The Review/ Short Read/
Discovering the Poetry of Yasujiro Ozu, or I Also Wrote, But…
Previously untranslated verses from the director’s diaries reveal new facets of the Japanese master’s complex, many-sided character
When Yasujiro Ozu died on his 60th birthday on December 12, 1963, he left behind over 25 diaries which he had diligently kept over the course of 30 years, a timespan that encompassed nearly his entire career as a filmmaker. While it is remarkable, and unfortunate, that these diaries have not as of yet been made available in English translation, it must be admitted that secret literary masterpieces they are not — and, given the generally unaffected and concise style that Ozu employs here, it’s fair to say that their author never intended them to be. Typical entries recount what he ate on a given day, who he met, what films he saw, whether or not he took a bath, and whether he was able to indulge in his favourite pastimes of drinking and napping.
What makes these largely mundane records of Ozu’s daily life fascinating are the snippets of poetry that the director scatters throughout. Consisting primarily of exercises in traditional poetic forms such as the haiku and tanka, these poems are remarkably revealing of the different facets of their author’s personality — that many-sided, complex character that is too often subsumed in the conventional image of Ozu as a serene, unchanging sage of cinema.
At the same time, these poems offer echoes of and correspondences to the themes that Ozu would famously explore in his films, such as the lifelong bachelorhood that he projected onto the resistant brides in such films as Late Spring, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon. An early diary entry from 1933 sees Ozu reflecting on his abandonment of a love life:
Home all day. Read in the evening under the kotatsu – Satomi Ton’s Umi no ue among others. In a few days I will be thirty.
Daring not to speak, my heart and I grew old and grey (1933)
Much like his young female protagonists, Ozu apparently endured many an unwanted marriage recommendation, all the while suffering in the throes of an intensely private yearning that he revealed in short, vivid verses.
Temple bells at dawn moan once, twice over our sleepy heads (1935)
I sit here alone with the little fan you left behind — I open it thrice, and thrice I close it (1935)
This evening, after the sun sets and light comes on in all the bars, I will have you, Kayo, pour me a drink (1963)
Again like many of his characters, much of Ozu’s affection and sense of obligation was intensely directed toward a parent: his mother Asae, widowed in 1934, with whom he shared a home until her death in 1962, a year before his own. Ozu’s mother appears in many of the diary poems, each illustrating that powerful bond between parent and child that is so prevalent in Ozu’s late films.
Tending to the amaranth in our little garden in Takanawa — Mother, do you miss me? (1939)
Mother is sewing — her needle catching the last light of day (1945)
I smell scallions in the kitchen — sunlight in this little home fit for mother and child (1945)
Ozu was devastated when his mother passed away, and one cannot but hear the famous proverb from Tokyo Story — “No one can serve his parents beyond the grave” — in a diary entry he made in April of that year, in which a brief verse mourning his mother is immediately followed by a confession of filial guilt. (The “confession” is written in katakana, a script typically reserved for foreign loan words and sound effects, and which creates a palpable visual and emotional impact; it is rendered in all-caps below to approximate the intended effect.)
The peonies have returned to my garden — they have bloomed, but mother is gone
PEOPLE TELL ME THAT I AM A GOOD SON. I AM NOT. I JUST HAPPENED TO WRITE A POEM AT THE END OF SPRING. I DIDN’T GIVE IT ANY THOUGHT… I JUST WROTE IT. (1962)
A master of tone reversals, Ozu is being both honest and somewhat playful here: he uses this seemingly offhanded disavowal of his own verse as a sort of “punch line,” a defense mechanism against the true pain and sadness that the poem expresses.
However, the poems in Ozu’s diaries do not solely come from a place of loneliness, nostalgia or despair. Many, in fact, evince a playful spirit that reminds one of the slapstick and potty humour that recurs throughout Ozu’s filmography — particularly those verses that the director referred to as rodoka, or “songs for man-babies.”
Rain falls on Tateshina / I feel a slight chill / and settle down for a nap — / rumbles the while my stomach / for Horaiya’s pork cutlets! … (1954)
Spring mist clears over Kasumigaseki — I want to shit in front of the Foreign Affairs Ministry (1961)
Fearing only a few more years, I tell myself, You really must drink less at night (1961)
As the latter two poems from 1961 attest, even in the period of his “official” mastery Ozu could express a ribald or self-deprecating sense of humour that coexisted untroubled with his more serious themes of aging, death, and familial disintegration. One is reminded of the film he made the same year, The End of Summer, with its infirm but incorrigibly lusty patriarch Manbei Kohayagawa, who sneaks out from under the surveillance of his grown children with a mind for mischief.
(Manbei, in fact, was Ozu’s favourite of his own characters; when shooting wrapped on The End of Summer, he wrote this sad little poem about having to part with his protagonists, especially Manbei: “The Kohayagawa family and their little brewery — a chilly wind leads the way to autumn”)
It remains uncertain as to whether Ozu’s English-speaking audience will ever get a chance to read his diaries in full, but I sincerely hope they do — both for how they reveal the lighter side of this poet of the everyday, and for how they can express, in a mere few lines, the moving, sometimes devastating emotional weight that he expressed so masterfully in his cinema. From 1963, the year of his death:
Should I die tonight the falling snow would make a fine burial gown