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In a career that spans over fifty films and three and a half decades,
this is the shot in Yasujir┼Ź Ozu's filmography that's inspired the most discussion.
A vase.
A vase in the dark of a room at a Kyoto inn,
backed by a latticed framed window and the blurred shadows of bamboo gently swaying in the night.
In the room are a father and daughter, enjoying their final days together before the daughter, Noriko,
will marry and move out.
Noriko isn't keen to marry, reluctant to leave her widower father alone.
But he insists, refusing to hold his daughter back from the life she deserves.
It's pretty clear that neither father nor daughter really want this change; the two are happy together.
But he feels pressure, both societal and personal, to find her a husband before it's too late.
And she feels the same pressures to ascend.
They're doing what neither of them want, but what both feel the other needs and expects.
You can read this as a tragedy of conservative values, or
a necessary, if sad part of the human life cycle.
Children breaking away from parents to start their own families, eventually becoming parents of children
who grow up and break away and so on and so on.
Ozu returns again and again to this transitional moment of marriage,
and no one has ever been better at capturing
the melancholy of that generational rupture. For Ozu, marriage can be a kind of death
especially for women like Noriko in post-war Japan,
whose life will probably become defined by her role as 'wife'.
As critic Robin Wood points out, It's a death of identity.
And marriage depicting the split of parent and child
also prefigures the more permanent split of a parent eventually passing away - of a real death to come.
Now while this is definitely a bummer and I hope all your marriages are happy ones,
Ozu does capture something universal about change in families -
a bittersweetness that you can see in the tears of any parent at their child's wedding.
It's just that in this film - Late Spring - Ozu leans into the bitter and he really makes you feel it.
Which brings me back to the vase.
The shot appears during a key scene in Late Spring when Noriko finally accepts that everything will change.
At first she was resistant, then angry at being pressured, jealous at the prospect of her father remarrying.
Now, on the short trip to Kyoto after she's agreed to be married, her anger and jealousy have faded.
And quietly chatting after a lovely day, she lets herself feel the sadness of the coming loss.
The cut to the vase is so striking here because it arrives at exactly the moment of emotional transition.
As Donald Richie notes, what we would expect for a filmmaker to do is hold on Noriko's face
as the smile fades into a frown, so that we can take that emotional journey with her.
Instead, Ozu interrupts that journey and substitutes this object.
It's such an unusual decision that every Ozu film scholar, almost as a rite of passage, has to take a crack at what it means.
For Richie, being shown the vase at these crucial seconds forces the viewer to imagine Noriko's feelings rather than watch them.
Having put ourselves in her position, when Ozu returns to her face - near tears,
the emotion becomes as real for us as it is for her.
Paul Schrader, before becoming a writer and director in his own right,
theorized that the vase was a sign of Ozu's transcendental style.
We're already thinking of Noriko's loss. In cutting to this image of stasis, Ozu triggers
a deeper Zen-like contemplation, not just of this specific situation,
but of the transience of all things, of ephemerality as the truth of life.
For David Bordwell, the vase is an example of Ozu's formal playfulness.
By cutting to something that is clearly not in Noriko's line of sight,
he's blocking us from the subjectivity of a normal POV shot, de-centering our viewing experience so that
we can consider the story from various angles and not just from Noriko's perspective.
Kristin Thompson believes the vase is an arbitrary object, a non-narrative element wedged into the action, she says,
used to prevent us from feeling too deeply at this moment, so that our emotion
is not wasted for what she believes is the real climax in the following scene.
For philospher Gilles Deleuze, the vase is a representation of time itself.
Because it is a still image that does not change, the only thing that moves here is the passage of time,
something that's made more explicit by the shots that come before and after.
This is important because human consciousness is a function of time. Time is what the mind is made of.
So for a few seconds, this shot allows us to observe that basic medium in its pure form.
To Hasumi Shigehiko, the influential Japanese film critic,
it's peculiar that we even consider this a shot of a vase,
when there are so many other things in the frame - like the Shoji window and the shadows of the bamboo.
Hasumi challenges our impulse to immediately interpret this image and asks us simply, to look at it.
To live within that looking, to experience the vanishing of ourselves.
I find all of these readings compelling.
They speak to the unique power that Ozu has, that he developed over his long career.
His style may appear simple,
but is in fact so finely tuned, so carefully calibrated,
that he has the power to overwhelm the viewer, to launch a thousand interpretations with a single ...
cut.
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