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.
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.
Total archiveable films: 19
top 100 films: 3 (Tokyo Story, The End of Summer, Early Summer)
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)
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)
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..
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.
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
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.
- 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
- Equinox Flower
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|
*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
” 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” sorry but I dont agree with this. I love a movie you can watch with the sound off, just enjoy the visual magnificence, like Raging bull or Tokyo story for example. But art is supposed have messages on humanity or religion or socoal issues. What makes ozu a great artist is not just his ability to tell a cameraman where to masterfully shoot a picture of a hallway, it was his love for others and how he expressed that through genius work
@ Kirk– thanks for the comment and for visiting the website. I love your comment about loving a movie you can watch with the sound off– enjoying the visual magnificence. I can’t agree that art is supposed to have messages on humanity, or religion or social issues. i actually find the opposite is more often true and bad films are the message-filled films. What makes Ozu a great artist is certainly not his love for others but his work in pillow shot editing, mise-en-scene. There are a lot (mostly bad) of filmmakers that have lover for others and try to make films about humanity, religion and social issues. But there’s virtually nobody that has Ozu’s style or level of editing and mise-en-scene. That’s what makes him special. It’s closer to “how he expressed that through genius work” but i’d argue if Ozu’s message was flipped, and his thesis was that human beings are animals that rip each other apart (closer to Kurosawa, von Trier, Kubrick) but he had the same ways of expressing it (film/cinema/art style) he’d be just as great an artist . I’m paraphrasing but Ebert said art is not what a film says, but how it says it. And that’s the point. Film art is about the style– not the message– and that’s way closer to the way Ozu shoots a hallway.
What is the single greatest mise-en-scene achievement of each decade?
1910s-1920s: I will have to give The Passion of Joan of Arc for its powerful, stark close-ups and the occasional masterful wider shot. However, I have not seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Metropolis yet.
1930s: I have not been able to see any of von Sternberg’s oeuvre, so my choice here should be taken with a grain of salt. However, M is a fine choice and a triumph of framing.
1940s: As much as I admire the compositions of The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man, The Grapes of Wrath, Black Narcissus and others (I have not seen Late Spring), any logical cinephile should agree that Citizen Kane is the 1940s’ best achievement, mise-en-scene-wise or otherwise. The shadowy deep focus is extremely influential.
1950s: Ozu, the reigning commander of the mise-en-scene forces, brought forth his most acclaimed offering and the triumph of cinematic composition in the 1950s. I don’t suppose I need to tell you its name.
1960s: I could lend the title to Lawrence of Arabia, The Trial, High and Low, or Red Desert, but I’m sorry, Dave… I’m afraid I can’t do that. 2001 leads the way. Gertrud and The End of Summer are among the acclaimed mise-en-scene works of the 60s that I have not seen.
1970s: The Conformist is a near-perfect visual achievement. No other film manages to photograph desolate interiors, stark outdoor settings, and occasional chiaroscuro glimmers from windows and blinds so deftly.
1980s: Nostalghia’s steady, measured bleakness; Ran’s colorful eruptions of chaos; and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’s eerily bold expressionistic craze are not far behind the top spot of 80s’ mise-en-scene, but I think they have lost, like tears in rain. Blade Runner’s complex, smoky dystopia is simply stunning.
1990s: I’m not sure what to pick for the 90s. Perhaps it is a weak point in the lineage of mise-en-scene masters. Unforgiven? Schindler’s List? Se7en? The Thin Red Line? Rushmore? These are gorgeous movies, but not ones with quite as consistently perfect compositional arrangements as in other decades. Many of the decade’s best films are great for their editing (JFK, The Big Lebowski) or form (Three Colors: Blue, Magnolia). Still others are masterful in multiple aspects of cinematic style (Goodfellas, Heat, Fight Club), but mise-en-scene might fall behind camera movement and editing among their greatest strengths.
2000s: Although I find this decade to be slightly better than the 90s in terms of mise-en-scene, I am left undecided here as well. In the Mood for Love, The Royal Tenenbaums, and There Will Be Blood are among the top tiers of 2000s mise-en-scene. TWBB may have some of the greatest compositions, but throughout its long length there are sections of lesser attention to the entire frame. Perhaps I lean towards The Royal Tenenbaums, but that may change in a moment, and I’m hesistant to give Wes two wins. I’ll allow others to weigh in for a better decision.
2010s: The Grand Budapest Hotel is my fairly certain choice, although I suspect many would choose the equally-perfect Roma. Wes Anderson’s whimsically symmetrical compositions, full to the brim with expressionistic colors, are endlessly appetizing to watch.
2020s: Okay, I may have included this decade as something of a joke, but Mank is the choice so far.
What are your choices for the best mise-en-scene of each decade?
@Graham– incredible work here. I’m mostly going to stand out of the way here and let others chime in if they want or let this great piece of work stand on its own.
my vote for the year/decade so far in 2020 would be I’m Thinking of Ending Things from Charlie Kaufman
Thank you! Yes, anyone can certainly add their opinions. The best movie of an entire ten-year period for any topic is highly debatable.
I have not seen I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Your comments on its page seem very intriguing. Is it your choice as the best of 2020 for all four of your elements of cinematic style?
@Graham– I think so yes- I still have a lot of work to do on 2020 films– Mank would be up there on many of these cinematic style elements as well- but yes- I was extremely impressed with all aspects of Kaufman’s film
Huge Kurosawa fan. Lately I’ve started watching some Ozu movies and really they are a revelation. So simple on the surface yet utterly fascinating. I love the static low angle shots and repetition of the cut away shots. As I watch more movies I am coming to appreciate the visual styles more and more and focus less on content.
It reminds me of this Roger Ebert review of Fellini’s La Strata
“Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” (1954) tells a fable that is simple by his later standards, but contains many of the obsessive visual trademarks that he would return to again and again: the circus, and parades, and a figure suspended between earth and sky, and one woman who is a waif and another who is a carnal monster, and of course the seashore. Like a painter with a few favorite themes, Fellini would rework these images until the end of his life.”
This is how I am coming to see Ozu’s movies, he uses the same basic trademarks over and over but they never grow tired or dull.
@James Trapp– amazing James- thank you- a very good addition to the page and if I’ve read that Ebert quote, I’ve forgotten it. So thank you for finding and applying it so aptly here.
Hey everyone, i just got hbo max and there are numerous ozu films on the service… what are some good ones to start with. I love black and white, but based on the ozu ‘pillow shots’ i think they look much better in color.. also im confused because i believe some of his films are trilogies. is it where you have to watch them in order? thank you
@D.W.Griffith- that’s exciting! So if possible, if you’re planning to watch a bunch of Ozu films, I’d try to do them in chronological order. If you are only doing a few then start with the top films on the top 10 here— but if you’re asking if you need to watch some in a certain order because you’re worried about you being lost in a trilogy or something with the story- you needn’t worry. They don’t work like that where the stories are connected.
@Drake Can you even believe that A Hen in the Wind is ranked #12302 on TSPDT? I wonder if many critics haven’t seen it or they thought it wasn’t good enough.
@Anderson- haha that is really bad. I have no idea. Frustrating.
Would that, by your consideration, render A Hen in the Wind as the most underrated film of all time? I mean, there are some you’ve noted in your top 100, such as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; The Pornographers; and The End of Summer, that do not appear on the TSPDT top 1000, but none are nearly as low as the 12000s.
@Graham- As far as I know it is, but I haven’t gone and opened up the extended starting list on TSPDT or the director’s page for each film and filmmaker— that would take far too long.
Hello, Drake! Hope you’re doing well.
I recently did an Ozu study (didn’t watch 30 films like you did, but 24, and in order) inspired by your high praise and I’m perplexed. It’s crazy that a single director was able to do so much. His editing and mise-en-scène especially are some of the best to ever exist, and his formal rigor absolutely blew me away. I have Bergman as my favorite director of all time, but Ozu could take that spot.
I also have Tokyo Story as his best film (it’s a gigantic achievement), but I really think Late Spring would follow it. It’s his best edited film, has some of his greatest shots and is arguably the one with the most complex narrative. I mostly agree with the rest of your ranking (though I’d have The End of Summer a few spots below).
Thank you for everything you’ve written about him, it lead me to one of my favorite directors ever and to some of my favorite films. Ozu is really great. I’m excited to study others on your list!
@Pedro- Hi Pedro- good to hear from you. I’m happy to hear we’re on the same page with Ozu. Thank you for putting this together. Of course I’m happy for all the Ozu films we have– but he died young-ish. Just 60 years old and he was very near his prime at the end. It is a shame we didn’t get a few more. He was a great experimenter in color as well.
