Ozu & Ishiguro

First watch the whole of Yasushiro Ozu’s “Noriko Trilogy” – or at least one part of it, be it “Late Spring” from 1949, “Early Summer” from 1951 or “Tokyo Story” from 1953. The order isn’t important – although in each part Japanese superstar Setsuko Hara plays a young woman called Noriko, they are three different characters.

The films are slow-paced and somewhat idyllic – people might quarrel, live in poverty or even die, but the sweet background music won’t let us be too bothered. That’s life, we think (we being modern, European audience), that’s what being a part of a family is about or used to be, so let’s better ignore it and focus on how everything looks better filmed in black and white or how much this all resembles cinema news reels we remember from our own childhood.

But there is more to it and it is Kazuo Ishiguro who reminds us about it. In his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, everything is laid out for us to think about Ozu: the book is set between 1948 and 1950, the surface plot is about family relations, the atmosphere is dreamy, the pace is slow, and for the slow-witted (like myself) the two grown-up daughters of an ailing father are called Noriko and Setsuko. But the events are not described by an omnipotent narrator – they are reported to us by the father, who, as it happens, just a few years earlier was one of the most important artists working for the regime that made the Japanese try conquer the world and almost bleed to death in the process.

Suddenly it dawns on us that those amiable grandfathers from Ozu’s films, smiling gently in their yukatas… And that the fathers… And that the grandsons with their baseball caps… And that there was actually an English road sign at that bridge…

***

“It is the owner’s intention that the proposed establishment be a celebration of the new patriotic spirit emerging in Japan today [and a meeting place for] producers of work unflinchingly loyal to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor. Otherwise I fear we are faced with the growth of another quarter characterized by the very sort of decadence which we know so weakens the fibre of our culture.”

“The world has gone mad. Every day there seems to be a report of someone else killing himself in apology. Don’t you find it all a great waste? After all, if your country is at war, you do all you can in support, there’s no shame in that”.

“I have never had a keen awareness of my own standing.”

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