What's for dinner, Ozu?

Words by Jeffrey Ozawa & Photographs by Jaimie Lewis

The postwar films of Yasujiro Ozu play out predictably, the same story of a father marrying off his daughter played by the same actors, on the same sets, with the same bittersweet endings. Many times I’ve had to stop myself to check if I had seen this one before, the answer always being yes and no. The way his films bleed together reveals a certain coziness with the banality of modern life: a widow thinks of remarrying, newlyweds argue over finances, a young boy petitions his mother for a television. Rather than contriving some sort of epic conflict, Ozu dredges the unexpected depth of the everyday, showing the pleasures of being boring, the comfort of tranquility, the warmth and humanity in even the most basic interactions.

If Ozu had directed Seven Samurai it would have been stripped of its bravado and pomp, playing out instead as a bucolic home drama, the farmers and their struggle to feed the samurai, how much rice they would need, how they would keep their daughters from falling for the fearless warriors. The sword fights would have taken place off-screen, discussed by the farmers each night over the dinner table, Ozu’s favored stage, and the setting for some of his most memorable scenes.

The camera sits at tatami-level for his trademark long, static shots, tracing the minutiae of a typical Japanese repast, where it’s the details—hand-painted tea cups, seasonal delicacies, and bottles of beer—that distinguish one scene from the next, creating a tangible rhythm that propels each film forward.

The sense of time is everything to the Japanese, and Ozu was no exception, naming many of his films in reference to saijiki, the concept of seasonality in Japanese poetry: Late Spring, Early Summer, Equinox Flower. The trouble with time is the constant awareness of its passing, the famous mono no aware, which stretches the characters between the past and future, between duty and desire. At the table, his characters put their problems aside for a moment to ask the simple question: what’s for dinner?

On film, Ozu’s palate was decidedly old school. Although his writing partner Kogo Noda once recalled his fondness for hamburgers, Ozu filled his movies with the traditional flavors of a countryside inn. The Taste of Tea Over Rice and An Autumn Afternoon (Literally: The Taste of Sanma) take their names from classics of the Japanese repertoire, talismanic tastes which echo the sentiment of their homespun tales.

To prepare dinner à la Ozu is to consider the entire experience of eating, submitting to the Proustian call of involuntary memory that characterizes the best meals. Just as Ozu’s family dramas played out over the dinner table, so too has our family been brought together time and again over food. Certain meals conjure more than just their season, they mark out a transition as well. While summer has always meant somen after a morning at the beach, and the Christmas filet has always turned into beef curry the day after, other dishes have come and gone, sometimes reworked or reforged into new classics. Last winter’s Christmas Eve dinner was a meal like this, an all-day affair from the fish market to the kitchen to realize what I had in mind: lobster miso soup. Up until then the tradition had been my dad’s miso of asari clams, served at special occasions or whenever he felt like it. When I announced the menu he looked at me with the same half-amused look of suspicion he gave me when I got my driver's license or left for college.

I wanted to prove up to the task, so I cooked and cleaned the lobsters, made the dashi in the traditional way, and combined the hot broth with white miso. The taste of the soup, doubly rich from miso and lobster liver, was undeniably good. He made a single nod, his apprehension lifted. Perhaps that was the story of Christmas this year, the aging patriarch passing on the miso soup to his son.

It was film critic Donald Richie’s argument that Ozu’s films aren’t about families themselves but rather their dissolution: the inexorable tides of marriage, divorce, death, and aging which leave us alone in the grave. I think of it as a pessimistic but not untrue conclusion. To me, his films are tales of how the families held together against this dissolution, seated around the table to enjoy one more bowl of ochazuke, one more bottle of sake, one more bite of sanma, acknowledging without regret their lingering taste.