Transcendental Style in Film, Chapter 2, by Paul Schrader, 1988
In this chapter, Paul Schrader characterizes the films of Yasujiro Ozu as fundamentally transcendental works and attempts to map Zen principles onto Ozu's filmmaking techniques. Schrader begins by qualifying Zen art as a form of transcendentalism for its spiritual focus and merging of sacred and secular spheres. Ozu, whose traditionalistic themes and style have led many regard him as Japan's “most Japanese” director, had an easier time adapting transcendentalist principles to film than many western filmmakers because its ideas were already fixed in oriental culture. To properly convey his themes in film, however, Ozu had to overcome opposing Western cinematic trends. Despite this reactionary aspect of Ozu's work, Schrader describes him as “cinema's consummate formalist,” more of a craftsman than an expressive artist: he consistently focused on the same themes, relied on the same actors and crew, and used the same types of shots and editing patterns throughout his films. Schrader draws parallels between this repetitive approach to filmmaking and the repetitive, ritualistic aspect of Zen art. Similarly, Ozu aims to capture the concept of “emptiness” or “the void” in the many silences, pauses, and slow contemplative scenes of his films, a preoccupation that has long informed Zen artwork. Finally, Ozu's family comedies and melodramas often deal with communication failure between man and his environment. These films consistently advocate oneness and unity in the face of our changing and unbalanced environment. Both of these ideas are central to Zen philosophy.
This article is useful because it highlights the paradoxical nature of Ozu's work: Ozu was reactionary in his techniques, rejecting many western film conventions, but only so that he could express Japanese fundamentalist ideas. Schrader holds that many of these reactionary techniques were in fact based on traditionalist techniques that guided Zen art. This no doubt helped Ozu earn his reputation as Japan's “most Japanese” director, but it also complicates any notion that classifies his work as distinctly conservative or traditionalist. Passing Fancy exhibits this contradiction nicely. Artistically it is very unlike western films, focusing on pauses, repetition of the same motifs and shots, and inviting the audience’s detached contemplation (much like the Zen art that Schrader claims informs it). It uses these new techniques in order to focus on the traditional Japanese home and quietly lament the encroaching modern world.