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FilmSnob

Watch Ozu with Me (plus the films of his muse, Setsuko Hara)

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I wanted to start a running thread on the filmographies of these two great artists, the director Yasujiro Ozu and actress Setsuko Hara. I started something similar to this topic somewhere else, but then it occurred to me, what better place to discuss these two great artists and their films than TCM Forums, right?

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Yasujiro Ozu

born 1903 Tokyo, Japan

hired 1923 by Shochiku Film Co. (worked as an assistant in the cinematography department)

directed his first feature film in 1927

 

Ozu would have grown up in the early years of cinema, at a time when audiences were mesmerized just to see other people's faces and moving images on screen. He fell in love with Hollywood films when he was a teenager, then decided he wanted to become a director. When he accosted a Shochiku colleague over an incident in the lunch line, Ozu was called into the studio head's office, presumably to be fired. Instead, he pitched a script and won himself a promotion.

Once in the director's chair, Ozu started his career with youthful slice-of-life comedies, before transitioning towards a more serious tone. It was after the war, during his renowned late period, that Ozu directed some of the most beloved classics in the history of cinema, for which he is known today.

 

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Setsuko Hara

born Masae Aida 1920 Yokohama, Japan

debuted as an actress 1935 for Nikkatsu Studios

starred in films for Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mikio Naruse later in her career

 

Miss Hara was identified as a rare beauty with a warm personality and nice profile from a young age, and it was her brother-in-law, the director Hisatora Kumagai, who encouraged her to leave school and become an actress, aged 15. She made her debut in the young person's drama Don't Hesitate, Young People! (1935), but it was her starring role in the infamous Nazi-Germany/Imperial Japanese co-production, The Daughter of the Samurai (1937), that brought her international fame.
 

After appearing in a number of wartime propaganda films, Hara went on to become the top actress in Japan during the late 1940s and 1950s. Her luminous smile endeared her to post-war audiences, and although she occasionally played the romantic lead or femme fatale, her best known roles portrayed her as the "ideal woman", someone who carefully balanced the traditional duties of a wife, mother, sister, or daughter, with a more modern, independent spirit. Shusaku Endo, the great Japanese writer, once said of his country's reverence for her: "[When we saw a Setsuko Hara film], we would sigh or let out a great breath from the depths of our hearts, for what we felt was precisely this: can it be possible that there is such a woman in this world?"

 

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The Noriko Trilogy

Ozu directed a total of 54 films, and Hara starred in more than 100 herself, but they are forever linked by the six they made together, especially the three that constitute the Noriko Trilogy:

 

Late Spring (1949)

Early Summer (1951)

Tokyo Story (1953)

 

The Noriko Trilogy has often been cited by critics as the greatest trilogy of all-time. In all three films, Hara plays the title character, but each Noriko is a different woman, expressing a thematic progression, from a single daughter who doesn't want to get married, to a single daughter who does want to get married, but only on her terms, to finally a tragic widow who demonstrates profound love and kindness towards the parents of her dead husband, missing and presumed killed in action during World War II.

As the 1940s and 1950s progressed, Ozu's and Hara's statures soared, and they developed a very close personal and professional relationship, until they made their last film together in 1961.

Two years later, Ozu was dead, and Hara abruptly retired. She never granted another interview or photograph again. The most beloved woman in Japan during her prime, she never married and had no children. Her love interests, if any, were never publicly disclosed. Combined with her youthful image being forever frozen in time, she earned the nickname "The Eternal Virgin", and lived out the rest of her years privately in Kamakura, the same seaside town where Ozu was buried.

It had also been the setting for many of their fine films.

 

***************************

So what is this thread about?

Recently I started watching a few Ozu and Hara titles and took an immediate liking to both of them. Ozu had such a distinct, dignified shooting style, with perfect compositions, and minimalist approach. Ms. Hara had the purest beauty, determined strength, and that famously warm smile, which sometimes expressed genuine playfulness or delight, but more often was just a mask meant to conceal very deep, even profound pain.

