Ozu. When I did this ranking five years ago I had Ozu ranked as the 55th best director of all-time but acknowledged the lack of study and discrepancy with the critics’ rankings. Well, in 2018 I watched 30 Ozu films and yeah— I was just flat wrong. Ozu’s case for the best director of all-time is as strong as anyone He may be the single greatest auteur working with film mise-en-scene—a pretty important virtue to say the least. He’s amongst the five greatest editors (Eisenstein may be the only the only auteur more aligned with the aesthetic). He has 19 archiveable films, 3 in the top 100, and films outside of his top 5 like A Story of Floating Weeds (the 12th film I saw of his and where he really hits his stride and finds the pillow shot cutaway language and editing cadence) and A Hen in the Wind that I site often when discussing or writing about other great or legendary works. Ozu created his own language and make some of the most brilliant films in cinema history.

one of Ozu’s greatest mise-en scene frame compositions in Early Summer

Best film:  Tokyo Story. This 2018 Ozu study has helped but I think mainly I’m just a better critic than I was in the past (if I do say so myself). I do think the critical community is partly to blame though for me missing this (and Ozu) for so long. Quit applauding his humanism and restraint and subtlety and start talking about how, from a visual mise-en-scene standpoint– this is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. I’m not even saying those other things aren’t true- but it’s not why this is considered a top 10 of all-time film by so many. The film, and the style, is a high-water point for Ozu but it’s more of the same- it’s not a departure by any stretch from his previous films or those that come after. There are actually a number of shots that mirror his shots in previous films (including that shot of Ryu meditating alone in the finale). Though, where another film of his is filled with 10-25 of these gorgeous mise-en-scene shots and frame setups that I’d love to have printed on my wall at home… this one has 50-100. It’s impossible to keep count unless that’s all you want to do.

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Tokyo Story– one of 50-100 shots of this magnificent quality

Total archiveable films: 19

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interiors, shoji doors creating depth, teapots and camera height

top 100 films: 3 (Tokyo Story, The End of Summer, Early Summer)

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wall art quality work in Floating Weeds

top 500 films: 9 (Tokyo Story, The End of Summer, Early Summer, Late Spring, Floating Weeds, An Autumn Afternoon, A Hen in the Wind, There Was a Father, A Story of Floating Weeds)

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From Late Spring-blocking part of the frame

top 100 films of the decade: 11 (Tokyo Story, The End of Summer, Early Summer, Late Spring, Floating Weeds, An Autumn Afternoon, A Hen in the Wind, There Was a Father, A Story of Floating Weeds, I Was Born, But…, Equinox Flower)

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a colored pillow shot of a hallway– precision in the detail

most overrated:  I Was Born, But… It’s a film I enjoy but TSPDT has it as#335 and #4 of Ozu’s. This is just incorrect.  It wasn’t until 1934 with A Story of Floating Weeds that Ozu developed his pillow shot editing cutaway language and his mastery of the shoji doors and mise-en-scene was really prime from 1948 or so with A Hen in the Wind through his death in 1962 with An Autumn Afternoon. There are no less than 10 films during this stretch artistically superior to I Was Born, But..

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object shaping and framing

most underrated: #879 of all-time on TSPDT for The End of Summer and that’s tragic. It’s #58 for me. Visually, it’s the only film from Ozu on par with Tokyo Story. It has the headstone pillow shots, the bamboo brown-soaked use of color. The film doesn’t have 10-15 gorgeous shots in 2 hours like some of his work (minor by comparison with the Ozu filmography but stronger than almost anything else in the history of cinema)- this is like Tokyo Story– it’s absolutely loaded with some of the best mise-en-scene work in cinema history—it’s a visual onslaught and if I could find them (and had room for them) there would be 50 pictures here on this page.

from The End of Summer a film close to Tokyo Story in stylistic quality- bamboo browns throughout
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later we’ll cut pillow shot cutaway of those barrels at the end of the shot in The End of Summer

gem I want to spotlight:  1948’s A Hen in the Wind (yeah that’s an awful title) could be the most underrated as well. It’s not on the TSPDT top 1000 but I have it at #290 and I’ve only seen it once. It could go higher. It’s architecture as character with the barbed building in the background almost harming the characters like Antonioni’s Red Desert, Cronenberg’s Spider or Zhangke Jia’s Platform . The editing is magnificent- he opens in an alley and then a short establishing shot montage (with a quick shot of laundry swinging on some houses) of a town which includes a large metal building set piece. He closes the film with a perfect bookend of the same sequence in reverse, It’s methodically edited with the cutaways, some reoccurring and some new in perfect union and theme and variation— form and rhythmic

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Ozu shoots through this object on the ground in A Hen in the Wind
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architecture as character and mood

stylistic innovations/traits: In the opening above I discuss Ozu’s mise-en-scene brilliance and editing rhythms with the cutaways (pillow shots) and the nuance he creates.  Sometimes the pillow shots are laundry, sometimes establishing shots, trains, an “open” alley, an “empty” living room, bicycles blocking part of the frame, barrels, neon signage- genius. It’s not something that’s often discussed by critics but the camera height is another area where Ozu is to praise. With the traditional Japanese Togo Matts Ozu lowers the camera. It’s subtle—but perfect—and unique to Ozu. Ozu made 6 color films towards the end of his career– stunning– a transcedent use of color– such detail in the careful color of the cups in the frame, neon signs, shading rooms one color, creating patterns, the red tea pot, etc. I’ve mentioned it previously but the Shoji doors, with the blocked mise-en-scene create a depth of field. Ozu doesn’t need to move the camera (like he does in his 30’s films prior to finding his voice). In summary, if it were just the pillow shot cutaway formal editing, or the devastating mise-en-scene work, I think you could make him a top 10 director of all-time. But with both, and the form/language it creates, he may just be the best. From a narrative/thematic standpoint the majority of his filmography are dramas (some more melodramatic than others) about the family, sacrifice, drinking, generational dissonance—and simply, life and death.

100’s of these pillow shot cutaways– often laundry, or trains, hallways, living rooms or alleys
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notice the framing of bodies, along with a dresser with a different color for each drawer

top 10

  1. Tokyo Story
  2. The End of Summer
  3. Early Summer
  4. Late Spring
  5. Floating Weeds
  6. An Autumn Afternoon
  7. A Hen in the Wind
  8. There Was a Father
  9. A Story of Floating Weeds
  10. Equinox Flower
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Ozu directed 50+ films according to IMDB, only 6 in color and he died in 1962, working in color at the peak of his powers
stunning– drapes from the windows, shoji doors, colored glasses, decor with the outfits, positioning of the actors/models

By year and grades

1931 – Tokyo Chorus R
1932- I Was Born, But R/HR
1934- A Story of Floating Weeds HR/MS
1936- The Only Son HR/MS
1941- The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family R
1942- There Was a Father MS
1947- Record of a Tenement Gentleman HR
1948- A Hen in the Wind MS
1949- Late Spring MP
1951- Early Summer MP
1952- Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice HR
1953- Tokyo Story MP
1956- Early Spring HR
1958- Equinox Flower HR
1959- Floating Weeds MS
1959- Good Morning R/HR
1960- Late Autumn HR
1961- The End of Summer MP
1962- An Autumn Afternoon MS
slippers in the hallways, often Ozu didn’t need characters at all

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives