NEW YORK — JAPANESE director Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63) is one of the few filmmakers to have a constantly used word or phrase attached to his name. Just as Alfred Hitchcock is famous as the ``master of suspense'' and countless critics have labeled Jean Renoir the great ``humanist'' of cinema, Ozu is invariably referred to as the ``most Japanese of Japanese directors.''
It's a fitting designation, if a little too neat, given Ozu's development of a style as radically unusual as it is subtly understated.
Other filmmakers from Japan have caught as much international attention as Ozu has. Chief among them are Akira Kurosawa, whose credits range from ``Rashomon'' to ``Ran,'' and Kenji Mizoguchi, creator of ``Ugetsu'' and ``Princess Yang Kei Fei,'' among other works. But of these classic filmmakers, Ozu was the best-loved in Japan during his lifetime - and has made perhaps the most profound impression on Westerners with a taste for nuanced explorations of contemporary life.
Ozu's enduring popularity with American moviegoers is reconfirmed by two major series in New York this season, casting a spotlight on two different phases of his career.
Uptown at the Walter Reade Theater, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting `` `Cinema's Sacred Treasure': The Films of Yasujiro Ozu,'' a program of major films (running from Jan. 21 into February) made during the mature phase of his career, including such early-1950s masterpieces as ``Early Summer'' and ``Tokyo Story.''
Downtown at Film Forum, a retrospective called ``The Early Spring of Yasujiro Ozu'' features 16 silent films - in fresh new prints made especially for this program - and two of his first talkies. After its New York run finishes on March 14, this series will travel to Los Angeles; Berkeley, Calif.; Minneapolis; Santa Fe, N.M.; and other US cities.
The most striking trait of Ozu's greatest films is the consistency that characterizes both a view of Japanese society and a vision of the human condition.
Nearly all of his most celebrated works are family dramas focusing on ordinary household affairs: a journey, a marriage, a reunion of parent and child, a disagreement between the generations. Ozu never heightens these events with movie-style flourishes. Instead he unfolds them at a gradual pace with a remarkably even tone. He allows the deepest of feelings to emerge almost imperceptibly from material that appears homely and inconsequential at first glance.
Many newcomers to Ozu have yawned through the first few scenes of one of his movies, wondering when something was ever going to happen - only to discover that the characters, situations, and dialogue had been burrowing under their skins all the while, accumulating an enormous charge of emotional energy. The story's powerful feelings then burst into consciousness during some event or conversation that would seem trivial to a spectator who hadn't followed the cinematic pathway that Ozu has meticulously prepared.
This approach makes Ozu one of the most refined and undemonstrative of filmmakers, and also one of the most philosophical. He continually films his characters within the grid of horizontal and vertical lines formed by typical Japanese rooms and furnishings, as if the people of his stories were trapped in their social and family surroundings like birds in a cage. Only at key moments are they depicted outdoors, framed with diagonal lines hinting at a freedom of thought and movement that's all too rarely achieved amid the confining responsibilities and habits of modern life.
The key to happiness, Ozu suggests, is in foregoing the breadth of experience, including the high adventures and heady passions that most movies sell so aggressively. Instead we must learn to cherish the depths of emotional, psychological, and ultimately spiritual richness to be found in the people, places, and occurrences that surround us.
This may be a difficult task, however, given the subtle and potentially tragic forms of isolation that pervade even the day-to-day intimacy of conventional family life - as Ozu's sparely written screenplays and poetically arranged camera positions take care to reveal.
Ozu's films have many visual pleasures to offer, such as the exquisite compositions of an ``Early Summer'' and the delicate colors of an ``Equinox Flower,'' and these are interwoven with superbly evocative dialogue and music. What lends them their final effectiveness, however, is the simplicity and sincerity of Ozu's underlying vision. His works have vast rewards for moviegoers willing to allow his muted style and understated images to work their magic.
* Some of Ozu's most respected works are distributed on home video. New Yorker Video has released ``Tokyo Story,'' a 1953 tale of aging parents and their scattered children, and ``Equinox Flower,'' about tension between a father and daughter. ``Floating Weeds,'' about the visit of a theater troupe to a quiet town, is available from the Connoisseur Collection.