Remembrance of Times Past, Present and Future in Ozu's Tokyo Story

Sondra Rosenberg

In one of the final scenes from Ozu Yasuhiro's Tokyo Story (1953), Shukichi, an elderly father, gives his daughter-in-law Noriko the gift of a watch before she returns from Onomichi to Tokyo, where she lives. This gift is given as a keepsake after the funeral of Shukichi's recently deceased wife, Tomi. Rife with meaning, the gesture of giving Noriko this watch - of giving her time, essentially - beautifully embodies the various ways that Ozu explores and depicts the passage of time in his film. As a keepsake, the watch is being passed on from one generation to the next, demonstrating how time moves forward (the torch is being passed on, so to speak) and also the way that time functions cyclically (as life comes to an end, new life begins). The gesture also alludes to notions of travel, and its relationship to time: Noriko reflectively takes the watch out of her purse as she makes the journey from Onomichi, throughout the film associated with the older generation (this is where Shukichi and Tomi live), to Tokyo, a symbol here of post-war, industrial Japan. This journey, which Shukichi and Tomi made earlier in the film to visit their children, is also a metaphor for the passing of time and change. As Linda Ehrlich points out, "this is a film not about time, but rather about movement through time."" ¹ The gift also speaks to ideas about absence, lack and memory, as it was given in honor of the deceased Tomi. It also resonates with Noriko as she struggles to push forward despite her husband ¹ s death eight years previously.

In order to fully explore the theme of time and movement through time in Tokyo Story, it is necessary to look at Ozu's stylistic techniques, which carry as much weight as the films' narratives. One of the first things that one notices when watching Ozu is the incredibly slow pace at which his films play out. Tokyo Story is no exception. It is at first tempting to conclude that the pacing is employed to reflect realistically the way that time is actually experienced, but this is too simplistic. While there are countless scenes of Shukichi and Tomi sitting silently, fanning themselves, and shot after shot of trains passing slowly through the Japanese countryside, it is important to remember that the inclusion of these seemingly mundane details is a choice that the director made. He is not merely showing us everything that occurs in real time. In surprising contrast to the attention paid to mundane details, large segments of the action of the film are never shown. David Desser elaborates, "An important narrative principle for Ozu is the ellipsis, the omission of plot material or even an event."" ² He references the omission of the parents' visit to Osaka on the way to Tokyo at the beginning of the film, the sending of Shukichi and Tomi to the Atami spa and the overnight stay in Osaka on their way back to Onomichi as examples of these ellipses, arguing that by de-emphasizing plot elements, Ozu focuses instead on mood and tone." ³ Another facet of these ellipses is the way that Ozu integrates the importance of the omitted scenes into the narrative via memory. We may not see the overnight stay at Osaka, but we are told about it. Ozu seems to be implying that action is important only insofar as it is embedded in our memory. Quite often in Tokyo Story we see characters discussing places and people that are not present, i.e. when the parents visit the children in Tokyo they speak about O-Koh and Mihashi, characters we never meet, or when Shukichi and his old friends reminisce about times passed. These conversations, while not central in anyway to the plot, both emphasize memory and its relationship to time, and remind us of the world outside of the frame. The short descriptions of the lives of the people they discuss locate the drama of their own lives within a context - they are all part of a larger picture. The absence of those discussed not only reflects their lack of presence, but also of the presence of time, the present tense. This notion, of course, holds different meaning for members of the different generations (something I will return to later in the paper), but seems to carry with it a sense of fluidity. The transitory nature of time and the haunting sense of loss that we have all experienced as a result unites these characters in a broad way. While time may cause distance and even indifference between people, as it has for Shukichi, Tomi and their grown children, Ozu's emphasis on memory and absence reminds us that ephemeron itself is a bond shared universally.

