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