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Ozu's Angry Women

Shigehiko Hasumi

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At this centennial celebration of Yasujirô Ozu, I would like to speak not about the smiles his films evoke, but about the anger depicted in them. While Ozu's women have often been described as models of feminine virtue, I want instead to point out the gestures of indignation that those women display, and thus show the modern aspects of Ozu's mise en scène.

While much has been said about women in the films of Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse, discussions of Ozu's women are much rarer. In particular, practically nothing has been said about their anger. That omission is likely due to the fact that many people's memories of Ozu's films have been shaped by the ubiquitous image of the father, especially those starring the legendary actor Chishû Ryû.


1. David Bordwell, Ozu and The Poetics of Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1988), p. 308.   Even the formalist David Bordwell, when discussing Late Spring (1949) in his book Ozu and The Poetics of Cinema, wrote that ‘Ozu can still depict the self-sacrificing parent as solitary, in a fashion analogous to the epilogue of The Only Son (1936)’, and he classified Late Spring as a parent-film. (1) The stories of Ozu's later films have often been summed up in the following terms: the sorrow of a widower as he marries off his daughter. But few people seem to have recognised that unconsciously suppressed in such summaries is the story of the sorrow naturally felt by the daughters who are married off by their widowed fathers.  



Angry Gestures

By raising these two views of Ozu's films, I do not intend to criticise one by praising the other. Nor is it my intention to emphasise the modernity of young daughters resisting their fathers' authority. All I want to do is point out the often overlooked instances of anger shown by women, as directed with an exquisite touch by Ozu.

In the screenplays there is no mention of the women getting angry. But in the films, especially the later works, we find many cases of women, both married and single, performing gestures of anger. They show their emotional reaction not by raising their voices or changing their expressions – only with their bodily actions. And what is required for those gestures is no more than an ordinary piece of cloth – a towel or a neckerchief. Whenever I see one of these props in the hands of a young Ozu woman, I grow tense with the expectation that the screen will soon reverberate with her anger. I would like to examine how that happens in three films: An Autumn Afternoon (1962), The End of the Summer (1961) and Tokyo Twilight (1957).



  The Towel Around the Neck  




2. Robin Wood, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 94-138.

  In An Autumn Afternoon, Shima Iwashita is shown ironing with a red and blue striped towel around her neck. The garden seen through the glass door is already swathed in nighttime darkness. No one else in the family is present, but anyone seeing hthis woman hard at work would be struck by a sense of imbalance. For Ozu, towels are normally props for men; wearing a towel around the neck is not a suitable appearance for an unmarried woman. This woman’s status is as the daughter of a family that lost its mother early. Though she is now of marriageable age, she is still keeping house for her widowed father. In this sense, Iwashita’s character is an extension of the female image defined by the marriageable women played by Setsuko Hara as the heroines named Noriko - the characters that Robin Wood analysed in his fascinating study ‘Resistance to Definition: Ozu's 'Noriko' Trilogy’. (2)  



But, even when she was alone in the house, Hara never appeared with a towel around her neck; nor did Yôko Tsukasa in Late Autumn (1960). The only woman who appears in a guise similar to Iwashita is Chikage Awashima, who wears a towel around her neck in Early Spring (1956). But that is only because she is playing the weary wife of a humble office worker. Ozu's young unmarried women normally display the skin of their milky-white necks to the light; not even by mistake would they be shown with such a sloppy appearance. So what is happening to Shima Iwashita in An Autumn Afternoon?

The Father's Insensitivity

When the father played by Chishû Ryû returns home, he stumbles past his ironing daughter in a way which clearly shows that he has drunk more than usual. Leaning onto the low table, he plops himself down and stares at his daughter with a hard gaze. Anyone who has been following the story will immediately recognise what his awkward manner means. He has just seen the pitiful life of his former high school teacher, who has grown old together with a daughter who missed the chance to get married. When a friend who was also present teases him that he, too, will end up like that if he isn't careful, Ryû takes the comment seriously.

Now he blurts out to his daughter as she does the housework: ‘Aren't you going to get married?’ Annoyed at his daughter's brusque refusal to respond to him, the drunken father nags her even more fiercely about marriage. The daughter is at an age when she might very well be attracted to men, and even though the widowed father is drunk, his heavy-handed repetition of the word ‘marriage’ and his lack of any delicacy towards his daughter irritates viewers, making us wish that he could interact with her differently. Even if he doesn't adopt a sophisticated strategy like the father (also played by Ryû) who in Late Spring pretends to be about to remarry so that his daughter will also wed, the father in An Autumn Afternoon exhibits none of that close, almost incestuous affection for his daughter.

