Late Ozu: Criterion Eclipse Series
If The Criterion Collection can be called a film school on DVDs, then an Eclipse offering gives us a summary of a filmmaker's oeuvre in a box set. An adjunct of the Criterion Company, the idea behind Eclipse is to get together a series of films by a director where supplementary material is virtually non-existent and the majority the makers are deceased and put them out in a no-frills box set at a reduced price (or that is to say, reduced for Criterion). And so the set Late Ozu offers five films from legendary Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu with the retail price of fourteen dollars a film. With Criterion having already provided deluxe editions of Late Spring, both of Ozu's Floating Weeds films and his masterwork Tokyo Story, Late Ozu offers five of his last films (up to his penultimate effort) in beautiful transfers, and lets the work speak for itself. The set kicks off with Early Spring (1956), which showcases a husband (Chikage Awashima) who finds himself dallying with an underling, and the consequences therein. 1957's Tokyo Twilight is Ozu at his most depressed as it follows a family where the mother left her children in their youth. The father Shukichi (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) has been trying to hold the family together, but daughter Akiko (Ineko Arima) has been philandering, while older daughter Takako (another Ozu regular Setsuko Hara) has left her husband and daughter to return to the nest. The mother is nearby, and the emotional grief tied to Akiko's recent abortion makes her think that she might have been the child of her mother's affairs. Both the first two films are in black and white, but the rest of the set is in color, with 1958's Equinox Flower about the struggles of a father (Shin Saburi) in accepting that his daughter would rather not have an arranged marriage, and has instead picked her own beau. In his passive-aggressive anger, he goes through the motions, but can't contain his contempt. In a similar vein, Late Autumn (1960) has a mother Akiko (Hara) trying to get her daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) married, and in doing so finds herself having to look for a new husband of her own. 1961's The End of Summer, Ozu's penultimate film, feels like his sign-off as it concerns an old man Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura) who takes up with his old war flame. His entire family (including Hara) try to stop this union. The film ends with a funeral, and some local fisherman (including Ryu) talking about how death is no tragedy because it is part of the circle of life.
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Though Ozu began his career doing comedies and gangster films, these films showcase Ozu in his prime. Everything that one comes to expect from the master is here: Pillow shots (moments of reflection made through shots of nature or the city life proceeding around the characters), the nearly locked camera (there's only a few moments of camera movement, but when they happen they stand out), and with the camera kept at about three feet off the ground to keep the characters in the best focus of the frame. Though Ozu has been called slow and boring, watching the five films in this film-festival-in-a-box allows the viewer to fully appreciate the man's worldview and his sensibility. A great humanist, Ozu lets moments of comedy and tragedy pepper his films, but his great subject is life. This is told through a group of characters who are functionally repressed (there's nothing in Ozu's body of work that resembles a Toshiro Mifune performance), but who eventually come to express their feelings. The films are all mixed with hope and melancholy, with tragedy intertwined with successes and life moving forward. It's a micro view of people dealing with change and the future, and taken in total it represents one of the great achievements of cinema. Ozu's sensibility is often used as a dismissal of Japanese cinema in total, but this approach is foolhardy in both directions. Ozu's approach is anomalous to his contemporaries and the other recognized masters of Japanese cinema. But on top of that, his approach is that of a master technician, working within his own set limitations to better express his understanding of the world, and life's great dramas. Eclipse presents all the films in their original full-frame ratios (1.33:1) while the audio is DD 1.0 mono for all. Janus films did a recent touring retrospective with these titles, so these titles were restored for it and that may explain why the transfers of the film are excellent. Five slimline DVD keep-cases in paperboard slipcover.