On the Everydayness of a "Miracle" Ozu Yasujiro and Atsuta Yuharu

from: http://www.um.u-tokyo.ac.jp/dm2k-umdb/publish_db/books/ozu/english/02.html



As Japanese cinema approached its second "golden age" in the nineteen-fifties, a set of circumstances came together that is rare even in the context of world cinemas. The directors of a series of indisputably stellar films were supported by the same staffs who worked consistently together for roughly a period of ten years. In particular, the fact that most of these works were photographed by the same cinematographer is, we might say, something like a "miracle."

Certainly it will be no shock to anyone to suggest that Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963) is one of the fortunate directors who was able to derive some of the benefits of this "miracle." This is because, beginning with the cinematographer Atsuta Yuharu and including the staff of the editing, art direction, lighting and other departments, Ozu was able to assemble a staff he could work with over a number of years.

Representative Japanese directors of the time such as Mizoguchi Kenji and Naruse Mikio who were able to use the skilled cameramen Miyakawa Kazuo and Tamai Masao were in roughly the same situation. It is difficult to deny that the seemingly unwavering style of these directors, often read as auteurism, is indebted to the continuity of staff. Works such as Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953), Mizoguchi's Chikamatsu monogatari (1954) and Naruse's Floating Clouds (1955), all masterpieces of that era of Japanese cinema, were works photographed under the ideal conditions of this "miracle."

So how exactly was it that such "miracles" as these became possible? Let us consider the fact that it is because the studio system, which had already begun to crumble in the United States, was up and running in Japan. In fact, needless to say, all the members of the production staff from directors and actors to cinematographers and art directors, lighting directors and editors were contract employees working at the same film studio. So, as soon as the decision came down for Ozu to start production on another film, he had all of the staff necessary for planning and for production close at hand at the Ofuna studio, easy to assemble into one "Ozu crew" cinematographer Atsuta Yuharu, art direction, Hamada Tatsuo, sound engineer Semoo Yoshisaburo, and editor Hamamura Yoshiyasu. But the fact that this staff was composed and stayed together for roughly ten years is really nothing less than a "miracle." From the time when the symptoms of the studio system's demise became apparent in the nineteen-sixties, the conditions of possibility for this sort of "miracle" disappeared altogether.

It is virtually impossible to discuss many important questions of Japanese cinematic history without establishing how and where this quotidienized "miracle" transpired. Not only Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse built their bodies of work on the basis of such continuity, it also enabled the works of directors such as Kinoshita Keisuke, Shibuya Minoru and Inagaki Hiroshi, who consistently used the same staff, with whose collaboration they were able to continue shooting film after film. This kind of continuity is a phenomenon nearly impossible to imagine happening in the birthplace of the studio system itself, nineteen-thirties' Hollywood. In contrast, the studio system in the United States in the 'thirties was provoked to move by the figure of the producer, and directors were like one of so many gears lined up to make the machine run smoothly, a part could at any moment be inter-changeably replaced like any (not so durable) consumer good. The directors Victor Fleming and King Vidor, who directed Gone with the Wind (1939) and Duel in the Sun (1947), respectively, under producer David O. Selznick, are only a small sample of the legions of directors who were mobilized into these productions. If friction were to break out between the director and producer during shooting, and the director were to be thrown off the production, an editor who was attached to the studio would be available to take his place, editing and adding footage where "necessary," turning it into a finished film. These consequences of the director's tenuous position are something that didn't happen in the realm of Japanese film production at that time.

In this way, it seems possible to say that in general American directors didn't enjoy the same authority over processes of production enjoyed by a small number of Japanese directors. For example, despite his string of major critical and box-office successes from the late forties through the fifties, even for a director as seemingly couched in prestige as John Ford, it was a luxury to be able to use the cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, when he wanted to work with color stock. Even Ford was only able to take advantage of this luxury in a small number of films , such as The Quiet Man (1953), over the course of that ten years. Alfred Hitchcock, who was able to use the cinematographer Robert Burks, consistently through his working career, was something of a rarity in the Hollywood of the fifties. The Hitchcock of that era was not in the least esteemed as a major director by Hollywood. It was finally critics affiliated with the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, who took him up under their banner as a part of their auteurist program, which established him as a major director.


