Ozu and Expressionism

Michael E Kerpan Jr kerpan
Sun Jan 27 16:48:28 EST 2002

Neither Richie nor Bordwell provide much discussion of connections
between the German Expressionist cinema and the work of Ozu.
By coincidence, however, the last three Ozu films I've watched
involved an unusually high amount of nighttime settings. Moreover,
I've recently watched Murnau's "Der letze Mann" (incorrectly called
"The Last Laugh" in the United States). As a result, I noted some
connections I did not expect to find.

Murnau's "Der letze Mann" (1924) is constructed in very
much the same way as Ozu's (soon-to-come) films. There are only a few
settings, in which patterned variations take place; the action is
centered around the Doorman's home and workplace. The main action of
the story takes place over the course of only a few days. Finally, the
story is as "simple" as can be -- the loss of a prized job (along with
the splendid uniform that symbolizes that job) and the
consequences of such loss on the protagonist. In short, this
film is as "parametric" a narration as anything one can find in Ozu --
and noticeably moreso than anything I've seen in Lubitsch or Lloyd
(who are viewed as primary influences on Ozu by Bordwell). One wonders
whether this film was generally available in Japan during the
mid-1920s. (Disclaimer: unlike Ozu, the film is virtually title-less
and has a bitterly ironic "imaginary" coda).

I also wonder how typical "Der letze Mann" was for Murnau.
Naturalistic (and humanistic) expressionism is not what I think of
when I recollect "Nosferatu".  Unfortunately, I've never seen
"Sunrise".  Pabst's cinematic structuring seems much more "sprawling"
than Murnau's in "Der letze Mann".  Is the parametric style of this
film simply an "outlier"?  Even aside from parametric structuring,
though, it seems that there are features of Expressionist imagery that
play a role in at least some of Ozu's films.

Many of  Ozu's 1930's films seem to show traces (or more) of
Expressionism. "Tokyo no onna" ("Woman of Tokyo") (1933)
is set largely at night and has a central action as simple
as that of "Der letze Mann". "Hijosen no onna" (from a couple months
later) is more variegated, but uses a lot of Expressionist-like
imagery -- clocks, hanging hooks (etc.) and most improbably a storeful
of "Little Nippers". "Tokyo no yado" ("Tokyo Inn") (1935) and "Hitori
musuko" ("Only Son") (1936) also seem to have a considerable degree of
darkness (of tone and setting) and an aggressive use of imagery that
is ostensibly naturalistic (but also seemingly overloaded with
symbolic significance). A  similar style recurs in "Nagaya
shinshiroku" ("Record of a Tenement Gentleman") (1947) which looks a
lot like the darker 1930s films.  More surprisingly, "Tokyo boshoku"
("Tokyo Twilight") (1957) seems to have more than a few
Expressionistic features, despite looking (in many ways) like a
"normal" late period Ozu film (except for a lot more cold and dark).

I wonder now whether, even in Ozu films without as much visible
darkness as the ones touched on above, there might not be a degree of
Expressionistic influence that has not been fully considered.

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