Friday, July 9, 2010

Ozu's Films vs. Adrian Tomine

It's one of the best and most natural aesthetic marriages imaginable: The nuanced, meditative Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu and the nuanced, meditative comics Adrian Tomine, best known for the Optic Nerve series.

Tomine has designed some covers for Ozu's lesser known films, The Only Son and There Was a FatherHere is more info on the films, which the Criterion Collection will release next week. I love Ozu's films -- especially Tokyo Story and the season films like Late Spring, which date from the late '40s to early '60s -- but must admit I have not yet seen either of these two.

Ozu's films are known for their quiet tone, their emotional poignance, the low setting of the camera and the lack of conventional cutting. Some of them look at the tearing of family and traditional society.

I've written about Tomine -- who grew up in Sacramento and lived in Berkeley for years before a recent move to Brooklyn -- several times; this  is the first and most complete. This week The Misread City spoke to him about the Ozu project.

When did you first discover Ozu’s films, and how did they initially strike you?

When I was in college, my mom gave me a vhs copy of Ozu's film Good Morning, and I liked it quite a bit. I immediately connected with the quotidian subject matter and had a lot of the qualities that I admired in the work of my favorite cartoonists. I think it's a good "gateway" film into Ozu's work because it's got so much genuine cuteness and silliness. If you dive right in with something like Tokyo Story, it can be pretty devastating.

Your job illustrating this project is to capture and create a visual style… What makes these films visually distinctive?

I think a film scholar could answer this with much more sophistication, but from a personal point of view, I feel like Ozu's visual style could be compared to the cartooning style that books like "How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way" are adamant about avoiding. It's like the supposedly boring side view of Dr. Strange walking into a room, as opposed to the "worm's eye view" of him dynamically bursting through the door. In other words, it's clear, straightforward, honest, devoid of flash, and it's absolutely perfect. .

There's also been a lot written about the famous "Ozu shot," but I think that's the kind of thing that works on a completely subconscious'd never ask, "Why are we looking at this shot of laundry flapping in the wind? What does that symbolize?" I think the beauty of those shots is that they make you feel something that's otherwise inexpressible, in a way that's absolutely particular to that piece of film.

There’s a quiet, cerebral and detail-oriented quality that Ozu’s films share with your comics. Do you see that kind of connection?

I'm sure my critics would argue against that kind of connection, but I will say that I've admired Ozu's films for a long time, and I've learned a lot from them.

A few years ago you wrote your first Optic Nerve with an explicitly Japanese-American theme, and you’ve helped to recover the comics of the Japanese artist Tatsumi… Do you think you see and hear Ozu differently because of your Asian roots?

I think so. When I watch an Ozu movie with my wife, I think we're having fairly different experiences. Obviously a lot of the content is universal, but for me there's a strange, surprising feeling of recognition of certain character traits and behavioral tics that I can see in my grandparents, my own parents, and even myself to a degree. Something about just entering into that world is very comforting to me. But maybe this has more to do with Ozu's filmmaking abilities than the simple fact that he was Japanese. There's a huge amount of Japanese art and culture that leaves me as alienated as the next guy.

What’s next from the desk of Adrian Tomine? 

When I got married a few years ago, my bride-to-be forced me to make some kind of "wedding favor" to give away to the guests. This struck me as a particularly bizarre idea, especially since we were already giving them all the food and drink they could ever imagine. Anyway, I think she had in mind a little card or something and I ended up funneling all my pre-nuptial anxiety into the creation of a comic book about the process of getting married. Since then, I've slowly been adding pages when something would occur to me, or if I just needed a break from my more precise, premeditated work. Now I think I've got almost fifty pages of material, so Drawn & Quarterly is going to put it out as a little book. It's loose, joke-y stuff, and for that reason, I thought it would make a nice follow-up to Shortcomings.

I'm also making slow progress on another, more "real" book, which will most likely be serialized in several issues of Optic Nerve before being re-packaged as a "graphic novel." But like I said, progress is moving slowly, especially now that I've got an 8-month-old daughter and I'm constantly running out of my studio to either change a shitty diaper or watch her do something cute.

Art courtesy Adrian Tomine


Pete Bilderback said...

I have seen every surviving Ozu film (many have been lost to time) thanks to a dual film series at Film Forum and Lincoln Center during the 90s. I almost always ended up seated behind Susan Sontag (RIP), who was clearly also a big Ozu fan. I would eavesdrop on her conversations with her friends in hopes of overhearing something really fascinating and intellectual, but never did. Mostly I just marveled at her hair.

I plan on picking up this set. Both of these films are absolutely marvelous. Criterion also has a set of three Ozu silent films available in their Eclipse series, including I Was Born But... which is probably my favorite of his films. They also have a very nice set that includes both the silent and sound versions of Floating Weeds.

Kudos to Criterion for putting these films out because they deserve to be seen more in the West than they have been. Also kudos for the great artwork, which I agree matches Ozu's aesthetic perfectly.

And Scott, kudos to you for the great interview.

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