The third volume in the Criterion Collection’s new, no-frills Eclipse series is devoted to five of the final works of Yasujiro Ozu. At this point it seems redundant to add “the great” before Ozu’s name; this Japanese master has long since ascended to that place in the cinematic firmament where adjectives are no longer applied to names, and names become adjectives. It is hard to find a significant art film of the last 10 years that is not Ozuesque in one way or another.
He had a highly individual style: the low-pitched camera that seldom moves; the fixed compositions, with their powerful interplay of horizontal and vertical lines; the delicate, almost imperceptible use of ambient sound; the transitional images of trains, utility poles and smokestacks that Ozu called his pillow shots; and the cutting method that discards the smooth invisibility of American editing in favor of marked transitions that emphasize a shift in point of view. All these elements can be found in films that range from Taiwan (the magnificent work of Hou Hsiao-hsien) to Portugal (in the stately urban studies of Pedro Costa) and many points in between.
Ozu made more than 50 films in a career that extended from 1927 until his death in 1963, and, given the grim survival rate of classic Japanese movies, a surprisingly large number of them are still with us. This is surely a testament to how respected Ozu was and is in his homeland.
Early in his career Ozu worked in a number of genres, including goofy college comedies and even gangster films (it would be something if Eclipse were able to release a few of those), but he remains best known at home and abroad for dramas of middle-class family relations, like “Late Spring” (1949) and “Tokyo Story” (1953). The Eclipse box picks up with the film he directed right after “Tokyo Story,” the 1956 “Early Spring,” and continues with “Tokyo Twilight” (1957), “Equinox Flower” (1958), “Late Autumn” (1960) and “The End of Summer” (1961), stopping just short of his last film, in 1962, “An Autumn Afternoon.”
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The archetypal Ozu film stars the gaunt, dignified Chishu Ryu as an aging parent concerned that his adult daughter (the gallant, glowing Setsuko Hara) is sacrificing a family of her own to attend to his increasing needs. But after the apotheosis of “Tokyo Story,” Ozu and his regular screenwriter, Kogo Noda, began examining the Japanese family from other angles, in particular from the perspective of a younger generation.
In “Early Spring” Ms. Hara is nowhere to be found and Mr. Ryu has been relegated to a supporting role. The center of the film is occupied by a young couple whose marriage is in trouble. He is a junior salaryman who makes the daily trek from the dingy suburbs to central Tokyo, while she stays home and worries about their finances. The film is more than halfway over, and the salaryman has fallen into the arms of a pretty, predatory co-worker, before Ozu reveals what would have been the central plot point in an American melodrama: The couple had a child who died young.
But their personal problems, by this time, have become part of a larger pattern of social uncertainty and professional disappointment. The fabric of Japanese culture may be unraveling, but Ozu maintains his steady, stoic gaze, and the pervasive sense of sadness and regret is all the more poignant because of it
THE SERGIO LEONE
One filmmaker with no perceptible debt to Ozu was the maestro of the spaghetti western, Sergio Leone (although Kurosawa successfully sued him for plagiarizing “A Fistful of Dollars” from Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”). Leone was Ozu’s opposite in almost every way, a director who delighted in operatic overstatement, baroque plot structures and a visual sweep that could embrace everything from a screw head on the smokestack of a locomotive to the dried brush on a mountainside several miles away.
In 2004 MGM reissued a two-disc edition of the climactic film of the Clint Eastwood “Dollars” trilogy, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966), based on the restorations established by Cineteca Nazionale in Rome in the 1990s. Because Leone’s films were constantly being cut and recut for different parts of the world, multiple versions exist, and there has even been some minor controversy over MGM’s definitive editions, with some critics pointing out missing bits of violence and profanity here and there. But the 18 minutes added to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” considerably deepen it, adding some significant plot and character points that were elided, with confusing results, in the version released in the United States.
The eight-disc “Sergio Leone Anthology,” released last week by MGM, packages excellent restorations of the “Dollars” films (“A Fistful of Dollars,” 1964; “For a Few Dollars More,” 1965; and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) with the often overlooked “Duck, You Sucker,” a 1971 production starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger that was one of Leone’s most abus ed films, released in countless versions. (The initial release in the United States was cut by 20 minutes and later reissued as “A Fistful of Dynamite” to suggest a nonexistent connection to the Eastwood films.) The new version (available in Europe for some time) replaces the missing scenes and is, in effect, a very different film.
No longer simply an entertaining comedy adventure, “Duck, You Sucker” now looks like Leone’s conflicted reaction to the political violence sweeping Italy in the early 1970s. Now beginning with Mao’s aphorism, “A revolution is not a dinner party,” the film builds a contrast between the character played by James Coburn, a romantic radical and I.R.A. refugee who has come to Mexico to continue his quest for social justice, and the down and dirty bandit played by Rod Steiger, an opportunist and pragmatist whose only interest in political change comes in the form of gold coins.
Both characters’ motivations are much deepened, and one of the film’s mysteries — why did Ennio Morricone’s score feature a chorus repeatedly chanting “Sean, Sean, Sean,” when there was no character named Sean — has been solved with satisfyingly poetic results. Regrettably, only “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” offers the original Italian dub track as a language option
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