“I only make tofu. I’m like a tofu shop . . . I can’t suddenly change to something different. It has to be something like fried tofu or stuffed tofu, but certainly not pork cutlets.”
— Yasujiro Ozu
Critic Donald Richie once hailed Ozu as “the most Japanese of all directors,” in part because of his abiding fascination with “one major subject, the Japanese family, and . . . one major theme, its dissolution.” In so many ways, however, Ozu’s self-effacing comment about his work as a cinematic “tofu-maker” reveals as much about him as any weightier critical pronouncement. His extraordinary career as a filmmaker spans the period from 1927 to 1962—from the silent period through the early days of sound, and on to the flourishing of the color era in postwar cinema. His films also parallel the profoundly unsettling historical, political, and cultural transformations Japan underwent, including the rise of fascism, the cataclysm of World War II, and the “economic miracle” that followed. In the crucible of artistic and societal turmoil, Ozu somehow remained the humbled yet exacting craftsman to which he alludes above. If he is a “tofu-maker,” it is in the sense of keeping his steady eye on the raw ingredients of the human condition as he renders each visual feast. If Ozu’s singular preoccupation is the Japanese family in transition, then he offers us a menu at times as bitter as it is sweet.
In this course, we will explore in depth four of Ozu’s most defining films—for what they convey about his artistry and about modern Japan. These include two black-and-white classics—The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) and the inimitable Tokyo Story (1953), as well as two of Ozu’s color masterpieces—Good Morning (1959) and Floating Weeds (1959), each of which reimagines one of the director’s own earlier films. Upon his death in 1963, Ozu left the world a tombstone inscribed with no name and only the Japanese character mu: “nothingness.” For all of that existential emphasis on the transience of all things, Ozu nevertheless bequeathed us a legacy of powerful films as substantial as any in the history of world cinema.