Although Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) was one of the more popular filmmakers in Japan for decades, his work wasn’t widely distributed in the West until 1972, when Tokyo Story (1953) debuted at the New York Film Festival. Since that time, several somewhat daunting studies of Ozu’s work have been published in English (Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, Donald Richie’s Ozu, David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema), more of his films have been released on video, and many of the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic films have gradually joined the ranks of the world’s most highly esteemed movies.
Just released by The Criterion Collection as a sensational 2-disc DVD, Tokyo Story remains Ozu’s most critically-acclaimed film, but whether this is deserved outright, or if it has attained this reputation merely because Westerners are nostalgic for its historical role or because, as Ozu said, “it’s my most melodramatic film,” it’s difficult to say. Ozu specialized in shomin-geki films, a Japanese genre examining lower middle-class life, and he was less interested in plot than he was the subtle shifts of character in film after film. Reductive critics may protest that he made virtually the same films again and again, and in this regard, Tokyo Story may not be any “better” than, say, There Was a Father or Late Spring or Early Summer, but in such stellar company, hierarchies become meaningless and subtle differences become everything.
The plot of Tokyo Story is disarmingly simple: an aging couple from rural Onomichi travel by train to Tokyo to visit their children after many years, but their kids treat them like a nuisance in their daily routines. And that’s about it, plotwise, but in an Ozu film, meaning is primarily derived not from cause and effect events, but by how those events are filmed and contextualized through mundane details and ordinary rituals and everyday dialogue.
For this reason, Ozu’s films are often thought of as “slow,” but in fact, no other filmmaker seems so restless with his camera, placing it it in a limitless variety of contemplative positions to capture, for example, a simple dialogue scene between two characters. While Hollywood continuity would dictate drawing an imaginary line between the two speakers and keeping the camera to one side of it while cutting back and forth between the actors (ensuring that one person consistently faces right and the other consistently faces left), Ozu takes advantage of the entire 360-degree space of a set and shoots from a multitude of angles. Editing between shots taken from opposite perspectives introduces completely new backgrounds and dramatically switches actor positions, and therefore requires more observational concentration on the part of the audience. But in Ozu’s hands, this approach creates a complex and shifting relationship between the characters and portrays their space in incremental, piecemeal fashion.
In later films, Ozu’s camera rarely moves and he perennially positions his camera no more than three feet above the floor. As Donald Richie writes in Ozu (1974):
“The traditional [Japanese] view is the view in repose, commanding a very limited field of vision. It is the attitude for listening, for watching. It is the same as the position from which one watches the Noh or the rising moon, from which one partakes of the tea ceremony or a cup of hot sake. It is the aesthetic attitude; it is the passive attitude. Less poetically, it also represents the viewpoint of a then-majority of Japanese. They spent their life on the floor and “any attempt to view such a life through a camera high up on a tripod was nonsense; the eye level of Japanese sitting on a tatami becomes, of necessity, the eye-level through which they view what is going on around them.” (Iwasaki, untitled essay on Ozu.) Finally, it also resembles the attitude of the haiku master who sits in silence and observes, reaching essence through an extreme simplification. Inextricable from Buddhist precepts, it puts the world at a distance and leaves the spectator physically uninvolved.”
Like so many great artists, Ozu’s style is one based on restriction, rigor, and repetition, which paradoxically expands his emotional meanings. As Richie writes, “he restricts his vision in order to see more; he limits his world in order to see these limitations.”
Watching Tokyo Story again, I was struck by the sadness and yearning underneath the surface of virtually every scene in the film, buried beneath social pleasantries and physical positions, aching to be expressed. (One refrain heard throughout the film is “I mean it”–indicative of the parent’s need to emphasize their genuine feelings.) One of the happiest scenes in the film is when the elderly couple are taken on a tour of postwar Tokyo’s modernizing sites by their loving daughter-in-law, yet none of them sit together on the crowded bus. (Later, their children repeatedly remark that the couple must have had a good time because they “saw lots of places; they’ll talk about Tokyo for a long while,” eliding the fact that human, familial contact was nonexistent.) And even in one of the saddest scenes, there is a thread of warmth: when one of the couple’s daughters reflects on how disappointing life is, another character simply smiles at her and affirms the sentiment.
If I’ve neglected to recount the usual litany of character names, it’s because the film deals with such archetypical parent-child roles and family unity and disunity that, as Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan notes in one of the DVD’s supplements, “In Ozu’s films I can see my father, my mother, my brother and sister, and sometimes myself, too.” Ozu’s characters are so fully realized, they become universal. (Special nods, however, should go to Ozu regulars Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara’s typically subtle and moving performances.)
Tokyo Story was co-written by a longtime associate of Ozu’s, Kogo Noda, who felt inspired by his memories of having watched Leo McCarey‘s Make Way for Tomorrow, a tremendously heartfelt 1937 Hollywood drama which recounts a similar story. McCarey’s film scandalously isn’t available on video yet, but it’s broadcast on cable from time to time, and it provides a striking point of comparison with Ozu’s film. The elderly couple in McCarey’s film travel to New York City in the hopes of staying there after losing their home–the couple in Tokyo Story return to their hometown, lending the film a circular narrative that emphasizes Ozu’s structural approach. McCarey’s film is classical Hollywood in style, Ozu’s singular and unique to his methods. Both films are landmark achievements in film history.