@Drake – You’re right. I do wish he had lived longer, but when I say “It’s crazy that a single director was able to do so much” I’m not talking exactly about number of films, but about how great each of his films were. Tokyo Story, for example, is a triumph in so many areas that it doesn’t even seem real. Hahaha, maybe I’m just too baffled to write about him yet.
I think I’m off to a Kurosawa study now. Would you be open to say who you think is the better director between the two? It seems like Ozu is not nearly as popular.
@Pedro– enjoy the Kurosawa study! I was lucky enough to have time to catch up with about 30 Kurosawa films in 2020. I think it is damn near impossible to pick between the two. I’ll update my top 500 and expand it to 1000 in 2022 I think and do some analytics on my list and let the numbers decide who I will put ahead of the other– but they both seem like they’re top 5 worthy.
@Drake – That’s awesome. I’m excited! If you think Kurosawa is on the same level, then I’m in for a treat.
Kurosawa is quite different from Ozu, and likely more familiar as his style was more influenced by and more influential upon Western filmmaking. He’s a more kinetic filmmaker, particularly through his first peak in the 1950s, though his 1960s work reaches a perfection of composition that few filmmakers (Ozu would be one of the few) have ever rivaled. Enjoy!
@Matt Harris – Thank you for this comment, I know you hold Kurosawa in high regard. I have seen a few of his films, but haven’t yet dived deep. I know it will be extremely rewarding.
@Pedro It’s very difficult to know who is the best between the two because it is virtually impossible to find other directors who are opposed in all areas than these two.Ozu’s cinema is calm, introspective, intimate, sober, retained while Kurosawa’s cinema is powerful, energetic, epic, flamboyant, primitive and excessive (in a good and natural way).their only common points are their nationalities and their humanism.Maybe the best way to compare their cinema is to talk about their emblematic actors.chishū Ryū is a buddha while Toshiro Mifune is a wild beast .i agree with @drake these two directors are top 5 worthy alongside bergman,fellini hitchcock and kubrick.for your kurosawa study I suggest you to look at @drake’s 2020 brillant review especially movies like “high and low”,”the bad sleep well” or “ikiru” it’s really inspiring .
@beaucamp – Thank you. I understand they are very different, sure, I don’t mean to compare the two simply because they are both Japanese, but I know Drake will have to put one above the other at some point, so that’s going to be interesting. As for the reviews you mentioned, I’ll certainly read them. I read everything Drake wrote about Ozu, so whatever he has on Kurosawa is welcome.
@pedro i didn’t mean that comparing them wasn’t interesting(these two are my favorite directors) on the contrary me too i’m very curious to see the new update list best directors.@drake i have a difficult question and perhaps you doesn’t have an exact answer for now but after your 2020’s study what is your top 10 kurosawa’s movie(in order of course)?
@beaucamp– when I update Kurosawa’s page, I’ll dig into my pages on them and really give it some thought (I may even try to rewatch Red Beard)– but this is roughly what it’ll look like I think:
high and low
the bad sleep well
throne of blood
@drake what a top 10 with 6 MP,1MS/MP and 3 MS very impressive and high and low at 3th position this is great.my appreciation of this movie has evolved a lot after i read your review thanks for that and for red beard like his other movies of the 60s it’s a unknown and underestimated film it’s one of my favorite of kurosawa
Have you seen his film Tokyo Twilight? It’s in the Letterboxd Top 250.
@Zane – I have, have a page for it here- but I must have accidently omitted it from the Ozu page http://thecinemaarchives.com/2018/05/25/tokyo-twilight-1957-ozu/
My ranking of Ozu’s films that I’ve seen:
1. Tokyo Story MP
2. The End of Summer MP
3. Early Summer MP
4. Floating Weeds MP
5. Late Spring MP
(from 3. to 5. is actually a TIE)
6. A Hen in the Wind MS/MP
7. An Autumn Afternoon MS
8. There Was a Father MS
9. The Only Son MS
10. Equinox Flower HR
11. A Story of Floating Weeds HR
12. Record of a Tenement Gentleman HR
13. Late Autumn HR
14. Early Spring HR
15. The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice HR
16. Good Morning HR
17. I Was Born, But… HR
18. Tokyo Chorus HR
5 Best Performances
1. Ryu- Late Spring
2. Hara- Early Summer
3. Ryu- There Was a Father
4. Ryu- Tokyo Story
5. Tanaka- A Hen in the Wind
I see that I just did I little mistake: I Was Born But is R/HR and Tokyo Chorus is a R.