Kazuo Inoue's "I Lived, But . . . "(at the Fox International) is a loving, illuminating tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, one of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema.
It is clear and comprehensive, an excellent introduction to the man who made 55 films in 35 years, dying of throat cancer on his 60th birthday in 1963.
One of the clips seen earliest in the documentary is from "I Was Born, But . . . " (1932) in which two little boys, shocked at seeing their father humbling himself to his boss, protest that he wants them to be great men yet clearly isn't one himself. More than 20 years later, in Ozu's masterpiece, "Tokyo Story" (1953), an elderly couple visit their grown children in Tokyo only to discover that they're not as successful as they had imagined them to be and are too busy to entertain them properly.
Throughout his career, Ozu concerned himself with the lives of ordinary people such as these and the relationships between generations. Increasingly, he was preoccupied with the fleeting quality of life, and its loneliness. (Perhaps it was his understanding of loneliness that led him to have his tombstone engraved with the character for \o7 mu\f7 , which means "nothingness.")
Early on, Ozu was to learn to express himself with an economy that became famous, virtually doing away with camera movement and favoring a low camera, at roughly the eye level of a person sitting on the floor in a Japanese home. Director Kaneto Shindo, one of the many Ozu assistants to go on to distinguished careers of their own, says the austerity of Ozu's style, one that respected the many geometric forms of the Japanese interior, was for Ozu a kind of rigidity that paradoxically allowed him the free expression of his feelings.
Ozu was born in Tokyo to a father who owned a wholesale fertilizer plant but who believed that children should be raised in the country. According to his brothers and sister and his classmates, Ozu was a poor student but a natural leader. After a stint as a schoolteacher and in the national service, he was able to land a job at Shochiku (where he worked briefly before the great earthquake of 1923); studio head Shiro Kido allowed him to direct his first picture in 1927.
For the next 35 years, from college comedies to stories of the urban poor of the Depression through the masterpieces of the postwar years, Ozu illuminated Japanese family life with an unequaled poignance--perhaps because he never started a family of his own; he lived with his widowed mother, who died a year before he did.
His colleagues speak with reverence of the man who was able to draw so much from them, but clearly Ozu gave his life to his films. "It seemed that they had to play before they could work," recalls the widow of Kogo Noda, Ozu's co-writer on all his later films and some of the earlier ones as well. This meant about three months of late-night drinking and feasting and one month of concentrated work. Of their dialogue, veteran actor Nobuo Nakamura says that it was "extremely difficult" because it was so lifelike.
Both Donald Richie, the critic and film historian who more than anyone else has introduced the Japanese cinema to the English-speaking world, and Kashiko Kawakita, Japan's legendary ambassador of film, speak of Ozu's universality. But no one is more eloquent than the distinguished stage and screen actress Haruko Sugimura, who says, "I have had to part with many people over the years, but his death was the worst, the saddest."