This film's narrator is the most reserved of any we will encounter among the films talked about in this book. The camera, with very rare exceptions, never moves, and for all but a handful of shots is placed about 36 inches above the floor, about the height of an average person sitting on a tatami mat in a Japanese house. And Ozu uses the restrictions of the tight quarters in these houses to create powerful geometric compositions. But it is Ozu's masterful use of the tableau — his groupings of characters within a fixed frame — that we should perhaps take greatest note of, for it teaches us volumes about the power and beauty of an economical visual style when applied to the appropriate story. (The tableau is basically the same as the master-shot technique of rendering a scene in which the master is used as a "base" from which the narrator then goes into the scene for articulation. But because of the formal compositions that Ozu employs, and the duration of these "master" shots, and because of their aesthetic force, I make a distinction.)
Only on rare occasions could you consider that Ozu's staging is used to make physical what is going on internally. It is used almost exclusively to render necessary action (such as entrances and exits) and relevant plot points, such as tidying the house in preparation for guests. He delineates dramatic blocks and articulates narrative beats with the camera by changing image size or angles, rarely by putting the camera into motion. Often, within a static frame, dramatic tension is created through the duration of simple actions, such as packing for a trip, resting, or kneeling beside a dying mother.
The first shots of the film tell us a few things. Story-wise, we learn that we are in a rural setting, and we are introduced to the train, which plays an important role. Stylistically, the static camera is introduced. But it is in the first two interior scenes that the other elements of style are introduced, and then locked down: camera height, the tableau that has "holes" in it that will be filled by the entrance of a character, the method the narrator will use to articulate the story (cutting), and, very importantly, the pace of the story. I suggest that you look at these first two interior scenes carefully, making sure you understand why Ozu made each cut (narrative beat). You will discover that it is either because he was "framing" a performance beat in order to make sure we "got it" (either the dynamic relationships or the psychology or subtext of a line of dialogue or of an action) or because he was introducing a new character or a new dramatic block.
Father and Mother are introduced into the film as a couple in that they occupy the same frame. Every other significant character in the film is introduced separately in their own frame, even though most will initially enter the film in a tableau.
Why such a long time on the old couple packing? Because it helps not only to build the wonderfully warm, dynamic relationship between this couple but to build expectation.
In separation, Ozu often places his camera right on the axis, which sometimes gives the appearance that characters are looking into the camera. And sometimes the sight lines are definitely wrong — grammatically incorrect. I believe these are mistakes, unimportant in the overall effect of this story, and I point them out only because of the nature of this book.
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