Charlemont resident studies renowned Japanese film director

  • Kathy Geist, author of “Ozu: A Closer Look,” with her husband, Steve, and two of their furry friends.  CONTRIBUTED

For the Recorder
Published: 11/11/2022 3:48:36 PM

Unexpectedly, our rural area houses a number of writers and scholars with a wide range of interests, including Kathe Geist.

Geist, who spent decades as what she calls “an itinerant scholar” of film studies, retired to Charlemont a few years ago with her husband Steve. She has spent much of her time since working on her new book, “Ozu: A Closer Look” (Hong Kong University Press, 300 pages, $90).

The book discusses the work of iconic Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963). Ozu is one of Japan’s most celebrated directors. His most famous film, the 1953 drama “Tokyo Story,” is regarded by many scholars and critics as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

I recently talked to Kathe Geist about her passion for Ozu and the book. She informed me that she spent several years of her childhood in Japan. Her father was employed by the U.S. government as a teacher in Okinawa.

She remembered her father telling her when she was small about his experience watching an Ozu film. Years later, she watched that same film and found Ozu fascinating.

“Ozu was not available in this country until the ‘70s,” she told me. “New Yorker Films acquired a lot of his films….

“When I saw my first Ozu film, I was overcome with this sense, ‘This is what I grew up with.’ Some people believe he depicted a world that didn’t exist. But I recognized that world.”

Geist studied art history in graduate school and originally specialized in medieval art. Somewhere along the way, she shifted her focus to film. She had learned German so she wrote her dissertation on the German director Wim Wenders.

Wenders was a big fan of Ozu (the new book discusses Ozu’s influence on the German filmmaker’s work) so Geist started looking into the Japanese director. When the Japan Society in New York launched an Ozu retrospective in 1982, she volunteered to cover the showings as a reporter for the journal “Film Quarterly.”

“I’ve been writing about Ozu ever since,” she told me.

I asked her what people unfamiliar with his work should know about Ozu. “They should know that he was one of the top three Japanese filmmakers. The top three would be Ozu, (Akira) Kurosawa, and (Kenji) Mizoguchi. Most people have heard of Kurosawa, who was influenced by American westerns,” she noted. “Ozu is much more quiet. He does domestic dramas. You get an insight into Japanese society of that time … They’re very beautiful films. They’re ironic. They’re funny.”

Her book starts with Ozu’s silent works, observing that many Japanese directors, and Ozu most of all, continued to make silent films long after American filmmakers had converted to churning out “talkies.” She pointed out that Ozu’s reluctance to embrace sound film was not unique.

In this country, Charlie Chaplin continued to make silent films in the sound era, and scholars like Rudolf Arnheim suggested that much was lost when cinema stopped being a purely visual medium.

“Ozu: A Closer Look” goes on to discuss themes in Ozu’s work as he continued to make movies before, during, and after World War II. Geist also discusses depictions of religion and gender in his pictures.

Asked to identify the book’s core audience, she mentioned that it was definitely an academic book. Her analysis engages in lively interaction with other film scholars, who have written about Ozu, most notably David Bordwell. A renowned film historian and theorist, Bordwell is based at the University of Wisconsin. It is clear from reading the book that Geist respects him but also often disagrees with him.

“I think it’s also for Ozu fans, people who like his films already and would like more insight into them,” she added.

According to Geist, those fans are growing in number, in Japan and abroad. “He was always considered kind of an icon, but people were not that interested in him until recently,” she said. “A colleague in Japan recently gave a talk about him and showed an image of Ozu’s grave surrounded by these votives and things. He is enjoying a revival in Japan.”

The book engages in detailed analysis of Ozu’s themes, symbols and camerawork. It ends with plot synopses of the Ozu films that still exist. It includes stunning photographs of stills from the filmmaker’s work. Geist explained that these images were actually captured from video and enhanced by her husband Steve, who is a photographer.

Kathe Geist admits that she is still learning about Ozu, even after decades of studying the filmmaker.

“Ozu was highly interested in American cinema,” she told me. “I saw a film on Turner Classic Movies recently with Jimmy Cagney. It was called ‘Blonde Crazy.’ I realized this was the plot of (Ozu’s later film) ‘Dragnet Girl.’”

“Ozu: A Closer Look” will be released in this country in January. It may be ordered right now at a discount with free shipping from Book Depository (

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her latest book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website,


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