Lately, lauded cinematography has been full of nature-porn wide shots (looking at you, “The Revenant“) and catchy camera movement (ok, maybe just you, Emmanuel Lubezki). For a film to be recognized and receive accolades for its camerawork, the effects need to be stellar (pun intended), or full of inventive shots that focus and refocus your attention (“Children Of Men,” etc.). Films like “Citizen Kane” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” are still commended for their behind-the-scenes handiwork, and all these films represent a loud approach to viewing a film. They come in with a bang and literally stay there — the essence of the shot is in its voraciousness for attention.
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But it isn’t all about camera movement and it isn’t just about the ostentatious shot. In Yasujiro Ozu‘s 1959 “Floating Weeds,” the director’s stunning quiet cinematography brings to life a world beyond the lens — a Technicolor reality handpicked by a true auteur. Now, this isn’t at all mocking the aforementioned cinematography; Ozu’s techniques are merely different and provide a new, softer insight into what makes a film beautiful.
In a new video essay by the Royal Ocean Film Society edited by Andrew Saladino, Ozu’s technique is broken down, and his distinct style (separating film into depth, pillow shots, and composition) is explored. The director liked texture; he wanted to create a space inside his shot that felt natural and real not only to the players, but especially to the audience. In order to achieve this, he’d use deep focus, a flat lens, and some important props — from sake bottles to bicycles. In his pillow shots, or cutaways, Ozu utilized his scenery as a form of punctuation (as we hear in the video from Roger Ebert). Instead of cutting to, say, a tree or a glacial tundra, Ozu would linger on a lighthouse, a building, or a now-empty location shot from earlier in the film. In “Floating Weeds” this gives the viewer an opportunity to digest and consider this world from a new angle.
Ozu’s composition techniques may seem guarded, when in reality they are merely inconspicuous, building a frame inside of a frame instead of moving the camera to suit his environmental needs.
This remake of his own silent film “A Story of Floating Weeds” is a must-see, and now there’s the perfect companion piece to watch afterwards. Do you have a favorite Ozu shot? Let us know in the comments below.
The quiet cinematography of Ozu
4th May 2016
Andrew Saladino’s video essay about the cinematography in Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds, 1959, isn’t the most innovative or the most profound or the most theoretically rigorous analysis of this kind. But it is beautifully assembled, is genuinely informative with an engaging tone, and it highlights both verbally and visually elements of great and glorious beauty. Open your eyes… (and for more about Ozu, pictured above, and the film, see the links below).
Quiet Cinematography- Floating Weeds (1959) from The Royal Ocean Film Society on Vimeo.
• Floating Weeds: an introduction to the film by David Ehrenstein, written in 1989.
• Stories of Floating Weeds: a 2004 essay, courtesy of The Criterion Collection, in which the great scholar of Japanese film Donald Richie compares Ozu’s 1959 film with his earlier AStoryofFloatingWeeds (UkigusaMonogatari), 1934.
• Saluting a master of the cinema, Yasujiro Ozu: an introduction to Ozu’s oeuvre, from Roger Ebert, penned in 1989.
• Yasujiro Ozu: a fine ‘Great Directors’ profile by Nick Wrigley for Senses of Cinema.
• Re-examining Yasujiro Ozu on film: Mark Schilling for The Japan Times in 2013.
• Ozu-san.com: a website devoted to the director with a wealth of resources.
• Is Ozu slow?: the text of a 1998 lecture by Jonathan Rosenbaum, which I especially recommend…
… but if there is one essential western writer on Ozu it’s probably David Bordwell, so here are a couple of exceptional posts from his wonderful blog, which he co-writes with Kristin Tompson:
• Watch again! Look well! Look! (For Ozu), from 2013.
• A modest extravagance- four looks at Ozu, from 2011.
And then here, via a link to the University of Michigan, you can download a .pdf of the whole of Bordwell’s foundational book, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, first published in 1988. It’s a hefty 412 Mb but worth every byte. The section on Floating Weeds, 1959, begins here.
• Yasujiro Ozu – the depth of simplicity: and if you’re still keen to see more, here’s another video essay, this time from Channel Criswell, about Ozu’s style thoughout his long and immensely distinguished career.