Notes from Japan: Spring Afternoon with Yasujiro Ozu

‘Ozu’s Grave at Kita-Kamamura, Engaku-Ji Temple; “Mu”

The Japanese word, Mu, is carved onto a tombstone. The word ‘Mu’ has many meanings; translated from the English language, the word takes the meaning of ‘Nothingness’ or ‘Nonexistence’, however the actual meaning of the word has strong ties to Buddhist teachings and as such, it takes on the complicated concept of a ‘no - thing’. ‘It refers to that which exists outside dualistic ideas and that it is neither a zero, a yes nor a no and that any answer would be likely be wrong and it would be better for nothing to be answered.

The qualities of ‘Mu’ can be found within the works of Yasujiro Ozu, a prominent giant within world cinema whose shadow remains hovering over filmmakers not only within Japan but all over the world. I recall the famous ending sequence of his final work before his death, ‘An Autumn Afternoon’ where the elderly character played by Ozu’s favorite actor, Chisyu Ryu, sits in the midst of darkness, quietly mulling over the feelings of abandonment and loneliness. Themes that highlight the emptiness within human lives, the feeling of ‘nothing’ or the feeling that nothing should or can be answered in the face of impermanence.

An “Ozuian” shot taken at Ginza, Tokyo

This can be seen in Ozu’s other films as well, in ‘Tokyo Story’, a film often considered to be Ozu’s personal best and one of the greatest films of all time, the main character, the elderly man is left sitting alone in his living room, quiet and lonesome, observing the outside world.

In the next shot proceeding after the scene of great but subtle sadness, we see a scene of normalcy, the train passing by, cutting through the city-scape. The outside world continues on despite everything. Now, trains run across everywhere in Japan, the subway stations are usually a couple of minutes walk away and they are as complicated as a cat’s tangled ball of yarn.

With the aim of paying a visit the resting place of one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, I took a train from Ikebukuro, to the Kita-Kamakura station in order to reach Engaku-Ji; the temple which houses Ozu’s grave. Throughout the long trip, to pass the length of time, I listened to the sound of the train roaring shakily past the train-tracks and watched the scenery whizzing by in a blur as if it were nothing in the wind.

Train Tracks, Taken at Kita-Kamakura Station

Trains were often a crucial part of Ozu’s films; a major motif which occupied the spaces within his films like light does in empty rooms. The train shows itself at the opening and ending scenes of ‘Tokyo Story’ and it shows itself at the ending scene of ‘Floating Weeds’. The train, as it moves forward and away, represents the changing tides of time, and the passing of life itself.

As I stepped out of the train to admire the rustic aesthetic of the station, the train moves and sets off forward into the distance and soon disappears in the pale, spring sunlight. Watching the train go, I recall the Japanese art concept of ‘Mono-no-aware’.

‘Mono-no-aware’ refers to the subtle awareness of impermanence. This is something Ozu excelled in portraying within his films. Simply by having his characters talk about the weather, gently pointing out the passing of day and the ever proceeding and eminent future of impermanence and the ever-change that lies ahead.
Engaku-Ji Temple

Anticipation gripped my heart as I entered the temple, got my ticket and climbed up the slope. The plastic bag in between my fingers wrinkle slightly from my walking momentum and the slight breeze, the small sake bottle in the plastic bag weighing me down. I bought the bottle, as an offering, reading that Ozu was an avid drinker in his day, measuring the state of completion of his scripts by how much he has drank. Soon, after a long walk, a long climb and some searching, I stand watching his tomb, the light dwindling in the cold, shimmering on the dark surface of Ozu’s grave.

I stop in my tracks to admire the feeling of tranquility within the area and the beautiful and elegant, yet simple carving of the word: ‘Mu’ on the tombstone, the much prominent vision of death begins to become more prominent the longer I stay. Humanity’s short span of mortality and their ephemerality are highlighted by the quiet ambience of silence and the surrounding rows of Japanese tombstones.
Engaku-Ji Temple; The Graveyard

I pay my respects; left the bottle of sake I had brought on his altar along with the other abundant offerings at his grave. Likely from other admirers and filmmakers hoping to receive his blessings and give him their appreciation for all of the masterpieces he had created. With that, I thanked Ozu for all of the great films that he had made and then, quietly made my way back.

Paying my respects to Ozu

It was near sunset then, the light was orange and dimming and it was glowing orange on the open, empty roads. I stopped for a brief moment to admire the view, and then I moved on.

The ride back to Ikebukuro was about an hour long. I sat in the empty seats, looking through the window, watching the darkening scenery whiz by and my own reflection in the glass. With only the sound of the train traversing the tracks to keep me company, I begin to observe the small things. How the light falls onto the seat, the glow of the light as it seeps through from the windows. The small details of beauty that fill Ozu’s work can be found in the everyday.

I suppose that is what makes Ozu so special. He transforms the mundanity of life into moments of epiphany, importance and great beauty. Ozu’s films are often considered by modern watchers to be too slow and boring. However, it is through the slow pace does Ozu reveal to us the beauty that can be found in the little things of life. The little things that we so often miss out on as we hurry along the pace of life, going fast to achieve before the little time we have on this earth runs out.

Light on the table

It has been more than fifty years since Ozu released his last and final film, ‘An Autumn Afternoon’ and till this day, it has aged well, remaining a beautiful and deeply affecting film. I remember the affecting narrative and the striking images. His films may reflect upon the ephemerality of life, however his films are timeless. After a filling dinner, I walk on the night streets back to my hotel at Ikebukuro, watching the night lights from the cars drift by into the darkly curtains. Life goes on. I return to my room to prepare for the next day.
Written by Timothy Ong
Timothy is a year-two student at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic School of Film & Media Studies and a great admirer of the works of the late filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. He was part of the Jury & Critics Programme at the 2016 edition of the Singapore International Film Festival and he is also a contributor with SINdie.
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