The Tofu Maker: 11 Must-See Yasujiro Ozu Movies

This post was originally published on on 20-10-2016

Watching the movies of Yasujiro Ozu has become a right of passage among film enthusiasts. His affects on modern cinema’s most popular auteurs means that fans of Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders and many more eventually find themselves wanting to study Ozu’s craft themselves. Affectionately known as “The Tofu Maker,” Ozu famously once said:

“I can make fried tofu, boiled tofu, stuffed tofu. Cutlets and other fancy stuff, that’s for other directors.”

Of course, he wasn’t talking about a real tray of tofu, but instead referred to his ambition to continually make and retell stories of everyday life using a set of rules unique to him as an auteur. His focus on family dramas, along with the development and loss of Japanese traditions, makes Ozu’s career a fascinating documentation of how the 20th century, and WWII in particular, changed the everyday lives of Japanese families.

But film historians’ obsession with Ozu isn’t purely for his masterful social commentary. His ability to frame a scene in a methodical yet powerful way meant that his films are now one of the greatest bodies of work in cinematic history.

If you’re interested in watching some (if not all) of Yasujiro Ozu’s work, here’s a list of Yasujiro Ozu movies I highly recommend from the auteur.

1. The Only Son (1936)

The Only Son is Ozu’s first attempt at a “talkie,” and is still considered to be one of his best films. Telling the story of a mother’s sacrifice to give her son the best possible start in life, The Only Sonexplores what family members give up for one another, as well as themes of love, devotion and disappointment. Criterion describe The Only Son as:

A family portrait in miniature, shot and edited with its maker’s customary exquisite control.

2. Late Spring (1949)

Late Spring is the first installment of Ozu’s Noriko trilogy, a three-part exploration into family life that is often included in lists of the greatest trilogies of all time. The film shows a widowed man determined to marry off his only daughter, and is a striking example of how Ozu presents a changing society as Japan struggles to deal with the aftermath of WWII in Japan.

Late Spring is also known as an Ozu classic because it stars Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara, who would both become synonymous with Ozu’s pictures. For this reason, Late Spring is unmissable for anybody interested in Ozu’s work.

3. Early Summer (1951)

Early Summer focuses on a family’s search for a husband for Noriko, while she longs to be with her childhood friend. While this may seem to be a simplistic drama, Ozu uses this conflict of interest to show the needs, desires and changing lifestyles of three generations, providing a practically perfect follow up to Late Springjust two years later.

As the second installment to Ozu’s Noriko trilogy, Early Summer is a fitting counterpart to Late Spring, just as their seasonal titles suggest. It should be noted that the “Noriko Trilogy” is not a linear story, but three stories that explore related themes and star Setsuko Hara as a woman named Noriko. That being said, don’t expect Early Summer to be a sequel, as each installment features entirely new (and yet very familiar) characters. At first, this may seem confusing, but this allows Ozu to explore family life in multiple ways, perhaps stating that “Noriko” is the on-screen embodiment of many Japanese woman as a whole, and not just one character.

4. Tokyo Story (1953)

Anybody even remotely familiar with Yasujiro Ozu will undoubtedly be aware of his widely celebrated work, Tokyo Story. The director’s critically acclaimed masterpiece follows an elderly couple who travel to the heart of Tokyo to visit their kin. When they arrive, the generation gap is apparent between them and their offspring, both culturally and emotionally. Setsuko Hara stars as the elderly couple’s widowed daughter-in-law, and acts as the film’s moral guardian — solidifying her legacy as one of the most magnetic on-screen actresses of all time.

Considering the masterful techniques used to explore a contrast between city and countryside lifestyles, a significant generational divide and a powerful emotional drama, it’s unsurprising to see this film often included high up in lists of the greatest movies of all time.

5. Early Spring (1956)

After the huge success of Tokyo Story, Ozu followed up with a story of a salaryman who commits adultery with his co-worker. Continuing to explore the everyday society of post-war Japan, Early Spring is a valued addition to Ozu’s filmography that can added to his ever-expanding exploration of everyday trials and tribulations. Although Setsuko Hara’s absence is apparent, Ryō Ikebe and Keiko Kishi make up for this with great performances. Particularly if you’re watching Ozu’s movies chronologically, the movie has a lot to offer and is a perfect follow-up to Tokyo Story, the work for which Ozu is most widely known.

