The Transcendental Style of Yasujirō Ozu

October 05, 2022 Doruntine Aliu
The Transcendental Style of Yasujirō Ozu

A shot from the film Tokyo Story by Yasujirō Ozu

A shot from the film Tokyo Story by Yasujirō Ozu

Hilma af Klint is acknowledged as the world’s first contemporary artist based on her ability to fuse metaphysical influence with her innate artistic genius. Her geometric drawings, made in the 20th century, captured a distinctive style that was more daring, sophisticated and epic than anybody had seen before. Most of her paintings were produced in response to a spiritual mission. They were created to express transcendental perceptions of life through abstract compositions and color scales. Similarly, Wassily Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art posed the theory that the spiritual could be represented with various shapes and colors.

But how did the art world move from the Baroque paintings of Diego Velasquez or realist imagery of Gustave Courbet to the abstract works of Kandinsky? A simple answer would be – the birth of photography. With the help of photography, artists could finally satisfy their hunger for realism. Painters in the 20th century didn’t have to worry about depicting the real – now they could focus on the spiritual. In his book Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader references Wylie Sypher’s statement that “cinema threw every other art into the twentieth century and remained woefully in the nineteenth itself” (176). The technological capabilities of the camera allowed the early film creators to recreate and depict physical reality with more precision than the realist painters ever could. However, this infatuation with realism also meant that early cinema never explored the spiritual realm.

Cinema was stuck in its obsession with realism until the end of World War II. According to Gilles Deleuze that’s when the fundamental shift from movement-image to time-image happened (Schrader 3). Time was a crucial concept for Deleuze, who saw film as a time medium. In the movement-image, time is “subordinated” to movement, meaning that the action on screen defines the time. In the time-image, however, the opposite occurs. The action on screen now is “subordinated to time.” As Schrader writes, “a film edit is determined not by action on screen but by the creative desire to associate images over time” (3).

But how do these concepts bring us to transcendental style in film? According to Schrader, the transcendental style in film emerged during the gap between the movement-image and time-image (21). He defined it as a “style which has been used by various artists in diverse cultures to express the Holy” (35). Transcendental style is not necessarily religious, but only an expression of the Transcendent. And while transcendental style can materialize in different forms, its ultimate goal remains universal.

The universality of transcendental style and the methods used to convey it will be explored in this research paper. The films of Yasujirō Ozu will be analyzed as representations of this specific style. Drawing upon the theory of Schrader, this paper will explore and attempt to define transcendental style and its key characteristics. More specifically, the elements of transcendental style as defined by Schrader such as the everyday life, the dichotomy between man and the environment, and the stasis will be analyzed in two Ozu films: Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953). Finally, this paper will explore the effects and implications that the films infused with transcendental style have on their audiences.

The word transcendence refers to transcending personal boundaries or surpassing limits. It derives from the Latin verb transcendere meaning “to ascend above” or “to rise beyond.” There are many personal interpretations of what it means to experience the other world. Transcendence can manifest itself as a feeling of deep connection to others or nature. It can also bring one closer to God or any kind of supernatural power. But most importantly, transcendence is linked to an emotional and social well-being, even if temporary.

However, like many other theoretical notions, there’s almost no consensus about how transcendence manifests in both art and life (Schrader 35). Transcendence has been a subject of debate ever since Ancient Greece. Some of the confusion is related directly to the word itself. As referenced by Schrader, Rudolf Otto defined the Transcendent as the “Wholly Other” (36). Meanwhile, Mircea Eliade defined transcendence as “hirerophanies,” or the embodiment of the divine. At the same time, Freud defined it as a profound mental necessity of the human experience. Transcendence in art, on the other hand, can either be expressive of the Wholly Other, or expressive of the human who experiences the Transcendent (37).

Unlike some other theoreticians, Carl Jung was against defining and even expressing the Transcendent (Schrader 38). According to Jung, because such expressions use human methods of communication, they immediately stop being transcendental and begin existing in the realm of human reality. Schrader, on the other hand, tells us that human works of art can be expressive of the transcendent, but they cannot inform one about it.

Transcendentalism has been present in art for a very long time. Its expressions include scriptures, Byzantine icons, Greek sculptures and Zen gardens among others. However, expressions of the Transcendent in film might seem counterintuitive at first sight. Unlike other arts, film didn’t emerge from religion. Rather, it was a byproduct of technology and the free market (Schrader 175). Cinema is, at its best, profane. But the works of Ozu and Bresson have proved the opposite. Their films are a merging of technological progress and ancient ideas of God and the spirit. Their films, according to Schrader, are almost in a “chronological reverse,” moving away from the profane to the sacred (177).

In order to analyze transcendentalism in film, one needs to make it clear that such expression is possible only through style. Abstract plots and imagery can hardly be analyzed, but style can be monitored, examined and evaluated (Schrader 35). According to Schrader, transcendental style is “a general representative filmic form which expresses the Transcendent” (40). Ozu’s films are representatives of such style, especially his later work.

Yasujiro Ozu, often regarded as “the most Japanese director,” made his professional debut during the silent era. He directed over fifty films with a vision that’s hard to replicate. Although his first few films were light-hearted comedies, his later work treated heavier subjects such as generational conflict, marriage and relationships.

If one were to summarize the majority of opinions about Ozu, anything along these lines will possibly arise: his films are essentially similar (Bordwell 11). They barely have any plot, and all depict the simple life that Zen Buddhism teaches. David Bordwell writes that these assumptions not only are false, but also hurtful to the discipline of film criticism (11). It’s obvious that Ozu’s films are influenced by the Japanese culture, but considering an Ozu film as “Ozuian” or just Japanese is short-sighted. Similarly, Kristin Thompson, coming from a neo-formalist background, criticizes the approach of most film critics. According to her, one of the reasons Westerners tend to see him as a “strange” director is because Japanese culture itself is strange to us (318). She suggests that Ozu was anything but conventional and, “the most Japanese director of all times.”

And that’s true to some extent. Ozu’s work is known for its universality and ability to appeal to foreign audiences in an ineffable way. That ineffable way is the transcendental style. A simple shot of a vase can bring someone to tears, a shot of a mountain can bring calmness, and an interior shot can show more about the generational dichotomy that emerged after World War II than entire pages of history books. Ozu’s filmmaking was precise, detailed and no wonder it’s a mystery to this day. As Donald Richie said, Ozu is a “master craftsman” (11). Even the spontaneous is planned in an Ozu film.

Late Spring was released in 1949 and is often regarded as Ozu’s most critically acclaimed film. The film revolves around two characters, Shukichi and his daughter, Noriko. Shukichi is a widowed scholar who is constantly working. He lives peacefully with his daughter, Noriko, who enjoys walking around the city, cooking meals, and looking after her father. There’s not much going on until Shukichi’s sister decides to organize a marriage for the young Noriko. After all, she’s in her mid-20s. But for Noriko, marriage is a death of her identity as a daughter and a person. Nevertheless, towards the end of the film, she has no choice but to agree with her aunt and marry the guy.

If this plot sounds boring, it’s because it is. According to Deleuze, the absence of plot is essential to Ozu’s films (15). It’s because of this absence, of this “dead time,” that the viewer has the space to enjoy the visual imagery and contemplate it. The plot of Tokyo Story is quite simple, as well.  A grandfather and grandmother visit their children in Tokyo for the first time in years since their retirement. However, the children, now grown-up and functioning adults, are too busy to let the elderly get in the way of their mundane lives.

Ozu’s films might be simple, but according to Donald Richie, they begin where they end (12). The structure of any Ozu film is circular. If a character appears in the beginning of the film, they are going to show up at the end too. This circular structure is one of the many reasons why Ozu’s films are so emotionally compelling (12).

The plot in an Ozu film might seem hollow because most of the screen-time is occupied by images of the everyday life. According to Schrader, expressing the everyday life is the first step in transcendental style (67). In Ozu’s films, this is depicted by the “dull, banal, commonplaces of everyday living” and the films’ stylization reflects that (67). Almost every shot is taken from the same vantage point, each arrangement is static, all dialogue is monotone and each word is bland (Richie 12). When “action” happens, even if it’s just a conversation between two people, it usually occurs in the middle of the scene. In Late Spring, for example, the camera lingers in the room even after the characters leave it.

Everyday life has been a subject of cinema ever since Vertov shot Man With a Movie Camera in 1929. Italian Neorealism, inspired by Vertov, sought to depict the complex economic and moral situation in post-World War II Italy through images of the everyday life. But the transcendental director uses the every-day life for different means. It’s not so much about “cinema verité,” as much as it is about style. Stripping a film of action results in day-to-day drama, which prepares the viewer for what Schrader calls “the intrusion of the Transcendent” (67). In a transcendental film, the depiction of everyday life tricks the viewer into thinking that this film deals with nothing out of the ordinary. At the same time, it suggests that there might be a deeper meaning behind the portrayal of the mundane. But while in neorealism and Vertov’s cinema the everyday life is an end in itself, in transcendental style it’s a step to something greater.

Another step towards the Transcendent is disparity. Every conflict in Ozu’s films can be simplified down to a disparity between “man and nature” (Schrader 64). In Tokyo Story especially, the disparity between generations can be noticed in almost every frame of the film. In fact, in almost every Ozu film, the Japanese society seems conflicted between the Zen culture and the Western values. That’s reasonable considering Ozu’s personal life and Zen influences.

Besides having a career that spanned over six decades, Ozu led a relatively normal life (Bordwell 15). He never married or had children. Ozu served in the military during World War II and lived with his mother until her death in 1962. These experiences shaped him just like they would any other individual. Both the relationship with his mother and his war memories seem to be apparent in his films (Bordwell 15). However, Ozu’s personal life is not enough to analyze his filmmaking style. Besides, if one is to assume that Zen Buddhism is also an inspiration, any distinction between him and the culture is inconsistent (Schrader 54). In Zen, culture and man are one. They’re part of a larger form.

While Zen culture doesn’t define Ozu’s filmmaking style, it influenced him greatly. Zen Buddhism doesn’t put as much emphasis on structure and hierarchy as Christianity. Instead, it offers a pattern of beliefs and lifestyle choices to its followers.  Zen Buddhism manifests itself in many different ways, the most important being the mu and ekaksana (Schrader 57).” The mu is the void that’s not a void, the emptiness that’s more meaningful than fullness. In Zen culture, emptiness doesn’t represent the absence of something. On the contrary, it’s a part of the wholeness. In Ozu’s films, this emptiness is apparent not only in the plot, but also in dialogue, shots and sound.

Ozu uses this mu or emptiness in his filmmaking techniques. In fact, he is often defined by not doing something rather than doing it. For example, as Richie puts it, “Dissolves are ‘cheating’; fades are ‘merely attributes of the camera’; dollies, pans, etc., are ‘uninteresting” (12). Ozu allows himself to use only the simple cut and only one camera position which is three feet above the ground (often mistaken for a low angle).

Ekaksana, on the other hand, is the “aimless, self-sufficient eternal now” (Schrader 59). This is, perhaps, even more apparent than mu in Ozu’s filmmaking style. In Tokyo Story and Late Spring there are no ghosts, no past, only the present (Schrader 59). Even when characters are nostalgic, they aren’t longing for the past but, in a way, they are expanding the present. This timelessness is important to Zen art, as Deleuze had also noticed (17).

Both timelessness and wholeness are challenged by the post-World War II Japan in Ozu’s films. For better or worse, the greatest conflict in his films is often referred to as “environmental” (Schrader 64). It’s because of this “new environment” that parents cannot spend time with their children, that the daughter doesn’t want to create a family and live an independent life. These are all manifestations of the same issue: modern Japanese cannot identify with their surroundings and nature. These dichotomies are obvious, especially when Ozu contrasts a family gathering with shots of mountains and trees.

In most Western films, whenever characters encounter such disparity, it’s often resolved. In Ozu’s films, it’s transcended (Schrader 75). This is expressed with the “end product” of transcendental style – the stasis. The decisive action, whether it’s Noriko on the verge of tears or the grandfather trying to overcome the death of his wife, doesn’t resolve the disparity but transcends it (Schrader 76). The stasis acknowledges that man and nature might currently be in conflict, but it also suggests that they can overcome it, and that man and nature are one.

These frozen frames, often referred to as “pillow shots” by Richie, are, perhaps, the most mysterious in Ozu’s filmmaking history. For Kristin Thompson, the frozen frames prepare the viewer for what’s about to come next (339). For Deleuze, they show the passing of time (17). But for Schrader and any other viewer who feels transcended by the sight of a simple vase, the stasis represents transcendence (77). These still shots show the Oneness of man and nature, and the universality of human experience (Nornes 79).

As human beings, we are inherently doomed in our quest for finding patterns and meaning where sometimes there is none. Ozu has never explained his filmmaking style, which left critics and scholars no choice but to try and explain it themselves, some better than others. Schrader’s interpretation is hardly universally accepted. In fact, many film theorists including Thompson and Deleuze disagree with him.

But whether Ozu’s filmmaking style is transcendental, poetic, or simply “Buddhist” depends on the viewer. Personally, whenever I watch an Ozu film, I feel a sense of calmness, a feeling that somehow everything in the world will be right, no matter the circumstances. Ozu’s transcendental style doesn’t bring me closer to God or religion. Instead, it makes me realize the continuity of life and the eternal flow of the universe. To me, that’s the best thing a film can ever offer.

This essay was originally submitted as a written assignment for FLM 220: Film Criticism with Professor Sean Homer.

Works Cited

Bordwell, David. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. British Film Institute, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Nornes, Abe Mark. “The Riddle of the Vase: Ozu Yasujiro’s Late Spring (1949).” Japanese Cinema, 2007, pp. 96–107., doi:10.4324/9780203374641-12.

Ozu, Yasujiro, director. Late Spring. National Film Centre Production Company, 1949.

Ozu, Yasujiro, director. Tokyo Story. New Yorker Films, 1953.

Richie, Donald. “Yasujiro Ozu: The Syntax of His Films.” Film Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 2, 1963,

16.11–16., doi:10.1525/fq.1963.17.2.04a00040.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. University of California       Press, 2018.

Thompson, Kristin. Breaking the Glass Armor. Princeton University Press, 2020.