In his Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Paul Schrader explains that "Ozu directs silences and voids."4 We have seen how by omitting scenes of intense drama and/or action, Ozu is actually commenting on the impact of these scenes. This technique is mirrored in his approach to the emotional landscape of his films. Often agonizingly non-confrontational in both the characters relationships to one another and in the way Ozu frames his shots (note the classic parallel-seated poses), we rarely see expressed emotion in Tokyo Story. With the exception of the few overtly dramatic scenes, such as the one when Kyoko, the daughter who lives with Shukichi and Tomi in Onomichi, expresses anger over the callousness of her brothers and sister to Noriko, the emotions of the characters are strikingly implicit. The effect of this absence of emotion is remarkable, particularly in regard to Shukichi. While it may strike viewers (especially Western viewers) as unfeeling when he advises Noriko to "forget about Shoji (her deceased husband and his son), he is dead," Ozu's stylistic techniques make evident that his apparent lack of emotion is philosophically rooted. More than any of the other characters, Shukichi seems to have a deep-seated understanding of the inevitability of the passing of time and of death and its necessity to the continuation of the life-cycle. It can be infuriating to see Shige and Koichi treat their parents with such utter disrespect, but Shukichi and Tomi's acceptance of their behavior and silence in the matter makes it all the more poignant. "Ozu directs silences," and in those silences live the unspoken pains of living - he speaks to the private parts of ourselves which must remain hidden.

Throughout the film, Ozu inserts "pillow shots" or as David Desser calls them, "intermediate spaces" between the action just completed and the action yet to occur: "Ozu achieves a particular poignancy in many of his still lifes by highlighting the paradox of humanity's presence by its absence."5 Frequently Ozu will include a pillow shot to indicate that it is the next day. On the day following Tomi's death, Shukichi goes outside and comments that it looks like "another hot day." The feeling of loss and grief evoked by this "morning after" scene is only heightened by the characters lack of expressed emotion (and of course the absence of Tomi on this day). In the poetry of the film's composition and in the actor Chishu Ryu (Shukichi)'s face, we reluctantly accept death as a natural cycle of life. The boats in the harbor still sail, the trains still run, and perhaps most importantly, the lives of the children continue. To accept this is to accept our own mortality.

A final stylistic technique employed by Ozu that speaks to the passing of time and the evocation of "silences and voids" is the actual framing of his subjects. Contributing to the slow pace of his films, Ozu spends a great deal of time showing the interior spaces in which his figures move. Their framing within Japanese architectural structures is visually stunning, and also functions as a metaphor for the movement through time and also of the relationship between the exterior and interior world of human beings. Before a character enters the frame, we are shown the space into which they will enter for several long-seeming seconds, and again Ozu lingers on the space from which a character has just left. Usually entrances and exits are made by the use of sliding doors and long hallways, emphasizing the layers of space within an interior. Again this brings to mind elements of absence versus presence and also of memory. As Ehrlich eloquently explains, "human figures in Ozu's films are both essential and transitory, eventually passing from the frame. Empty rooms are not really empty - they are full of the presence of people who were there before, and of the memory of people. Ozu holds the shot just a few seconds longer than we might expect in order to remind us of this."6 His sets are also dramatically simple in their geometric structures. When characters move within this stable space, and Ozu never moves the camera, we become keenly attuned to the body language and nuances of their movements, thereby increasing the tension between external and internal, expressed and hidden.

As far as the characters' own experiences of the passing of time go, there are general divisions along generational lines. Shukichi and Tomi's journey to Tokyo marks a time in their life appropriate to see how their grown children have fared - they realize that their lives are nearing the end, and wish to see what their offspring have done for themselves. They are, of course, disappointed. For the children, Shukichi and Tomi's arrival is an unwelcome intrusion and inconvenience on their lives. (Noriko is an exception here - she welcomes them with great respect and affection.) Shige and Koichi are constantly busy with their work, and have no time to spend with their estranged parents. As a result, the old couple is shuttled around like cattle - sent on sight-seeing tours of Tokyo, to a spa not intended for elderly visitors, to a theatre production. While their journey, coupled with their age and relatively sedentary lifestyle, elicits conversations about the past between Shukichi and Tomi, Shige and Koichi are too wrapped up in their present lives - appointments, work, etc. - to connect with their parents. They even exhibit resentment when they are obliged to take time off to travel to Onomichi when Tomi falls ill later on. Ozu's films are often described as being about the disintegration of the Japanese family in light of postwar changes, and this rift between the generations is a prime example of this theme. Even more arresting than the estrangement of Shukichi and Tomi from their children is the depiction of their non-existent relationship with their grandchildren. Where Shukichi and Tomi are located in the past, relatively to their children, Isamu and Minoru are naturally located in the future. They are immensely impatient, constantly complaining when they don't get what they want immediately - "it's always later," they argue - and their attitude toward the arrival of their grandparents reflects indifference and annoyance. When Tomi takes Isamu outside, she asks him about the future, about what he wants to be when he grows up. Isamu is too immersed in his own world even to respond. Noriko is the only member of the second generation who is able to connect with Shukichi and Tomi in the present time. Her sensitivity to them is tempered by the great loss she experienced when Shoji died.