Tokyo Story is a universal film. It's ranked #1 all-time on the prestigious BFI Sight and Sound director's poll, and #3 on the critics list. Late Spring comes in at #15, and after a couple viewings, I can say it has immediately become one of my two or three most favorite films. Those are probably good starting points if you want to get into Ozu and Hara, and then maybe like me, you'll decide that you want to see more.

In this thread, we'll be watching all of them, every single one, at least the ones that survive, including a few titles from Kurosawa and Naruse, among other directors with whom Hara worked. Unfortunately, many of their early films are lost, but even then I'll be posting stills and commentary whenever possible. Many other titles are available online via Hulu, Filmstruck, or on DVD or Blu-ray. The idea is that this thread won't be just an easy Wikipedia copy/paste, but rather provide quality research, commentary, and/or discussion. I may guide the posts in chronological order, to paint a picture of both artist's fascinating careers and lives, but otherwise everyone else is invited to watch these films and contribute their thoughts, whether seeing them is your first, second, or tenth time.

Up first, early Ozu 1927-1937, before the war, starting with his first film.

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40 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

Nice idea for a thread. Quite a bit of Ozu's work can be streamed on FilmStruck:

https://www.filmstruck.com/us/watch/search/YASUJIRO OZU

Yeah, that's where I've been watching them! Except I already bought the Blu-rays for Late Spring and Tokyo Story.

Great suggestion for everyone else!

Ozu's filmography should be easy to find, but I'm more worried about Setsuko Hara's other films. Aside from the ones that are lost, some of her films may only be available in prints, or others on DVD but without subtitles. Might have to travel or commission translations if needed!

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I'll be moving through some of these early lost films pretty fast, since I've already done the work and research elsewhere, but eventually the pace will slow down to one or two screenings per week.

 

Sword of Penitence (Ozu's debut, 1927) -- lost film

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Despite their best efforts, two brothers can't escape their past lives of crime. They get entangled with a thief acquaintance, pursued by the police, and have to kill the bad guy and save the girl. Nothing for it.

Synopsis can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sword_of_Penitence

The film's plot was summarized in the Japanese movie magazine Kinema Junpo, and it received generally favorable reviews. No script, negative, or prints survive, but I'm not surprised that copies of the magazine were still available decades later. My grandmother ran a newspaper for a long time, and they had good condition copies stored away over 100 years old.

Ozu's thoughts:

Quote

To be honest, I wasn't in a hurry to become a director. As an assistant director, I could take it easy; once I became a director, I wouldn't be able to get any sleep, what with all the continuity to plan and develop. But everyone around me urged me to at least have a go at making one. Originally, I decided to direct a film using a script I wrote: Mountain of Hard Times (Kawaraban kachi kachi yama). However, just as shooting was about to commence, I was handed this script by Noda Kogo instead. In 1927, I got a notice with an additional clause from the company saying, "You have now been promoted to the rank of director, but you must make period dramas." At that time, period dramas were ranked lower than contemporary drama. Worse still, just as I received this notice, the period drama unit at Kamata studio was disbanded, so I was neither here nor there. As preparations for filming began, I was called off for military service. I tried to get it done quickly, but just before completion, I was drafted into a unit in Ise. In the end, Saito Torajiro directed the first scene for me. By the time I came back, the film had already been released. I saw it in the cinema, but didn't feel it was my own work. It may count as my debut, but I only saw it once.

(Source: Ozu-san website)

According to Ozu, he pretty much disowned the film and said it did not resemble his work. But Torajiro Saito later said that he had only filmed one or two scenes, so who knows. A bit surprising that Ozu disliked it so much, considering the favorable reviews are what convinced Shochiku studio to grant his request that he move up from the lower quality period dramas to gendai-geki films about contemporary life.

This was also the first time Ozu worked with screenwriter Kogo Noda, with whom he would develop a life-long friendship. They were pretty much the biggest drinkers of sake around.

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Dreams of Youth (Ozu, 1928) -- lost film

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Two college roommates invite their girlfriends over and go on dates. One of the boys owes money to a tailor, but he can't pay up. When the tailor returns and demands payment, the broke student gives him all his roommate's clothes instead. The other roommate comes back and finds all his stuff missing. He has to wear something, so he starts wearing his friend's clothes, but none of them fit. Misunderstandings and comedy ensue.