In contrast to the American studio system, which put strict constraints on its employees and hardly allowed its directors an inkling of autonomy, it is clear that the Japanese studio system was relatively flexible, as I described earlier. In the case of Shochiku, the studio organization allowed for a number of production groups organized around a director, a policy called the "director system," implemented by Kido Shiro when he took over as the head of the Ofuna studio in 1924, which was in effect from the end of the silent era through the 'thirties. Under this arrangement, a director was allowed to assemble a team of people for different, specialized fields of film production and to cultivate them so they could continue to work together; in addition, there was a provision for creating successors for each domain of production; in particular, for putting people who seemed to be the stuff of future directors in the position of assistant director, so that in due time they might move up the ladder.

Toho, which was founded after the talkie era had already begun, had a rather different system than Shochiku. One of its founders, Mori Iwao, had previously lived abroad in America, and was versed in the Hollywood climate of production. Mori's aim was to create a production system which provided for a stronger role for the producer, and created a new company , Toho, in order to facilitate the filming of talkie pictures. The formative structures of the system known by the name of the "producer system" are to be found here, and innovative producers from Toho who would later be famous in the'fifties were enabled through this system, including Tanaka Yukko who would subsequently become renowned for directing Godzilla (1957), as well as Sanezumi Fujimoto, who worked closely with Naruse Mikio on pre-war films, and promoted Naruse's work after the war. Even in Toho, organized largely under the producer system, there were still provisions for directors like Naruse to assemble staffs they could work with on a continuous basis, from picture to picture. Needless to say, this was also the case for Kurosawa Akira, who had the run of the studio and could shoot at time under whatever conditions he needed.

Nagata Masaichi, the head of the Daiei studio who had worked closely with Mizoguchi on such pre-war productions as Osaka Elegy (1936) and Sisters of Gion (1936), did not have a fixed system in place like the Shochiku director system or the Toho producer system. In Nagata's case, it seems to have been his rather uncanny intuition at that time which led to his producing projects like Kurosawa Akira's Rashomon (1950), a by-product of the 1947 Toho strike, and the sudden decision to become involved with Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) with no assurance of success. Therefore, given this propensity for intuition and risk-taking, following the European success of The Life of O-Haru (1952) and Ugetsu monogatari (1953), produced by other studios, Nagata stated that he would produce other Mizoguchi works, as well as support whatever "selfish" production-related demands Mizoguchi himself might make.

The quality of "miracle" that I proposed earlier is no doubt highly indebted to the very fact that so many fortunate-seeming accidents and incidents were happening in these various studios at the same time. However, the thing which needs to be pointed out at the outset is the fact that leaders and planners at the studios, such as the producers Kido Shiro, Nagata Masaichi and Fujimoto Masazumi, who supported the careers of Ozu, Mizogichi and Naruse, had been calling attention to the talents of these directors since well before -- in fact, since the 'thirties. In addition, as is illustrated by Ozu's production team, organized around the cinematographer Atsuta Yuharu, nearly all of the members of the directors' productions staffs were people who had been observing the directors' day-to-day activities on the job since the 'thirties.

What should be clear from this state of events is that the second "golden age" of cinema allowed for a fairly ideal environment in which each director and staff member could exercise his talents in his respective area of technique, the field that he had, presumably, been practicing since before the war, even despite the various upheavals undergone by post-war Japanese society. The fundaments of the Japanese studio system continued without substantive change even through the 1939 shift of the Second World War from Europe to Asia, Japan's loss of the war in 1945, and the large-scale strike at Toho that happened soon after.

As it happened, Kido Shiro and Mori Iwao were forced by the Occupation forces to resign from their posts, having been charged as central players in making pro-militaristic films at Shochiku and Tphoduring the war. But just as soon as they were allowed to return to work, film was just on the verge of this "golden age." This ironic turn of events might be read as another of the "miracles" that underwrote the Japanese cinema of the nineteen-fifties.

The shooting conditions of Ozu's crew in the 'fifties were extraordinary -- as is the case with Mizoguchi and Naruse -- even in the context of world cinemas. All of these directors were able to keep the same staff, including the cinematographer and other staff. As we have just seen, the thing that brought this seemingly rare state into the realm of "miracle" was the sturdiness and continuity of the Japanese studio system.

