After Chris’s fantastic personal introduction to the works of Yasujiro Ozu yesterday, I thought I would take a look at probably his most famous work – Tokyo Story (1953). I was lucky enough to see the film on the big screen at the Arc Cinema here in Canberra where the film got a really great intro from the head of programming. One of the interesting things he said was that back in the day Ozu was considered “too Japanese” to really succeed internationally. Whilst I love this film and Ozu’s fame obviously extended far beyond his own country, it is pretty easy to see why that opinion was held about him.
Narrative-wise, the film is gentle but not exactly slow. The influence of Ozu on a myriad of artistic filmmakers that would follow him is plain to see in this regard. Tokyo Story’s greatest lesson is just how intriguing an utterly simple tale can be. The script is wonderful, even though it is telling such a simple story. Often it is hard to make these kinds of stories feel authentic, but there are no such issues here. The script allows the plot to unfold languorously in front of the viewer, spiced with an occasional note of humour. There is a sense throughout that Ozu is gently toying with the filmic form in this film. It gently nudges the heartstrings without pummelling them. It also veers in the second half into something of a road movie, where the personal or spiritual journey is accompanied by a physical one. This all builds to an emotional highpoint that I will not reveal except to say that it gives the film a ‘second wind’ of sorts after it had begun to drag for me, ever so slightly.
Visual poetry is one of those film terms that gets thrown around far too liberally when in fact I think as there are actually very few proponents of it. That said, Ozu is definitely part of that select group. Here, he continually incorporates architecture and the lines of buildings into his beautiful shot composition. This is notable due to the fact that much of the film takes place in urban areas and Ozu’s adeptness at incorporating enclosed physical spaces into his work makes it a lot prettier to look at then it otherwise would have been. Like the plot and the visuals, the soundtrack to the film can essentially be summarised as being quiet but masterful. Not at all intrusive, the soundtrack makes itself known through an occasional flourish that really enhances what is on screen.
Whilst there is much here that supports the idea that Ozu is a distinctly, if not totally “too Japanese” a director, such as the settings and culture which really could be nowhere but that country, there are also a number of universal elements. Thematically, the concern of parents for their children when they leave home is something that permeates much of the film. Just as this was a major theme of life in 1950s Japan, so it was in 2000s Australia when I left home. If you have left home, you know what I am talking about. If not, then trust me it is coming. More broadly, the film touches on a number of issues related to familial relations, especially the notion of the in-laws and the strains they can place on everyone. The joys that having your family extended by the incorporation of said in-laws is also displayed on screen. Tokyo Story also hit home for me in its exploration of the notion of time. More specifically, the way that we always seem far too busy. Too busy for what is really important. It is a real takeaway from the film and a credit that it is a message that gets through to me, despite leading a totally different life to the ones being led onscreen.
Gentle and artistic, but definitely not boring, Tokyo Story is definitely one to tick off for all major film buffs. It did go on a little too long for me, but Ozu is one of the true original maestros of cinema history. There is a fair chance that he has greatly influenced one of your favourite directors with his approach to the artform.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of Ace Attorney plus two other Japanese films on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.