Ozu's thoughts:

Quote

After Sword of Penitence, I turned down six to seven offers by the company. I wasn't that keen to become a director yet, because I longed to lounge around for a bit longer. Soon afterwards however, I had a chance to turn my own script into a film. Needless to say, the script was written according to company guidelines. My friendship with Mohara Hideo developed from that time on. He was to direct many of my films over the years. Mohara is a first-rate cameraman who produces beautiful work. My present cameraman Atsuta Yuhara used to be Mohara's assistant. The formers apprenticeship with the latter actually happened with this film.

(Source: Ozu-san website)

This was the first film Ozu really considered his own, and like all his films until 1936, it was silent and in black and white. No existing script, negative, or prints have ever been found.

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I've also been reading Donald Richie's book Ozu: His Life and Films. Richie seems to be a leading authoritative voice on Japanese cinema from the western perspective. He was stationed in Japan for the Allied Occupation from 1947-1949, where he learned the language and wrote movie reviews for Stars and Stripes. After graduating from Columbia University in 1953, he returned to Japan and was hired as the film critic for The Japan Times.

Here he is meeting Ozu sometime during the late 1940s or 1950s:

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The book is a full-length critical work on Ozu's life, career, and working methods. It includes reproductions of pages from Ozu's notebooks and shooting scripts, as well as numerous quotes from co-workers and Japanese critics.

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Wife Lost (Ozu, 1928) -- lost film

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A man cheats on his wife with dancing girls. Private detectives catch him in the act.

Ozu's thoughts:

Quote

The film was developed from a script which won an award in some magazine. The story wasn't particularly interesting. As a matter of fact, I have forgotten most of the plot. I made it under company orders.

(Source: Ozu-san website)

Not a particularly interesting footnote in Ozu's career. Keep in mind that Ozu's first 7 films are lost, including his debut in 1927 and all five films he made in 1928. We'll be screening his earliest surviving picture, Student Romance: Days of Youth (1929), in a few days.

That will be Movie of the Week #1 in the "Watch Ozu with Me" series. Looking forward to it!

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On 5/8/2018 at 2:15 PM, FilmSnob said:

David Bordwell is also considered another leading voice when it comes to Ozu and Japanese cinema. His book is available free to read online, so check it out sometime!

Ozu and the poetics of cinema

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cjs/0920054.0001.001/--ozu-and-the-poetics-of-cinema-david-bordwell?view=toc

So wonderful to have a self-proclaimed "film snob" here. And any film snob would love Ozu. First became aware of him when I was a teenager and saw "Tokyo Story" which was so enlightening and profound. I remember buying "A Story of Floating Weeds" and being enthralled. When I saw "Good Morning" which I think TCM has shown, it showed Ozu's mastery of a current culture and was inspiring and funny too, which let's face it not all directors from his place of birth can muster up. I look forward to your future posts, FS and so enjoyed reading your exegesis of this amazing director's oeuvre! Thanks for joining and posting.

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5 hours ago, CaveGirl said:

So wonderful to have a self-proclaimed "film snob" here. And any film snob would love Ozu. First became aware of him when I was a teenager and saw "Tokyo Story" which was so enlightening and profound. I remember buying "A Story of Floating Weeds" and being enthralled. When I saw "Good Morning" which I think TCM has shown, it showed Ozu's mastery of a current culture and was inspiring and funny too, which let's face it not all directors from his place of birth can muster up. I look forward to your future posts, FS and so enjoyed reading your exegesis of this amazing director's oeuvre! Thanks for joining and posting.

CaveGirl, you're lucky to have found and enjoyed such beautiful cinema so early in life. Some of us have a later start, but you know the saying, better late than never. 😀

Glad to have you and everyone else following this thread!

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Ozu also directed a couple of shorts in 1928 too, and I'll cover them briefly. I like his quotes from interviews that kind of detail his memories and the trajectory of his career.