Within this general scheme of continuity there were, of course, exceptions; for instance, the acclaimed film of this period directed by Mizoguchi, The Life of O-Haru, a product of the Shin-Toho studio that was formed as a by-product of the Tohostrike. While art director Mizutani Hiroshi had worked consistently on the Mizoguchi crew on many productions, the cinematographic work of Hirano Yoshimi brought a different look to the film, than that of Mizoguchi's usual cinematographer, Miyakawa Kazuo.

In the case of Naruse Mikio, his collaboration with cinematographer Tamai Masao ended with the 1960 production When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, and following works used Yasumoto Atsushi. The result of the change in cinematographers certainly went beyond shifts in elements of image composition, exerting a subtle influence on the directing itself; however, that is a topic worth exploring elsewhere.

Further, if we were to think of the case of nineteen-fifties' Kurosawa Akira, even within the scope of his Tohoworks, the cameraman was never one fixed person. The fact that his cinematographer for the period from 1952's Ikiru to Throne of Blood in 1957, Tomokazu Nakai, never again picked up a camera in his professional life, is certainly not to be left unlamented, but again, we must unfortunately leave that discussion for another time.

In the case of Ozu Yasujiro, the composition of his staff was completely consistent. Apart from the Shin- Toho work The Munakata Sisters (1950), the Daiei work Floating Weeds (1959), and the Toei work The End of Summer (1947), as long as he worked at Shochiku he was able to keep the same production staff together. The staff of the Ozu crew was roughly assembled by the time of the production of A Hen in the Wind (1947), and maintained continuously through the ten films leading to the outstanding work An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

The figure of Atsuta Yuharu, however, is exceptional. Although his first credit for cinematography on an Ozu picture appears in the 1939 production What Did the Lady Forget?, he had acted as assistant cinematographer for Ozu productions under Mohara Hideo beginning in 1929 on Days of Youth, an association which with some small exceptions began what was to be a thirty five-year collaboration. During that time, he came to assume the position of unqualified trust of being Ozu's "eyes." This included the transition from black-and-white film to color and taking the initiative to use Agfacolor when most other directors were satisfied with Fujicolor or Kodacolor, to attain the quality of color that Ozu wanted.

One fact we should keep in mind id that when Ozu entered Shochiku's Kamata studio in 1923, he first began work as an assistant cinematographer in the cinematography section, before moving to the directing section. Even though the span of time he spent there was short, as he moved to the directing section in 1926, and this interval also included time in the military, we should not slight the biographical fact of work in cinematography. The reason that the experience at Sh™chiku is important, is that among the studios it was only Shochiku at which Hollywood-style cinematography was about to be iinstalled in place as a part of the system; most other cinematographers at the time were from the industrial-retail side of image-making, whose hands-on knowledge of cinematography came from working on photography and development in regular photo shops. Given this situation, what prompted Shochiku to systematize cinematography when no other studio did?


Shochiku was originally known for producing traditional popular theatre, primarily kabuki; the company first entered film production in 1920. The director of cinematography, Henry Kotani, was the son of Japanese immigrants, born in the United States, a young cinematographer who had worked his way up in the ranks of Hollywood and had bright prospects working at the Jesse L. Lasky Company. His engagement at Shochiku came on the strong recommendation of his former co-worker at the Lasky Company, the director Cecil B. DeMille. In other early studio experience, Henry Kotani had also worked as an actor from 1913 on, at the studio of Thomas H. Ince.

