On Ozu and design


Design is a way of organizing complexity or finding clarity in chaos. With his mise-en-scène and editing techniques, Ozu masters the design of filmed space and time, wrangling them from their reality as progenitors of chaos while preserving perfectly familiar characters and their lives as narrative. As an information and visual designer, I can relate to many of Ozu’s techniques.

One of the great strengths of film as a medium is that it represents the world from a particular perspective, strictly directed through a rectangular eye. As time passes within a filmed space, Ozu avoids the chaotic or unintended elements of everyday life – a plane passing overhead, a y of people unimportant to the scene walking by, or a stray dog sitting down – in favor of clearly defining the world only around the characters and spaces they occupy, physically or metaphorically (such as the vase in Late Spring). Naturally, there are times in a character’s life that are themselves relatively inconsequential to the character’s life and thus the world carefully constructed around them. For example, the huge gap where a wedding ceremony should be in Late Spring itself seems to have little effect on Noriko’s attitude and reactions after it. This lack of chaos from such heavy time editing is anachronistic with the Japanese society in flux just after World War II, although social developments such as women’s broadening identity and technology play a major role in the narrative. Ozu’s narrative design clarifies reality by engaging the mundane, where the “sense of the dailiness of life is perhaps most readily to be discovered” (Richie 6). This engagement permits his illusive use of time, contracting and expanding, seeming to naturally delineate reality while mollifying its natural chaos.

The scenes’ architecture assists this illusion, organizing separate spaces and times through objects and cubist constructs as if an architect. Ozu employs the audiences’ attention and simple human pattern recognition as the vehicle to connect scenes, much like a designer would lay out an information presentation or visualization. This design lends heavily to the sense of continuity that would otherwise render his spartan transitions jarring. Richie doesn’t cover Ozu’s attention to attention quite as well as Branigan’s “The Space of the Equinox Flower.” Clarifying scenes by reducing the number of unintended elements and clearly connecting the transitional ones weaves strong threads of attention, a paramount concern in visual design on any medium. The threads here are to build not a plot line, as Ozu disagreed with and avoided (Richie 18-19), but rather a loose burlap-like grid of time and space with which to read and be attentive to minute reframing of subsequent spaces (Branigan 76, 86).

This zen expression of the moment, however, is betrayed by the harmoniously aligned objects and actors’ symmetric blocking as in Good Morning. In fact, upon closer inspection, Ozu’s design seems less natural than while casually watching it. This is most evident in reorganizing actors and props within a scene between shots for the sake of bracketing and visual harmony, despite disrupting the logical flow that visual design should complement. This can be forgiven since Ozu’s strong attachment to stationary tatami shots precludes blocking and tracking shots, especially in his later movies, and forces the world to move around the camera’s positions. This self-restraint, though, also tames the complexity and wrangles the chaos that arises from the real world. Disrupting the natural flow of things like this can hamper a constructed world view; however, designing the characters’ world so clearly allows the audience to experience their lives as if it were natural.

Compared to less carefully constructed films, the life of the characters, their decisions and reactions to events, does not rely on plot devices to make decisions for them, and their situations don’t seem contrived. I find film most entertaining by following how characters react in certain situations; more so when realistic and less so when it feels contrived. Ozu synthesized his worlds in a traversable matrix, cohesive enough to ensure continuity without the obstruction of chaos of real life, yet allowing a real-life narrative. By designing worlds, meticulously organizing shots within scenes, and influencing future film directors with his own flavor of cinematic experience, Ozu has traversed Sarris’ circles to be designated an auteur (Sarris 563), a master craftsman of time and space through a glass rectangular eye.

Works Cited

Branigan, Edward. “The Space of Equinox Flower.” Screen 17.2 (1976).

Richie, Donald. “Introduction.” Introduction. Ozu. Berkeley: University of California, 1974.

Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. By Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. 6th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1979.