Shohei Imamura, a very prominent Japanese film director (Pigs and Battleships, The Ballad of Narayama, The Eel), was once Ozu’s assistant. He immensely hated Ozu’s style of film direction and asked to be relieved from the position. To him, Ozu had always picked the worst take out of tens of retakes. Ozu’s endless retake was infamous in the studio, as he kept saying no until actors and actresses were so exhausted that their uniqueness were stripped off. Imamura found nothing to be learned from Ozu’s direction.
It is true that many of the acting in Ozu’s films look unnatural and staged. Some actors deliver lines as if they are reading them aloud to practice. Their postures look rigid, mannequin-like. When multiple actors are placed in the frame, their positions and poses are calculated to form a perfect composiiton. Critics consider them as crucial components of Ozu film, arguing the lack of excess engagement and of overt expression bring unique quality in the cinematic space-time, in tone with its singularly universal theme.
Here, the treatment of the two students visiting Shuhei in his room is a good example of this Ozu style. They stand attentive, geometrically placed, their faces toward off-screan Shuhei in the similar fashion. In parallel, Shuhei speaks in monotone, with his head rigidly held sideways. Of course, the students back in those days were expected to behave submissively in front of their teachers, as moral of young men. Then, in a sense, this acting is natural, considering what the time demanded to their young ones. This is a strange paradox. Acting unnatural feels natural in this environment. The students are deprived of their privacy, because they live in the boarding school, where every inch of it is public space. Their emotions are never spelled out, as childhood Shuhei was.
I believe Shuji Sano carries the very air of Ozu style. There are some quintessential Ozu actors, Shuji Sano, Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara. Their acting style resonates with the ethereal world Ozu creates. Some actors, even considered great in other films, had difficult time fitting into Ozu’s world. Hisaya Morishige, one of the most sought-after actors in the Japanese theatrical/cinema cericles, was an archenemy of Ozu. While Ozu demanded least of theatrical antics, kicking and making faces, Morishige was all “big” acting. As we will see, the suppression rather than expression, and implosion rather than explosion, convey much more emotional flux to the screen under Ozu’s direction.
But how dark this scene is. The spectrum is shifted toward dark end, all the characters wear dark suits, and the room is barely lit. Especially, Shuhei’s face is barely lit, his silhuette sinking into the blurred background. The blurred outline, sinking into the background, is the recurring visual motif in this film.
In conrtast, the father-son meeting does not show any power at the dark end of the spectrum. This can be seen from the 3D plot below. As we have seen so far, many factors contribute to the dark areas, one of which is the dark suits of the father, the son, the students, and others. Since this is the spa scene, the dark suits are absent, with bright daylight provides the calming atmosphere in the scene. We will see the role of garments and their colors in the films during this era.