Henry Kotani was in charge of cinematography for the first film production at Shochiku's Kamata studio, Shima no onna (1920), which gave a fresh shock to spectators for the way it used lighting and rhythmical editing in ways that hadn't been seen before in film produced in Japan. The cinematographer on Shochiku's second production, Hikari ni tatsu onna (1920), directed by Murata Minoru, was Bunjiro Mizutani, who had recently moved to Shochiku from Nikkatsu's Mukojima production facility. Mizutani's assistant, Midorikawa Michio, came along with him to Shochiku. Upon seeing the vast difference in cinematographic sensibility between that Mizutani's work and Henry Kotani's in Shima no onna, he immediately left Mizutani's supervision and went over to work under Henry Kotani. Neither of these films is in existence any longer, and it is impossible to compare them, but in any case it is a compelling fact that at the Shochiku Kamata facility of that time, two rival cinematographic genealogies existed, that derived from Lasky's Hollywood style and that derived from the style of the Nikkatsu Mukojima productions. While the Lasky-influenced cinematographic line tended to put new cinematographers to work on "quickie" low-budget productions, in contrast we might point out Nikkatsu's tendency to spare no expense, devoting ample time to the production of artistically ambitious works.

After some time, Midorikawa Michio, who moved to Nikkatsu and began working as cinematographer for director Uchida Tomu, began to pursue the line of cinematographic technique seen in Henry Kotani's Hollywood-influenced style. When Ozu entered the cinematographic section of Shochiku's Kamata studio, one of the older co-workers he learned from was none other than Midorikawa Michio, and it is not improbable that even without knowing it, he took in some of Midorikawa's Hollywood-influenced pedagogy in the way that he learned to put together the elements of a cinematic shot and frame. This seems an entirely appropriate frame of reference for Ozu, who clinched his desire to make movies in 1917, after seeing Thomas H. Ince's Civilization (1916), who honed his understanding of shot and editing after seeing Ernst Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle (1924), and would soon make his debut film Sword of Penitence in 1927, an adaptation from George Fitzmaurice's 1922 film Kick-in.

When he entered Shochiku as an apprentice at nearly that, after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Atsuta Yuharu was assigned, just as he had hoped, to the cinematographic department. At that time, there was a fierce rivalry between two contending styles of cinematography, the Hollywood-derived style and the Nikkatsu-derived style. It was a natural turn of events that Atsuta, who had steeped himself in Universal serial action pictures as a youth, would settle on the style derived from Hollywood. From the time when he started as an assistant to Midorikawa, he took the chance to closely observe Midorikawa's day-to-day activities on the job, and learned many of the vital tricks of the trade from his colleague, like the ways of managing light in an era before light meters -- knowledge people in the trade were often reluctant to divulge. The kind of intimate collaboration between director and cinematographer that would ultimately go to underwrite the "golden age" of cinema in the 'fifties, as illustrated in the collaboration between Ozu Yasujiro and Atsuta Yuharu, made its first appearance in the production system through the routing of Henry Kotani's Hollywood-derived style through the work of Midorikawa Michio. The influence that Midorikawa was to have on the working pair of Ozu and Atsuta is in large part evidenced in the shooting technique of "Midorikawa's position," a shot Midorikawa often used which involved placing objects between the actor standing in front of the camera and the camera itself, and tightening up the shot; this shot is to be seen subsequently in many Ozu/Atsuta works. We spectators should regard it as a great windfall that this pair of Ozu and Atsuta, who showed such a profound interest in the medium of mechanical reproduction of the photograph, had the habit of walking around tinkering with cameras belonging to their respective fathers. In fact, it is an equally lucky part of the "miracle" of this era of cinema that both Ozu nor Atsuta's interest was specific to the medium of film, and neither brought to film any kind of artistic ambition which would connect it with the theatre, as had Osanai Kaoru, who was eager to introduce theatreical elements into film in the early Shochiku days. Ozu's first work, the jidai-geki The Sword of Penitence, was produced in 1927 completely without the collaboration of the people who would later make up the Ozu crew. At the time, both Atsuta Yoharu and the man who would later become his teacher, the cinematographer Mohara Hideo, were in the military. As I mentioned earlier, the real backbone of the Ozu crew was not composed until after his eighth work, Days of Youth. During the era when he was paying his dues as a new director at Sh™chiku, producing two or three comedies at a rate of three days shooting-time a piece, his only staff were a cinematographer and an assistant. At this time, when he didn't have a specific cinematographer consistently assigned to him, it is said that some of the actors, who were hand-picked by Ozu, also doubled up as stage hands. One of these actors, who would subsequently become known for his trademark performances in Ozu's films is the actor Ryu Chishu. Mohara, to whom Atsuta of the Ozu crew was originally attached, was one of the first generation of cinematographers trained at the Shochiku Kamata studio, and as such, in a position to have experienced the rivalry between the two competing cinematographic styles of Hollywood and Nikkatsu influence. He was of roughly the same actual age as Ozu and Atsuta, and one more element of the cinematic "miracle" was born. Until he left cinema in favor of is ambitions in sound engineering due to his interest in the talkie, Mohara was the person to whom Atsuta was assistant cinematographer for fifteen years, devoting himself to learning the trade, seeing others promoted above him while waiting to be finally promoted to cinematographer himself. The result of this fifteen-year stint as an assistant is that Atsuta knew almost intuitively what a director would want on the set, and we would hazard that he would be able to put together the construction of a shot and frame in his head. Despite these abilities however, Atsuda would often repeat that he was only the camera-ban, the person who put the camera in position to take the shot. Of course he did not say this out of fake humility or toadiness. Even after he was in fact promoted to the position of Ozu's cameraman, it might be argued that he continued to apply himself to thinking like Ozu, feeling like Ozu, and seeing like Ozu. This is what enabled the unwavering signature "Ozu style" of image composition in the nineteen-fifties, beginning with Tokyo Story.