6. Tokyo Twilight (1957)

Tokyo Twilight focuses on an adolescent perhaps more prominently than any other Ozu film. Following the parallel paths of two sisters who grew up estranged from their mother, the film touches on some of family life’s most sensitive subjects. The film shows the true talent of Ineko Arima (pictured above) as she co-stars with Setsuko Hara. Just one year after Tokyo Twilight‘s release, Arima would also go on to star in Equinox Flower, another Ozu classic I’d recommend once you’re hooked on Ozu’s movies.

Although the film touches upon issues that are still subject to worldwide debate, Tokyo Twilight will certainly remind you that a long time has passed since its release. Having said that, this isn’t necessarily a negative, and can add to the many ways in which the film is interesting to watch and be seen as a product of its time in post-war Japan.

7. Floating Weeds (1959)

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Floating Weeds tells the story of an elderly actor who returns to the seaside town in which he used to live. With a heavy heart, he is reunited with an old lover, creating emotional drama for them both, as well as others I won’t mention, in case it’s your first time watching.

Retelling his 1934 drama titled The Story of Floating Weeds, Ozu’s 1959 take on the story is a rare example of how the director adapted his craft throughout his career, although in this case it seems to be due to technological advancements rather than a change in aesthetic taste.

As The Tofu Maker, one of the few criticisms Ozu faces among critics is that he never expanded his aspirations in terms of style and technique. However, in this case Ozu brought a contemporary touch to his 1959 classic by shooting Floating Weeds in “glorious technicolor.” The results speak for themselves, as Ozu’s team-up with famed cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, displays the beautiful potential of their crafts combined.

8. Good Morning (1959)

Good Morning is another reimagining of an early work. Taking huge inspiration from I Was Born, But…, this film delivers a comedic tale of two brothers who take a vow of silence. Although this may be seen as a blessing in disguise for some parents, their vow is in protest, promising not to say a word until they are allowed to have a television. The movie is a great example of the warmth between family members that Ozu portrays throughout his filmography, and could even be considered his best satire of family life.

The brothers’ demands for a television set touches on the increasingly materialistic customs among Japanese youths entering into the 1960s. Interestingly for fans of Studio Ghibli, it’s also noteworthy that The Only Son shows how Hayao Miyazaki was influenced by Ozu’s handling of young characters in a changing society.

In a nutshell, Good Morning is the Godfather of wholesome family dramas, taking on Japanese consumerism and making this satire essential viewing for all Ozu fans.

9. Late Autumn (1960)

Adding another fantastic pairing of Setsuko Hara and Yasujiro Ozu to the list, Late Autumn sees Hara play a mother attempting to persuade her daughter to marry. Comparing the movie to previous works that also show an older generation’s desires to see their kin happily married, Late Autumn is a fantastic reworking of Late Spring. In contrast to the 1949 masterpiece, which showed a determined older generation, Hara’s on-screen attempts are subtle and suggestive when trying to convince her daughter to get married.

As a double bill, Late Spring and Late Autumn become even more fascinating.

10. The End Of Summer (1961)

One fact about Ozu that often circulates among his fans is that heloved drinking sake, even while on-set. With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that sake is so prevalent throughout his movies. The End of Summer is perhaps the best example of this, telling the story of an elderly man and his family who run a small sake brewery. With concerns about the success of his business and uncertain health issues, The End of Summer‘s protagonist has even more to deal with when he is visited by an estranged mistress.

11. An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

In the words of Criterion themselves:

“The last film by Yasujiro Ozu was also his final masterpiece… ‘An Autumn Afternoon’ is one of cinema’s fondest farewells”

For the celebrated auteur’s last movie, Ozu uses the story of an elderly man (played once again by the great Chishu Ryu) to reflect upon everything he has explored throughout his cinematic career. Ryu plays an widowed, elderly man living with his daughter. The pair have had a harmonious life, but An Autumn Afternoon focuses on the time in which he must accept that his daughter should marry and depart from their family home.

An Autumn Afternoon is the perfect swan song for Yasujiro Ozu, as the film’s main character learns to accept the changing ways of Japanese society, and the modernization of the country as a whole, with dignity and reminiscence. If you watch Ozu’s films in order of release, finishing on An Autumn Afternoon, you can feel the weight of what has been lost culturally while also sharing the character’s acceptance that there is also beauty to be found in Japan’s societal change.


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