Tossing Away

Annoyed by his daughter's cool response, the father tells her to come and sit with him. Ozu begins this scene with shots from two different distances. In the first, the camera shows the daughter from a considerable distance as she finishes her ironing, folds the laundry, stands up and approaches her father. As she is about to sit down, the camera switches to a closer bust-shot of the daughter who is strangely expressionless. In the second shot, she tips her head slightly and quickly slips the towel off her neck.

By revealing both the daughter's womanly charms and her decision to refuse her father, that brief gesture grabs the viewer's heart. The tragedy of An Autumn Afternoon is that the father is not perceptive enough to recognise his daughter's anger as expressed by her gesture of tossing away the towel. We cannot forgive his insensitivity merely because he is played by Ryû; Ozu has clearly directed this scene from the viewpoint of the deeply wounded daughter.


If the moment when the towel is slid off the daughter's neck is overlooked, then the meaning of the entire scene will be read only from the father's side; the daughter's anger will be ignored. But the agent of this quick sliding action with the towel is the daughter herself, and Ozu clearly put the towel over her neck at the beginning of this sequence in order to capture that very moment with the camera.

To confirm this, just recall the gesture used by Ineko Arima to remove her neckerchief in Tokyo Twilight. She has begun to think that she is not her father's real child, so she goes to learn the truth from her mother, who left her husband and child to live with another man. Unusually for a post-war Ozu film, Tokyo Twilight is set in a cold season, and the daughter's face seems frozen as she sits formally in front of her mother, who is delighted by her daughter's unexpected visit.

The daughter then tilts her head slightly and removes the neckerchief in a single quick motion. This chilly gesture suggests strongly that she is rejecting her mother, and her expressionless face matches perfectly that of Iwashita in An Autumn Afternoon. It is natural, of course, for a woman ironing to wear a towel around her neck, or for a woman walking in the cold to wear a neckerchief. The issue is not the towel or neckerchief itself but the camera's direct capturing of the young woman's gesture of whipping it from around her neck. For Ozu, that gesture expresses the daughter's anger.

Just like these expressionless young women who show their distrust toward their father or mother through their gestures, so does the young wife played by Chikage Awashima in Early Spring show her distrust toward her husband, who has had an affair with an unmarried woman. Ozu must have put the towel around her neck at the beginning of the scene with the intent of filming its eventual removal at the critical moment.

A Momentary Gesture

The object of the women's anger is not only their fathers. The gesture of indignation is duplicated, with the same swiftness, in front of the mother and the husband. That action of pulling the towel or neckerchief away from the neck is very brief and might even be missed, but as such it plays an important role in enlivening the scene. In this visual expression of distrust, conveyed not emotionally through words or facial expressions but with an instantaneous, deadpan motion, I see the modernism of Ozu's mise en scène.

That instant is a small detail which has no narrative significance. But from a thematic viewpoint, its repetition performs a function that cannot be ignored. We then understand that many scenes in Ozu's films are enlivened with women's anger through gestures of throwing down various everyday props – not only towels. As the premise for that understanding, we must first look at how the women perform a gesture that contrasts with throwing down – specifically, picking up.

Picking Up

As many know, one of the roles of the housewife in Ozu's films is to help her husband change his clothes after he has returned home from work. In most cases, the husband's change of clothing is shown openly as a leisurely ceremony: he removes the suit that he wore to the office, and changes into a kimono more suitable for relaxing at home. The wife's actions are distilled in her gestures of conscientiously picking up each item of clothing.

Characteristic of Ozu is that the husband does not hand his jacket or shirt to his wife but instead just drops them at random onto the tatami. The wife bends over for each item and gracefully picks it up. None of the actresses pick up the dropped clothing with a smoother, more relaxed motion than Kuniko Miyake in Late Autumn.

But it would be an absolute mistake to interpret these gestures as depicting the uncaring arrogance of the husband or the patient servility of the wife in the Japanese household. Ozu is clearly exaggerating here. At the suitable moment, he has the husband pull his handkerchief out of his pocket and drop it on the floor – an awkward action that, in Ozu, can only be performed by the actor, not the actress.

