Tag Archives: Tokyo Story

The Cinema of Japan: Tokyo Story

TS poster

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.

TS imageNarrative-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.

TS familyWhilst 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

Progress: 93/1001

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.

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The Cinema of Japan Guest Post: A Personal Introduction to Yasujirō Ozu

My man Chris Smith, all round legend and contributor to Film Blerg has kindly hooked me up with this brilliant personal intro to one of the true cinematic legends to come out of Japan. Read and enjoy. This is some seriously good shit.

The great man at work

The great man at work

“Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu”.

So begins Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review on Floating Weeds (1959), the first film I saw of the legendary Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, and so right he was. I’m not sure what took me so long. I think I’d started watching one of his films before, maybe it was this one or perhaps it was Tokyo Story (1953), the other Ozu film that seems to have infiltrated the zeitgeist outside of Ozu’s work itself. Whichever it was, I remember watching the first few minutes and finding it challenging; first visually with the compositions, and then the slow, deliberate pacing; but man am I glad I stuck with it, because in the films of Ozu we find what might be the purest and most beautiful expression of people and their humanity in perhaps the entirety of cinema as an art form.

floating weeds

Floating Weeds

As a visual film maker, Ozu is a stylist to the point of anti-style. His films are deliberately (and misleadingly) simplistic with scenes often playing out in extended shots (generally low angles), very little camera movement (by the later stage of his colour films the camera ceases to move at all), and often breaking the rule of the “hypothetical camera” (the disorienting effect where the viewer becomes aware that the camera or lens from which they’re seeing this world, which we know must be somewhere, has its space physically taken up by something else – in Ozu it is the reverse angle of two characters talking across from one another).

Narratively, Ozu’s films are mostly anti-climactic with seemingly important events of narrative action usually happening off-screen and what was previously thought to be of so much importance is referenced in simply passing, as so often happens in real life once important events are swallowed up by the past.

So if his films are visually mundane (they’re not) and his plots are uninteresting (again, they‘re not), why is Ozu treated as cinematic royalty? It’s because with the relative removal of these exterior concerns, Ozu focuses on the heart of his stories, which are his characters and their emotions, which we remember long after visual and narrative details have faded in our memories.

The effect of watching a good many of Ozu’s films in quick succession (especially his later work which has been boxed together by Criterion in their Eclipse series) is very much like binge watching your favourite TV show, even a soap opera – just without all the heightened melodrama – as his stable of fine actors, including Ganjiro Nakamura, Shin Saburi and Chisu Ryu – navigate the terrain of Ozu’s thematic concerns (tradition vs. modernity, women’s independence, family relationships) often in the same locales and sets (the majority of these stories tend to play out in traditional Japanese apartments). Like with television, the audience’s investment lies less with the week to week plot, but more with how the characters we love deal with conflict, and it’s these conflicts that lead to the greatest moments in Ozu.

 Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice

Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice

From the old widow O-tane (Choko Iida) of Record of a Tenement Gentlemen (1947); who after neglecting the young lost boy who attaches himself to her and treating him horribly, finally comes to find that she in fact does love him as a mother – only for the boy’s father to come for him just after she’s made this discovery; to the heartbreaking scene of Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) when Mokichi (Saburi) tells his wife (of an arranged marriage) Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) after they’re been married for many, many years that they simply aren’t happy, the world of Ozu is populated by real people we become deeply invested in, often in what may seem like small irrelevant details, but they become so important in the context of his cinematic world.

While a good deal of has been written about the final scene of Late Spring (1949) (the films plot involves an ageing and widowed professor (Ryu) being convinced to arrange for his daughter (Setsuko Hara) to be married to a stranger so she’ll be taken care of once he dies, but she refuses because she wants to stay with her father, leading him to pretend to marry as well) where the daughter says goodbye to her father and the father returns home alone; my own personal favourite moment in Ozu is in his reworking of Late SpringLate Autumn (1960). Hara, now the parent, confesses to her daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) that she has decided not to marry but to live alone while her daughter leads her own life. It’s one of the most poignant and touchingly simple moments in the history of film that always invariably leads to tears from its audience.

I’ve touched on only a few of Ozu’s individual films here and barely scratched the surface of what makes him such an incredible filmmaker, but his entire filmography is a rich and rewarding journey that awaits all film lovers, that as Ebert says, find their way to it.

Chris Smith is a Melbourne based freelance writer who is passionate about film, books and music. His work is often featured on Film Blerg and various other places.

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.