Like “Tokyo-Ga” (1985) , Wim Wenders’s documentary on Yasujirô Ozu, Daniel Raim’s quirky but insightful “In Search of Ozu” prominently features the great Japanese director’s tombstone: a polished slab of granite inscribed with the single Chinese character “mu” — in English, “nothingness.”
What did Ozu mean by this? The stone carver’s grandson, a Zen Buddhist monk, has no answer. His nephew, whom Ozu regarded as his “protégé,” says his uncle never talked much about philosophy. Shizuo Yamanouchi, a close friend of Ozu and a producer for several of his films, including his last, “An Autumn Afternoon” (1962), suggests that it simply meant that Ozu — who never married, had no children, lived with his mother until her death, and died himself on his 60th birthday, in 1963 — was simply lonely.
Though “Search” does not conclusively determine what “nothingness” meant to Ozu, it does analyze the significance he found in things. The film begins with a curator, wearing surgical white gloves and a mask, reverently displaying the trademark white, soft-brimmed hat that Ozu wore when making movies. Also lovingly displayed is the low tripod that Ozu used to shoot, as if from the point of view of a person seated on a tatami mat and participating in the scene.
But Raim is not just interested in objects from Ozu’s life, now regarded as sacred relics. He examines how Ozu used certain objects — tea and sake cups, artwork, even tavern signs he designed himself — as a means of subtly expressing the themes of his deceptively simple films, especially his last ones, shot in color.
Using split screens, the film presents the actual red tea kettle, personally purchased by Ozu from a pottery store, next to its use in his first color film, “Equinox Flower” (1958). The story is about a businessman who espouses liberal views in keeping with a modernizing Japan. He claims to disapprove of such traditional practices as arranged marriages, but when his own daughter wants to marry a man of her choosing, he refuses his permission. Meanwhile, the red teapot (red is also the color of the flower of the title, which blooms at the autumnal equinox and is associated in Japanese culture with death) reappears in different places in different scenes, possibly symbolizing the persistence of the father’s repressed, but insistent, old-fashioned and patriarchal beliefs.
Maybe a more concrete clue to Ozu’s inspiration can be seen in the rows of sake bottles — all numbered by Ozu — that he and his screenwriter Kôgo Noda emptied in the weeks they spent together composing the scripts for some of his greatest movies. For “Tokyo Story” (1953) — a perennial in everyone’s top 10 greatest films of all time — Noda notes in his diary the total was 80. Ozu writes in his own diary about “Floating Weeds” (1959), “It’s no coincidence that [it’s] a masterpiece, just look at . . . the rows of empty bottles.”
Which brings up again Ozu’s stark epitaph “nothingness,” and Yamanouchi’s interpretation of what Ozu meant by it. Raim concludes with the last scene in “An Autumn Afternoon.” In it, a father, drunk and despondent after his daughter has gotten married and left him, murmurs, “Alone, eh?”
“In Search of Ozu” can be seen on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.