In light of Ozu's treatment of time and memory in Tokyo Story, I was impressed with the insight with which he approached the subject of nostalgia. I am thinking, in particular of the lack of sentimentality in his film and the common Western notion of longing for lost innocence associated with memories of the past that is so exploited in Hollywood films. A feeling of nostalgia is created only when the ability to construct an ideal exists. This kind of construction is not a factor in Ozu's world. Instead, there is what Dore calls "fatalistic determinism," or resignation associated with a Buddhist frame of mind.7 For instance, both Shukichi and Tomi encourage Noriko to forget about Shoji and remarry. (Tomi is surprised to see that Noriko still keeps his picture up.) When they speak about him, it is respectful but never imbued with the attitude that Shoji was ideal in any way - Noriko admits his faults readily as she recalls his drinking. Shukichi reminds Noriko that to forget him is not selfish at all, but an honest acknowledgement that he is gone, a resignation. I could see this scene played out in an American film, in which Shukichi would comfort her and tell her that Shoji will always live on in her heart but that she must move on. For Ozu, however, the acceptance of death, however unfortunate the circumstances, is treated less as a hardship to overcome for the living, than as a natural process. When Shukichi's own wife dies, he acknowledges that it will be lonely, but does not lament his own sadness. His personal tragedy is felt by the audience, but not manipulated for dramatic effect. The parents attitude toward their unappreciative children also reflects the older generation ¹ s fatalism. Rather than complain or be embittered by what they realized on their trip, Shukichi resigns, "times have changed, we must face up to it." We also see reluctance toward idealism in Noriko, who warns an angry Kyoko that she mustn't expect more from her brothers and sister.

Noriko's attitude toward time is more in line with the Onomichians than with her step-siblings in Tokyo and Osaka. Having experienced loss, she has had to come to terms with herself and her own emotions. Though she is clearly the kindest of any of the children to Shukichi and Tomi, she feels that she is selfish because her memories of Shoji are slipping away. When Shukichi gives her Tomi's watch, he is also giving her acceptance and wisdom. We hear the ticking of time after she leaves and images of Shukichi sitting alone in a mirror pose to the first scene, only this time without Tomi. We are also presented with images of water and smoke, poignant symbols of that which is transitory. Noriko has taken this gift of time and traveled back to her home, cognizant of and resigned to the cyclic nature of life and death, and to the place of memory within that cycle.

-Sondra Rosenberg, 2001


1. Linda C. Ehrlich, "Travel Toward and Away: Furusato and Journey in Tokyo Story," Ozu's Tokyo Story, pg. 53.
2. David Desser, Introduction to Ozu's Tokyo Story, pg. 6.
3. David Desser, Introduction to Ozu's Tokyo Story, pg. 7.
4. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, pg. 28.
5. David Desser, Introduction to Ozu's Tokyo Story, pg. 10.
6. Linda C. Ehrlich, "Travel Toward and Away: Furusato and Journey in Tokyo Story," Ozu's Tokyo Story, pg. 70-1.
7. Dore, City Life in Japan, pg. 314, as referenced in Kathe Geist's "Buddhism in Tokyo Story" from Ozu's Tokyo Story, pg. 108.