Jesse’s book review – Journey to Onomichi by Wim Wenders
Jesse is back with another fantastic book review for you all. A delightful and thoughtful piece about a book that I am certainly going to look for. Over to Jesse.
The slow chug of a boat can be heard as it appears in the background coming from behind a temple situated in the shot’s foreground. From left to right goes the boat. Two bottles are situated at the bottom of the shot’s foreground as a procession of school children walk past. From left to right go the children. Distinctively Japanese roofs lead to the shot’s mid ground with the hillside occupying the background while from the mid ground a train passes by. From Left to right goes the train. Cut to the train in reverse, followed by a shot of a temple, and finally a low angle shot of the parents….This is the opening sequencing of Ozu Yasujiro’s masterpiece Tokyo Story beginning in the little coastal town of Onomichi.
If there is one film director whose eclectic taste I most admire it is Wim Wenders. His most famous films are Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, Tokyo-Ga, and his most recent in Pina. He is a serious photographer and he directed an extended commercial for the Leica M8. With Tokyo-Ga and much later this photo book Journey to Onomichi, I came into Winders on account of his sheer adulation for director Ozu Yasujiro. On record, Winders cites that Ozu inspired everything for him and for me it is very much the same. Much like Tokyo-Ga this photo book is a tribute to Ozu.
Journey to Onomichi consists of 24 color film plates shot in the course of a week in 2005. To begin to understand these photos it is important to understand the Ozu aesthetic. Initially, I was curious as to how he would approach this book. You figure he could have visited actual shot locations of the film and shot them as they are now or he could have utilized the Ozu aesthetic and shoot Onomichi in this matter. He in a way chose the latter prompting me to first discuss the Ozu aesthetic. Dying in 1962 quite abruptly after his successful change to color films, he is buried with a grave stone that simply reads mu. Mu is a Buddhist term for nothingness that really explains Ozu. I always laugh at the story (forgot the source) of a nameless director who comes to Japan and of the many places to go demands a visit to the place where Ozu is buried and upon arrival throws a fit as to why essentially nothing would be engraved on his grave. Briefly, his films after the war where all quite similar making up what is considered the mature Ozu style, all of which were family dramas that dealt with the dissolution of the Japanese family. These films are tough for most because they aren’t plotted like today’s films, instead they tell a story (there is a difference) that if anything are structured by minor events within the films. Most major events i.e. a funeral, a marriage, etc are never shown, instead we are only shown the aftermath. Beautifully composed static transition shots of the locations are heavily used cutting us to scenes of normal conversation or more often than not characters doing normal things, cutting their nails, drinking tea, etc. There is really no melodrama involved and often the film will end with the family falling apart and the characters carrying mundane dialogue accepting the situation ending with static shots that are quite circulatory often ending where they began. This all is essentially mu as nothing really happens. This is all then furthered by his camera work. There is little to no camera movement and every shot is shot with a 50mm lens at a low angle. Compositions are perfectly geometric often utilizing the foreground so much so that in conversation shots objects in the foreground won’t reverse breaking the cinematic 180 degree rule for the sake of pure composition. Shots are held much longer and by most tastes longer than necessary, offering us with more nothingness.
This brief yet lengthy explanation is entirely necessary to understanding Wim Wenders’ photos here. The opening photo of the book is of the Sea of Japan as seen from Onomichi and in turn ends the book with the same sort of shot. Quite simply the photos are how they are. There is no plot to the book and nothing unexpected takes place in any one of these photos. There isn’t much emotion at all and more often than not the photos are of nothing. It is cases like these that critics create fallacies allowing their imaginations to run wild with bias interpretations. However, trying to find meaning or symbolism in these photos would be pretentious. If the title of the photo is In and Out you will see a drive-thru saying in and out. If the title is Onomichi Sunset in turn you will get an Onomichi sunset. Much like the cinematography of Paris, Texas that drew comparisons to Steven Shore, the only comparison one could make here is that of the same. Though looking at Winders other photo books the style is very much the same from this to his others. This begs the question, what then makes this an illusion to Ozu at all, aside from the fact that it takes place in Onomichi? Really to answer that you’d have to say nothing. Winders from the beginning would seemingly had of already had the theory of mu infused with everything he has done already. You can see this simply just by looking at another photo book of his like Places, Strange, and Quiet; a photo book that too is filled with mu. So this should rather than be viewed as a personal journey to where this nothingness originated at the very location that his favorite film began and ended.
Because it is fun and I liken myself to a critic with imagination I will try make one attempt to find symbolism by pointing out two photos in the book. On page 25 there is a photo taken on board the deck of a battleship. The main thing from the photo that draws the eye is a woman in bright red. The very next page then features a bench that is also bright red that faces away from the camera toward the same battleship. Once Ozu switched to color films his preoccupation with bright red was similar to Van Gogh and yellow in their obsession and over/genius use. For Ozu this can most notably be seen in his 1959 color film Floating Weeds. The photos in this book in terms of color are fairly mundane with the exception of these two photos that utilize a color that Ozu himself obsessed over. A later photo titled The Painter’s Palette then sees randomly a red blotch of paint on a wall. This observation should prove pretentious, so I will conclude this review with his quote on his approach to filmmaking, “I want to make personal films, not private films.” I think it is the same with this book, this was a personal Journey to Onomichi that he took and at the end of the day it surely has a distinctive meaning to him, so we are lucky to share on this experience that for the most part amounts to nothing :)
All of his books are relatively easy to find and available on Amazon. His films are readily available on Criterion collection, as well as the majority of Ozu Yasujiro films. From a photographer’s perspective you will find there is a lot to be taken from these two directors in terms of composition including perspective and depth, and symbolism. Start with Youtube to see his Leica M8 commercial and tell me you actually don’t want that still over priced digital camera that I am sure Bellamy can source for you at a good price…
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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Many thanks Jesse, another brilliant and thoughtful review. I am loving these. A welcome addition to JCH.