Pumpkin (Ozu, 1928) -- lost film

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A comedy about a man and his misadventures with several girlfriends. The Kinema Junpo review praised the film's framing and compositions.

Ozu's thoughts:

Quote

This film was way too short. I started to get the hang of how to do continuity from this time onwards.

(Source: Ozu-san website)

 

A Couple on the Move (Ozu, 1928) -- lost film

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A soap-opera melodrama about a couple that keeps moving residences based on story events.

Ozu's thoughts:

Quote

The company handed me the script. Though the company was calling the shots, as long as I thought I could handle it, I would accept the assignment dutifully. I made a conscious effort to try out a few things here. I thought I managed to offer something new and interesting but regrettably, the finished product was far from what I envisaged. Almost half the original was edited out.

(Source: Ozu-san website)

 

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Ozu made one last film in 1928, and it was his first unequivocal success.

Body Beautiful (Ozu, 1928) -- lost film

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Ichiro is a kind of pathetic man who does whatever his wife tells him; he's more of a servant to her than husband. His wife paints pictures for wealthy men and flirts with them, if not more.

Eventually, Ichiro tires of being a cuckold and vows to get revenge. He trains very hard at painting, then secretly enters the same art competition that she believes she will win. Ichiro takes first place and she gets nothing. The husband feels vindicated and becomes a real man. The woman learns her lesson and puts away the brush.

Ozu's thoughts:

Quote

With this film, I had finally evolved my own style. It was also the first work to gain the company's recognition. I still remember Uchida Kisaburo's critical review in Kinema Junpo. I had by that point figured out what filmmaking was about.

(Source: Ozu-san website)

This was the first film Ozu used his trademark low angle camera shots. However, judging by the picture above, I think he placed the actors a little further back later in his career.

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Finally! ... Time to watch some movies ...

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Schedule for Week #1:

Movie of the Week: Student Romance: Days of Youth (Ozu, 1929)

Also:

Fighting Friends, Japanese Style (Ozu, 1929) -- only 14 minutes survive

I Graduated, But ... (Ozu, 1929) -- only 10 minutes survive

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

These are Ozu's earliest surviving works. Student Romance: Days of Youth is sometimes rough and imperfect, but it still has its charm and serves as a good baseline to see how this great filmmaker's career began. The other two films exist only in fragmentary form.

The idea will be to screen about one or two movies per week. I'll post a review with some pictures and then everyone else is invited to watch and you can contribute your thoughts if you'd like. It will be an open discussion. We'll move on to the next week after that.

Looking forward to it!

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Movie of the Week #1:

Student Romance: Days of Youth (Ozu, 1929)

studentromance.jpg.ca812ff4deeb73d87249b202a2215dd1.jpg

Starring: Ichirô Yûki, Tatsuo Saitô, Junko Matsui

Written by: Akira Fushimi

Cinematography by: Hideo Shigehara

Silent, Black and White, 1 hour 43 minutes. Student Comedy, Romance

 

Two university friends take a ski trip and compete for a girl's affection.

 

Review:

Ozu's earliest extant film begins with imperfect charm, then barely avoids turning into a different story, before it ultimately regains its bearings and finishes on firmer ground. The last ten minutes should have been cut, though.

Watanabe and Yamamoto are two college student friends. Watanabe -- a frivolous slacker -- decides to rent out his apartment in an attempt to pick up girls. The plan is simple: if the applicant is not a young, attractive female, he lies and says the room is no longer available. But soon enough Miss Chieko comes along, and she's the girl he wants. Watanabe rents her the room, but he keeps finding excuses to come back and flirt. Yamamoto, meanwhile, studies hard for his exams but manages to steal a date with Chieko; neither friend realizes they are both after the same girl.

The comedy in these early scenes is actually pretty good.

As the story progresses, Watanabe needs a place to stay, so he invites himself to live with his friend. We've all had the unwanted guest or roommate who raids our fridge, right? The two boys have to study for their final exams, but once they're done, they plan a ski vacation together ....... so far, so good. And it just so happens that Miss Chieko will be there too.

Unfortunately, the second 20-30 minutes nearly derail Days of Youth. After setting up the audience to see a romantic comedy where two friends compete for the same girl, Ozu nearly turns the film into a buddy romance, replete with all kinds of pointless filler scenes and subplots at the school. Watanabe and Yamamoto live together. They stare out the window together. They go to school and travel on the train together. There's a scene where one of them eats off the other's plate. It's just a little too much and goes on too long ... one can't help but wonder whether Ozu lacked mastery of story structure and scene economy, or if he was just more comfortable with same sex friendships / relationships at this point in his life. Either way, the lack of narrative focus nearly tanked the film.

Fortunately, the story quickly recovers around the midpoint, when Watanabe and Yamamoto arrive at the ski resort. I don't want to spoil the rest of the film, but there's a wonderful reversal that happens between the two characters. Some of the comedy is genuinely funny (if mean at times), and yes, the two boys do wind up competing for the affections of the girl.

 

(Tatsuo Saitô, Junko Matsui, and Ichirô Yûki in Days of Youth)

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Overall this was half of a good but not great flick. It nevertheless does have its charming moments. Visually, there are lot of wide exterior shots, more than you will see in late Ozu films. Quite possibly the first use of a body cam or helmet cam on the ski slopes too!

Days of Youth can be watched on FilmStruck/Criterion Channel. It's also available on DVD, either as a single or as part of the "Student Comedies" Ozu box-set.

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During production of Days of Youth, Ozu was ordered to make another picture on short notice. Shooting finished in just 5 days.

Treasure Mountain (Ozu, 1929) -- lost film

treasuremountain.jpg.3ffb5f08de46a3cfcb69ff6a6c6a354a.jpg

 

A melodramatic comedy about the rivalry between a traditional geisha and a more modern girl.

Ozu's thoughts:

Quote

My memory of this film was that it was churned out in a hurry. Working day and night, I didn't sleep for five consecutive days. In spite of that, we didn't feel too tired. We even played baseball on the morning of the sixth day. I could still visualize that ball now. We were young after all. I wouldn't be able to sustain that later in life. It would take me much longer time to recuperate.

(Source: Ozu-san website)

Ozu was still being handed scripts by the studio and told to direct pictures on demand.

After his debut in 1927, Ozu directed five movies in 1928, six movies in 1929, and seven in 1930. For most of these (forgettable?) films, no extant negative, prints, or scripts have ever been found.

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Review:

Fighting Friends Japanese Style (Ozu, 1929) -- only 14 minutes survive

fightingfriends.jpg.0eea70bf1e10870f70181521b1bdd568.jpg

 

This film was thought to have been lost for most of the 20th century, but an edited 14 minute Pathe fragment was found in 1997 and it was digitally restored and released in time for Ozu's 100th birthday celebration in 2003. The fragment can be found on Youtube and it's one of our short bonus watches this week.

The plot involved two co-workers/roommates who nearly drive over a dirty looking homeless girl. They take her home, clean her up, and realize she's actually a real beauty. As in Student Romance: Days of Youth, they compete for her affection, but she falls in love with another man who lives nearby instead. The last shot depicts the friends back together, side by side, cheerfully waving off the young woman as she departs on a train.

Ozu's thoughts:

Quote

Noda thought up this story, about two men who fall in love with the same woman. It was such old hat we had to package it by adding "Japanese Style" to the title.

(Source: Ozu-san website)

It's probably not fair to judge a movie from only 14 edited minutes, but I found this unwatchable. The writing was bad. The acting was bad. There were no interesting visual shots.

At this point in his career, Ozu was still a mostly obscure filmmaker who wasn't yet working with any star actors on any important films. Student Romance: Days of Youth had been shot while Ozu and his B-level cast and crew were taking their annual ski vacation during the Winter of 1929. His cameraman actually managed the resort. It's not a perfect film by any means, but it nevertheless has its charm and was made with care -- something that cannot be said for Fighting Friends Japanese Style.

Just one man's opinion, but honestly I couldn't wait for this thing to end.  :(

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Review:

I Graduated, But ... (Ozu, 1929) -- only 10 minutes survive

graduated.jpg.d1fa6babe5ef884ee83ff5ff5d286c52.jpg

Available on Filmstruck. Another one of our bonus watches this week.