In contrast, the actress' action of bending over and picking up the handkerchief is full of grace. The wife's lightness and flexibility of motion clearly show her superiority to her husband. In fact, Ozu’s women are experts at picking up. In Late Spring, Haruko Sugimura does an amusing turn with her sharp-eyed spotting and picking up of a wallet on the grounds of a shrine. Both Kyôko Kagawa in Tokyo Story (1953) and Setsuko Hara in Late Autumn bring a refreshing rhythm to uneventful scenes by picking up something from the floor of a classroom. While Ozu seems to have experienced great pleasure at having his actresses perform this gesture, his actors were not allowed to pick things up so gracefully.

Throwing Away

In Ozu's gestural logic, the opposite of the picking-up motion must thus express anger. Often, in Ozu's works, a moment comes in which a women suddenly throws away an object she is holding. In almost all cases, the object flung onto the floor is clothing.

Like Kuniko Miyake in Late Autumn, Kinuyo Tanaka in Equinox Flower (1958) skilfully helps her husband as he changes clothes after coming home. But at one point, as if protesting her husband's stubborn refusal to agree to their daughter's marriage, she throws down the bundle of his clothes that she has conscientiously picked up and held in her arms. In The End of the Summer, the daughter played by Michio Aratama is already married, but her father's selfish behaviour causes her to toss away in silence the clothing that she has carefully taken out of the wardrobe. In Late Autumn the daughter played by Yôko Tsukasa is upset with the behaviour of her mother, Setsuko Hara. In front of her mother, she roughly tosses away the cardigan sweater that she has just taken off. In Floating Weeds (1959), when the travelling actress played by Machiko Kyô learns that she has been betrayed by her partner, she suddenly throws down the towel she has been holding.

The instantaneous gestures of indignation depicted in these films then become anger expressed through speech and facial expressions in Late Autumn, when Mariko Okada speaks like a female prosecutor giving closing arguments before men as old as her father. The invigorating energy of that long speech is supported by the angry gestures of the women briefly sketched in the other films. Refusing to sit in the chair offered to her, rashly criticising their inconsiderate behaviour, Okada succeeds in extracting an apology from the men – even though she becomes funnier the more serious she appears. This scene leaves the strong impression that, for Ozu, only the anger of women can be justified.

Ozu's ‘Slowness’


3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), pp. 146-151.   As shown by the title of Jonathan Rosenbaum's perspicacious essay ‘Is Ozu Slow?’, (3) Ozu's works are often regarded as flowing with a leisurely passage of time, eliminating every detail that might drive people on or complicate the situation. While individual conflicts might occasionally be depicted – such as the discharged soldier who pushes his wife down the stairs in A Hen in the Wind (1949) or the loud cursing match in the rain between the man and woman in Floating Weeds – Ozu's films have been characterised as concluding with a restoration of order.  



It is true that almost all of the characters seem to accept the course of events without resistance, and refrain from stirring up the story. But does that mean that the scenes of women yanking towels or neckerchief from their necks or suddenly throwing down armfuls of clothing are merely peripheral episodes? These gestures by women seem to be not so much representations of boldly outlined anger as brief visual sketches that introduce no change into the narrative.

The Ceremony of Farewell

However, on the evening of the day that Ineko Arima pulls her neckerchief off in front of her mother in Tokyo Twilight, her life ends in a suicidal accident without her having ever told her parents that she secretly had an abortion. That earlier gesture before her mother can only be said to have foretold an unavoidable narrative change. And what about Iwashita in An Autumn Afternoon?

Here again we must not overlook a decisive event, for in this film she resigns herself to marriage without ever recovering her former deep trust in her father. This is clear from a comparison with the very similar last scene of Late Spring. As Kijû Yoshida has pointed out in his outstanding book Yasujirô Ozu's Anti-Cinema, while there is a clear repetition between these two works, the differences are much more striking. Those differences are apparent in the dryness of the farewell scene between the dressed-up daughter and father on the morning of the wedding in An Autumn Afternoon, as well as in the depiction of the father alone that evening, ‘an image that is extremely prosaic, artless, and bland’.

By that time, Ozu was fully aware that his story of the sorrow of a widower as he marries off his daughter was no longer tenable, and could not be repeated even in fiction. When Shima Iwashita, ironing with a towel around her neck, yanks that towel away in front of her father in this posthumous film, Yasujirô Ozu may have been announcing, within her gesture, a farewell of his own.



  This text is the revised version of a paper given at Yasujirô Ozu: International Perspectives, a conference organised by Columbia University and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, 11-12 October 2003.  

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© Shigehiko Hasumi and Rouge 2004. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.
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