Moments of cine-beauty: Yasujiro Ozu and the vase.

Introduction

In Moments of Cine-Beauty, we aim to introduce our readers to short moments of pure Japanese cinematic art and provide psychoanalytic commentary on these particular moments. While a lot has already been said about Japanese cinema, for instance by writers like Jasper Sharp, Donald Ritchie, David Desser, David Bordwell and Aaron Gerow, there still are a lot of new theoretical roads to be taken. The final word about Japanese cinema has not been said – and that final word will forever remain impossible to say. Nevertheless, with Moments of Cine-Beauty we modestly aim to take such ‘new’ road.

In this article we focus on one specific pillow-shot in Ozu’s oeuvre: the vase in Late Spring (1949) and try to understand why it, after all this time, remains so powerful.

Comment

Ozu and the Pillow shot

One of the things Ozu is famous for is his refined use of what could be called, according to Burch, the pillow-shot. In his book To The Distant Observer (1979), Burch gives us a analysis of what makes these shots special in the oeuvre of Ozu. First of all, Burch (1979) underlines that these shots suspend the diegetic flow and, as they focus on inanimate aspects of man’s culture, have a de-centering effect. He also explains – and this is fundamental – that each pillow-shot has its own specificity. They do not convey a copy-paste universal truth irrespective from the specific narrative context in which they appear.

Especially the last element is, for us, of fundamental importance. But before exploring Ozu’s pillow-shot further,  let us look at Lacan’s pot.

The Lacanian ‘Pot’

In his tenth seminar, Lacan contends that “civilization is already complete and in place when (…) [the] first ceramics [appear]” (Lacan, 2014 [2004], p.168). The ceramic vase contains everything, and not in the least “man’s relation to the object and to desire (Lacan, 2014 [2004], ibid.). The fundamental dimension of the vase is that it encapsulates a void and that the barring of this void begins human action – the filling or emptying of the pot or vase. It is not that difficult to corroborate jomon-pottery-characteristics-in-each-periodLacan’s assertions. A short exploration of the Jōmon period  (10,500 – 300 BC) already highlight the importance and the centrality of the notions of container and contained for the blossoming of cultureWhile in the early Jōmon period pots were almost exclusively used as storage units, allowing a more sedentary life near nut-yielding forests to develop, pots were before the Jōmon period came to a close adapted for burial, ritual, economic, cooking and aesthetic purposes (Brown, 2008). Pots became more varied; “Upright pots for cooking and storage, large bowls for cooking, narrow-necked vessels for steaming foods, and cups for drinking”, and large inverted pots, pots often with no bases or with holes drilled in their bottoms, were used to ‘store’ the remains of the dead, chiefly those of children” (Brown, 2008, p. 68). In short, the pot, as signifier, is nothing other than a symbol of culture as a whole as such and holds the integral but subtle power to resound every aspect of that said culture.

Ozu’s vase within the cinematographical metonymy: an interpretation. 

Returning back to the pillow-shot, it should be clear the vase is still fundamentally caught up in the cinematographical metonymy of images and speech as signifiers (the symbolic plan) – and for those who watched the clip attentively, it should be obvious that the vase is an integral part of the narrative space. The effect of the vase-pillow-shot on the spectator originates thus from the very fact that it cannot but function in the symbolic metonymy that Ozu composed and the metaphors this composition produces.

Let us see what happens before the vase-pillow-shot appears for the first time. In fact, one could easily mistake the conversation as unimportant, but two aspects are worthy to note. The first aspect is her changed opinion about Onodera’s remarriage and the second is her confession of having been angry on her father. While both of these aspects concern Noriko’s father re-marriage at the surface, they highlight the theme of marriage as such – and thus Noriko’s position.

And then suddenly the first vase-pillow-shot enters the concatenation of images. It confronts the spectator a stillness, a stillness that evokes nothing other than the nature of Japanese traditional culture as such – and the lives it influences (Note 1).

The shot of Noriko’s changed facial expression after the first vase-pillow-shot but before the second of fundamental importance as it changes the mood of the evocations. Life – her life – and the stillness of Japanese traditional society that effected her trajectory are given, due to her expression, a more tragic dimension. That is the main reason why the second vase-pillow-shot is even more moving than the first. In the light of evoking the whole of traditional culture, her sacrifice, i.e. her consent to an arranged marriage, is revealed as nothing but an inescapable subjective tragedy. In more general terms, the stillness of traditional culture is unearthed – as the evocative vase-pillow-shots pass by – as the main cause of tragedies for modernized Japanese female subjects.

Notes:

Note 1: The decision of her father to remarry is also evoked as fixed and unchangeable. One could thus even say the vase represent the acceptance of that was cannot be changed, i.e. her own marriage and her father’s remarriage in particular and the traditional ways in general.

References

Lacan, J. (2014 [2004]). Anxiety. The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X.

Brown, D. M. (2008). The Cambridge history of Japan: Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burch, N (1979). To the Distant ObserverForm and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema. University of California Press, 1979

 

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