting is an ethical or moral question can legitimately be debated.

My background in this is cross-cultural communication, which I studied “on the side” while at the university. I found it so interesting that I actually ended up writing my language pedagogy graduation thesis on the subject of cross cultural communication, or more specifically its role in foreign language education. Since graduating, I have also kept bumping into issues of cross cultural communication at my daily work (as a literary agent concentrating on international sales and acquisitions), and also at special work related events including industry gettogethers / training seminars.

It’s a fascinating subject and you are absolutely right that the topics can become extremely complex. To be honest, I don’t envy those UNESCO people who need to tackle these things for real on a daily basis, and with actual tangible consequences!

Coco: But, my distaste for minimizing qualitative differences in aesthetics is not on a moral or ethical level-this is strictly on the aesthetic plane-the hierarchy of excellence exists beyond personal taste and cultural relativism.

I totally get where you are coming from, but perhaps our approaches differ a little, or at least we emphasise things a little differently.

I suppose the basic question is how much emphasis we put on the object and how much on the subject. While I agree that we can compare art pieces and say that one is higher on the hierarchy of excellence that you mentioned, ultimately I think that art is always soulless without an observer. And with an observer comes a whole bag of matters that complicate things enormously and lead to situations where I find it perfectly acceptable and logical if someone prefers Rihanna over Rachmaninoff, not only in terms of “taste” but also in terms of “artistic satisfaction”.

But I think that I’m only repeating what Ugetsu and Lawless already wrote here.

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Amnesty11

Vili –

While I agree that we can compare art pieces and say that one is higher on the hierarchy of excellence that you mentioned, ultimately I think that art is always soulless without an observer. And with an observer comes a whole bag of matters that complicate things enormously and lead to situations where I find it perfectly acceptable and logical if someone prefers Rihanna over Rachmaninoff, not only in terms of “taste” but also in terms of “artistic satisfaction”.

Yes, I agree. I know that my reaction to Ikiru as being a bit too maudlin for me comes from my own medical history. My “whole bag of matters” colors my perspective of Watanabe’s disposition in the first 2/3 of the film. I couldn’t relate to his reaction because mine was very different when I faced my possible imminent death some years ago. Point being that art’s value to the observer (no matter Rihanna or Rachmaninoff, yes!) is only what that observer uniquely brings to the table. I always say, “No two snowflakes” when my friends and I disagree. We are looking at, or watching the very same art, but we each bring our entire lives to the viewing. So we cannot experience the same. Even if we both like it, or love it, we are still not experiencing it in the same way.

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cocoskyavitch

We are looking at, or watching the very same art, but we each bring our entire lives to the viewing. So we cannot experience the same.

That’s well-said, Amnesty.

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