When Not to Edit, Pt 2: Ozu’s Unobtrusive Camera

Two weeks ago I did my first post in a series about instances when directors chose to use a single shot to tell a story, even though a filmmaker’s instinct might be to use several shots. I referenced a lecture by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Although he was typically a supporter, promoter and innovator of montage editing,1   he taught the principle of storytelling-via-a-single-shot, which he called mise-en-shot (“staging in the shot”).

Today I’m going to focus on a clip from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus, a 1931 silent domestic comedy-drama. Ozu was a Japanese director who made approximately fifty films between 1927 and 1962. Many focused on family life and the day-to-day struggles between the generations. I’m certainly no expert on him—I’ve seen very few of his films, sorry to say—but everything I’ve seen has keen insight into human nature, frequently gentle but rarely melodramatic.

Tokyo Chorus is the story of Shinji Okajima, a young husband and father in contemporary Japan, which was in the thick of the Depression. This is an early scene, one that introduces the family. As Okajima is preparing to go to work, he and his wife discuss his salary bonus and he interacts with his son and daughter.

I love this scene. It’s chockfull of moments, mannerisms, and feelings. I don’t know much about Japanese cinema—much less their silent cinema—but this strikes me as more realistic looking than your average American film from the same period. The production design, costumes and even the performances seem less stagy that what I’d expect from its American counterpart.2

As for the shooting, Ozu uses his share of conventional angles one would expect in a narrative, such as this angle/reverse angle exchange…

…but later in the scene, there a there’s a single comic shot that relies on blocking for its effect. It’s the shot immediately after the son (unnamed in the film) breaks some of Okajima’s records…

This is great narrative comedic staging and directing since the timing of the joke is decided by the blocking: we register Okajima’s disappointment and, in lieu of a couple cuts and close-ups, the son steps out, delivering the smile that makes the joke.

This is cute but not what I’m referring to when illustrating how Ozu uses a single short for maximum effect. That shot is, of course, the final one in the scene, the one that stikes me as the one most like a documentary. The camera is static, low to the ground and unobstrusive. I see three-and-a-half shots in one:

“Shot” #1 is Tsuma (the wife) on the tatami mat, and it’s framed for her (which explains why the camera is low to the ground). Okajima enters frame right, though we can only see him from mid-torso down. While this is a perfect place for a conventional cut-on-action to a medium of him, Ozu holds his ground.


“Shot” #2 is Tsuma sending her husband off to work, with only the lower half of their bodies visible. Ozu foregoes shots of their faces in exchange for seeing the wife caringly brush her husband’s blazer, the final touch before sending him on his way.


“Shot” #3 is their departure, a family parading by the camera like a family of ducks, which ends beautifully with the camera already perfectly framed for Miyoko, the daughter.



The “half shot” is the 2-and-a-half seconds after Tsuma leaves the frame and before the children enter…

This is a very atypical-Hollywood “dead air” shot, where the audience is left in the dark. My guess is that for a Hollywood film, the walking would have been choreographed so that the procession would have been tidy, rhythmic, and uniform. However, Ozu and his unobtrusive camera let the action happen at a more realistic pace, like a vérité documentary, and he doesn’t worry if we lose our bearings for a moment. Hell, there’s always their home to look at, isn’t there?

So, does Ozu prescribe to Eisenstein’s dare to filmmakers to stage as much as possible in a single shot, to maximize the “frame” and its space? Kinda, though I don’t think that was his goal. I believe he searched for the one place to put the camera that would give him the maximum number of shots. This kept his budget down and allowed his actors to move organically and realistically within the space. And that’s as good a reason as any.

Tokyo Chorus is currently available on Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies, a 3 DVD set by Eclipse, Criterion’s “bargain” series. It also includes his next film, I Was Born, But…, another domestic comedy. That will be playing in NYC at the IFC Center for two weeks, beginning June 25. As these films rarely screen, I highly recommend it.

Next up in the When Not to Edit series, Frank Oz will make an appearance on Peel Slowly, to talk about using a static camera to stage comedy.

Add’l posts in this series:

       • Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting

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BACK TO POST 1 A perfect example of Eisenstein’s affinity for montage if this clip from his 1929 film The General Line. Thanks to an abundance of quick edits, he shows us the kinetic energy in a roomful of peasant farmers witnessing for the first time a creamer in action. (Is it my imagination or is it awfully sexual?)

By the way, the version I saw with English subtitles had the phrase “It creams!” for this shot. Whoa.


BACK TO POST 2 And the children’s actions and reactions ring true, whether it’s the son mimicking the father trying in vain to repair the broken records or the siblings choosing to play with those broken records instead of the ball that caused the problems in the first place.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “When Not to Edit, Pt 2: Ozu’s Unobtrusive Camera

  1. Adam L

    column suggestion:
    the phenomenon of pink lady (& jeff!)

  2. iris cahn

    Thanks for posting the Ozu clip. For me, ‘Tokyo Chorus’ scene seems more “realistic” (as you nicely feel to call it), than other films because of the treatment of the space. Yes – deep focus with extreme foreground, middle and background action happening (as you nicely peg in that last ‘3.5-in-one’ shot of the husband going off to work). But look at his scene “flats”. They are not. Most of the backgrounds have two or three layers of space in them, most with screens or walls forming diagonals within the shot that lead the eye to a vanishing point of deeper space. It is only when he needs to set up the subjective point of view of the father looking at the child about to topple the records (the interjection of a moment less ‘doc’ and more “narrative” in feeling) that we get the first really “flat” background (the shot of the father reaching for his hat as he looks screen right to the boy). Great stuff to think on (plus you have to love any scene that uses a potty as the tipping stool). Thanks again, Stephen!

  3. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 3: Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting « Peel Slowly

  4. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 1: Eisenstein Meets Laurel & Hardy « Peel Slowly

  5. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 4: Coppola’s Eavesdropping Camera « Peel Slowly

  6. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 5: The Kissy Face Workaround « Peel Slowly

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