Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Woojeong Joo reviews Reorienting Ozu

Jinhee Choi, Reorienting Ozu: A Master and His Influence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 328 pp.

Review by Woojeong Joo

The Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu has long been understood through the frame of national cinema. With their unique visual style, his films were hailed as a representative example of Japanese cinema in opposition to Hollywood. Dealing with Ozu’s influences on various contemporary filmmakers around the world, Reorienting Ozu reinterprets the director in the context of transnational cinema today. Many "Ozuesque" filmmakers––from the well-known Hsiao-Hsien Hou to more recent cases such as Nami Iguchi––are referred to for comparison with Ozu and, more importantly, raise questions about the pertinence of such comparisons. Something of the same approach may be also seen in Wayne Stein and Marc DiPaolo’s 2015 collection, Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur.

Ozu's last film dates from half a century ago and the postwar Japan that formed the background of his films has disappeared as well. To trace Ozu's influence on contemporary filmmakers must therefore be an "operative rather than mimetic" work, as Jinhee Choi puts it (p. 13), a comparison that proceeds "historically and relationally" by considering the "industrial and discursive context" on which the various Ozuesque styles of cinema have developed. The key concept Choi suggests for the purpose is "sensibility" (p. 78), an artistic intention conveyed through the "texture" on film surface (such as color) as well as visual patterns and narrative tropes. An aesthetic sensibility work in tandem with historical or discursive contexts to elicit a particular affective response from viewers situated in specific time and place. The films of Hsiao-Hsien Hou (Chapter 4) and Claire Denis (Chapter 12), for example, can be considered Ozuesque less by their stylistic similarities to Ozu’s than by the historical memories they commonly evoke, even though each relies on different histories. The notion of sensibility thus expands the boundary of Ozu studies into the critical territory of audience perception and affect.

Focusing more on contextual relations than a single director’s style, Reorienting Ozu puts itself at a remove from the traditional auteuristic approach to film directors. Most chapters nevertheless deal with stylistic concerns when analyzing contemporary films and comparing them with Ozu. This point can be also verified by the names of the directors discussed in the book, including Wim Wenders, Abbas Kiarostami, Jim Jarmusch, and Aki Kaurismaki among others, all of whom are recognized as distinctive cinematic auteurs. But some contributors, such as Michael Raine (Chapter 6) and Daisuke Miyao (Chapter 7), complicate the notion of auteur by articulating Ozu’s negotiating position with Japanese film industry when experimenting new technical developments such as lighting and intertitles. These chapters reconfirm the necessity of taking not only aesthetic but also contextual analyses into account when engaging with Ozu.

Reorienting Ozu proposes a relational concept of authorship that explores the complex network of aesthetic, industrial, social, and historical conditions behind the discursive formation of a non-Western film auteur. For that reason, it has much to contribute to contemporary film studies.