When Atsuta later became director of cinematography, he constructed a special tripod for use on the distinctive low-angle shots Ozu often used; he painted it with red enamel, a color he was fond of, and nicknamed the tripod "The Crab." During the exhausting process of location-hunting, Ozu would walk around with his favorite Leica. In the event that Ozu was unable to find a satisfactory loccation, Atsuta would be ready at a moment's notice to give his suggestions about possible locations, having scouted in advance. During location shooting itself, Atsuta would always be ready to unroll a mat for Ozu to use when he would suddenly drop down on the ground to decide a low-angle shot. In addition, Atsuta would never let his stopwatch, a specially-made one which could measure time down to the precise frame, out of his sight. In addition, during shoots on the set, he would diffuse some of the tension likely to afflict anyone with quick, humorous remarks. In cases when actors would scratch their lines time after time, it was not infrequent that he would intercept between them and the director, and state that the camera hadn't worked properly, and that the shot needed to be retaken. Through such maintenance, it was the cinematographer Atsuta who kept the shoot a comfortable working atmosphere for the director, who never actually sat still in the director's chair. This set of events is narrated by Atsuta Yuharu in Wim Wenders' 1985 documentary film Tokyo ga, and in the book Atsuta and I put together (Ozu Yasujiro monogatari, Chikuma Shobo). Upon reading and hearing these accounts, we realize the fact that evaluating the existence of Atsuta Yuharu only in his capacity as a cinematographer is untenable. In fact the role that he played in the context of Ozu's productions is much greater than the images summoned up, or even allowed for, by the term "cinematographer." In fact, where you apprehend the six characters of Atsuta Y*haru's name in the title credits of an Ozu film, there is the temptation of misreading it as the two characters which make up the word of "miracle." Of course Atsuta's working life as a cinematographer was not just limited to Ozu productions. He would take the initiative to use shots that could never appear in an Ozu production, like the low-key lighting, lighting with high black-and-white contrast, a bird's eye view shot or the mobile camera, for directors like Nomura Yoshitaro, Oba Hideo, Nakamura Noburu, or Sasaki Yasushi. Even today, when we re-watch Misora Hibari's dancing scenes, or Takamine Mieko's singing scenes, the sequences are still remarkable affecting. Seeing the perfect camera work, there is no one who could fail to give a whisper of admiration at the equally bedazzling performance of the cinematographer.

However, Atsuta's work on Ozu Yasujiro's productions radiates a kind of excellence over and above the combined brilliance of each individual frame, diffused in many directions. It is true that this brilliance is diffused in a number of ways, and delivered in the vivid sensuality of visual terms, it is a brilliance that never leaves the ground in search of something "transcendental." We should see clearly that Ozu's films are far from objects of the sacred. They are far from trying to achieve some kind of sublime, and are, rather, firmly rooted on the ground, they are the results of a "miracle" that will likely never come twice in cinematic history. This everyday, quotidienized "miracle" is something that ought to continue to keep surprising us.

See also film Director's Jim Jarmusch's Page