A man graduates from college, but he cannot find employment that he likes. He refuses other work that he feels is beneath him. His wife secretly starts working at a bar because they do need money, but the man gets mad when he finds out. Eventually, he decides to take whatever job he can get. The employers feel like he's wiser now, so they offer him a better job.

Ozu's thoughts:

Quote

I had made a good number of student films, but when it came to filming young actors, it was hard to go beyond the old themes of salarymen or college life. However, in those days, the images of white-collar types were limited. As for students, they were of course a different breed from the ones nowadays, who get into fights with the police. They were all very carefree, and comparatively easy fodder for jokes in nonsense comedies.

(more)

Shimizu Hiroshi originally wanted to direct this film, but somehow, the script fell into my lap. I thought, if I was determined to be a director, then I must get to grips with any genre and make every film as well as I could. It's all very well for the so-called film auteur to have artistic ideas but one also needs the professional flair for handling all the different aspects of filmmaking. Admittedly, excessive professionalism could spell trouble, but I was nonetheless extremely grateful for the chance to develop my professionalism through making these kinds of films.

(Source: Ozu-san website)

I Graduated, But ... was pretty boring (the 10 minutes that survive are a summarized Pathe edit) but it looks much more professional and competent compared to Fighting Friends Japanese Style.

According to Richie's book, it's with this film that many critics see the emergence of Ozu's style. From my perspective, it seems like everything in Ozu's career up to this point consisted of carefree nonsense comedies, nothing much more than that. Maybe he was getting bored making the same goofy films over and over again; maybe he was looking for a different challenge. It seems that he embraced the opportunity, and I Graduated, But ... was his first socially conscious film.

That's not to say that Ozu was suddenly rushing off to cure the ills of society. His mature social comedies criticized "life as is" but always in oblique ways. It has been said that his condemnation was never total. Ozu did not accept political idealism.

Quote

Ozu was always ready to accept human nature as he found it. Unlike Okubo (his mentor), he went on to celebrate it. He differed from other directors of the period, Mizoguchi, for example,...whose preoccupation with Truth and Justice led to flat characters and unreal situations. Heinosuke Gosho generously sought a remedy for society's ills and thought he found one in polemic.

Ozu, rather, wanted to show things as they were, and this he accomplished not with the customary passionate melodrama, but with a dispassionate satire that came naturally to him.

(Source: Ozu: His Life and Films by Donald Richie)

So with this film, Ozu began to mark his transition from youth comedies to serious social comedies. Camera framing looks very mature, beautiful compositions, but more classic Hollywood style, with elevated camera position, and standard shot/reverse shots.

There's one scene where I could see a missed opportunity, with an actor positioned too centrally, the camera perhaps not far back enough, and the lighting not quite right. Can you find it?

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OK I'll just leave these up this week in case anyone else wants to watch or join the discussion.

I'll probably add a post or two but starting next Monday we'll move onto the next films.

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This is the shot sequence I had a problem with in I Graduated, But...

The husband decides he must take a job, one way or another. He gets up early the next morning, and the wife sees him off during a driving rainstorm.

graduated1.png.ff93d807710d37f52b4c201e8caf21d2.png

Most of the (edited down) film is framed well and nice to look at, and the beginning of this particular scene is no exception.

Notice the lighting contrast between the couple and their home, everything the husband will leave on the left, and the dark right side of the screen.

graduated2.png.43e53a7883fb0259b60d651f1ef2b2f6.png

Again, look how dark the background is behind the wife. The husband will exit the scene in that direction. Their future is uncertain.

graduated3.png.27573e100aee57d33fb597b8938d97a2.png

The wife turns and watches as her husband walks off into the dark.

 

And then this was the very next shot that I really don't like...

graduated4.png.01495aadc3ad3c2f54830be0336039ca.png

The position of the actress in the frame and the lighting all look wrong to me. It was only one shot in ten minutes, pretty good for early Ozu, but what do you think?

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