From Wim Wender's Tokyo-ga:

I think we would do well to contemplate the opening narration of Wim Wender's documentary on Ozu's Tokyo. His language is personal, powerful and evocative:

"If in our century something sacred still existed… if there were something like a sacred treasure of the cinema, then for me that would have to be the work of the Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. He made fifty-four films. Silent films in the Twenties, black-and-white films in the Thirties and Forties, and finally color films until his death on December 12th, 1963, on his sixtieth birthday.

With extreme economy of means, and reduced to but the bare essentials, Ozu's films, again and again, tell the same simple story, always of the same people, and the same city, Tokyo. This chronicle spanning nearly 40 years, depicts the transformation of life in Japan. Ozu's films deal with the slow deterioration of the Japanese family, and thereby, with the deterioration of the national identity. But they do so not by pointing with dismay at what is new, Western, or American, but by lamenting with an unindulged sense of nostaligia the loss taking place at the same time.

As thoroughly Japanese as they are, these films are, at the same time, universal. In them, I've been able to recognize all families, in all the countries of the world, as well as my parents, my brother and myself. For me, never before and never again since has the cinema been so close to its essence and its purpose: to present an image of man in our century, a usable, true and valid image, in which he not only recognizes himself but from which, above all, he may learn about himself."


To see the work of Ozu as being about the process of Japan's modern transformation, has something in common with the way some scholars are starting to argue that this is how we must see Japanese cinema. Catherine Russell, in her book on Classical Japaense Cinema (whom we will read in connection with Naruse Mikio), points out how the term "Classical Cinema" for Bordwell and others is linked to the industrial mode of production, a set of stylistic rules or norms, and a set of commercial practices.  In oither words, there is such a thing as classical Hollywood cinema that involves specific editing techniques and narrative conventions—the shot-reverse-shot structure of Hollywood cinema being a key one. 

The Japanese film industry from the 1930s was already one of the biggest in the world.  Richie and Anderson’s The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, goes a long way toward outlining the contours of classical Japanese cinema…but it is ultimately unable to let go of the “great man” theory of culture.  (7)  It is easy to understand why: Japanese cinema is director-writer centered and the studio and apprentice system meant that directors gave way to their assistants who became directors in their own right. This is very Japanese.  And yet it was those very directors that we single out for greatness or at least interest—Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Kurosawa—all embraced elements of a cinematic code that thwarted the Hollywood system in favor of more expressive techniques and styles across the board, embracing editing conventions that did not adhere systematically to the norms of continuity editing.  Moreover, endings tend to be so open that they do not necessarily adhere to classical norms of narrative closure.  [The same can be said for Japanese literature, too!]

As Russell points out, Japanese cinema is traditionally thought of as an “other” to Hollywood classical cinema, exhibiting a stylistic alternative to the narrative realism associated with the American industry.  But it can also be seen more profitably, I think, as a discourse on modernity.  Something like what Wenders sees in Ozu we can see in many of the films in this course: writers, actors and directors struggling, grapplng with what it means to be human, what it means to be modern, what it means to see the traditional family deteriorate, and what this process of "losing the past" means for that sense of what it means to be Japanese. We need to be careful because it is in this sense that talking about Japanese cinema as another discourse of modernity, but it is a medium that became a dominant form of mass culture in the twentieth century. We tend to think of modernity as something emanating from the west but in reality there are many regions, many people, many industries and many politics in the world and they are all in contact with one another thanks to the spread of technology and markets so, in this sense, “Japanese cinema is a translation of the Hollywood idiom into the Japanese vernacular, which is then translated again, with subtitles, to the rest of the world.” (Russell p. 3)  Japanese modernity is a cultural formation of heterogeneous styles, discourses, and desires.   1930s-1950s—especially the 1950s—are the “golden age” of classical Japanese cinema during which “the nation struggled to become a democratic, global player, while simultaneously sublimating war memories and recovering from the huge losses that the war entailed.” (Adapted from the Russel.pdf, p. xiv, and her book, Classical Japanense Cinema, pp. 1-3) 


"Ozu's work does not need my praise and such a sacred treasure of the cinema could only reside in the realm of the imagination. And so, my trip to Tokyo was in no way a pilgrimage. I was curious as to whether I still could track down something from this time, whether there was still anything left of this work. Images perhaps, or even people…Or whether so much would have changed in Tokyo in the twenty years since Ozu's death that nothing would be left to find."Wwim Wenders)



Donald Richie on Ozu's Tokyo Story

The well known Japanese film scholar and critic Donald Richie's comments on Tokyo Story are excerpted below (taken from


"Tokyo Story" was released on November 3, 1953, by the filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63), was very popular in Japan, and was one of very few Japanese films shown abroad. It is about the life of a modern, middle-class Japanese family and how the relati onships among its members are affected by the events of their every day lives. Overall, Ozu tells us that these events lead to the dissolution of the traditional family structure. In "Tokyo Story", Ozu stresses the effect domestic turbulence of individu al family members rather than its cause. Incidents of everyday life are used to reveal the nature of various characters gradually, as they act and react. These confrontations of family members within the context of daily life are subtle, familiar, and e asy for Japanese as well as western audiences to appreciate.

Produced in the context of war weariness and disillusion, this film was first shown to Japanese audiences only one year after the end of the Allied Occupation of Japan in 1952. The reforms carried out during the post-war period were drastic. The land-reform program made owner-farmers out of tenants.

The new "Peace Constitution" defined the emperor as a "symbol of state," instead of as source of sovereignty, and a long bill of rights gave certain privileges to individuals. The abandonment of war as an "instrument of national policy" renounced the build-up of weapons and armies, for instance. The civil code was revised in accordance with the sentiments of the new democratic constitution and the powers of the family head, which were built into the o ld code, were supposed to disappear. These reforms had a profound effect on everyday life as well as on national policy. Ozu made this film in the midst of these sweeping reforms, and clearly was entangled in the inevitable and unresolved conflict betwe en traditional Japanese cultural mores and values, especially those around family life, and the demands of life in the modern industrial era. Every moment of his film is dedicated to examination of that conflict, both thematically and cinemagraphically.

"Tokyo Story" is closely integrated around three elements: story, theme, and cinematography. The story is simple, but it is complex in meaning. It is a three part tale which focuses on the parents' relationships with their children. The first secti on is set in the little town where the old couple lives, Onomichi.

The middle section sees the parents on a reunion with their children in Tokyo. Both their son and daughter are busy with their own lives and send the parents off to a hot-springs resort , ostensibly as a treat, but actually to get rid of them. The only kindness they experience while there is found with the widow of their third son, killed in the war. The third section, back in the little town of Onomichi, depicts the death and funeral of the mother. The children are called to her deathbed, but she is so ill that she cannot recognize them. The children hurry away after the funeral. Again, it is the daughter-in-law who stays behind to see the old father settled in. Then she, too, mus t return to Tokyo, leaving the father in the empty house to contemplate the years ahead of him alone.

The central theme in "Tokyo Story" is how one comes to terms with the dissolution of the family and ultimately with death. Three alternative solutions are examined, each described in the reactions of the children. First, several are resigned and acc ept these conditions with sensitivity. Others lack compassion, are indifferent, and regard separation of the family as inevitable. Third, the youngest refuses to accept the dissolution and tries to shore up the family once again. These choices are presen ted as complimentary to one another and dynamic conflict never arises. Resolution is never reached and the theme of transience triumphs. The psychological tension created by this thematic and visual structure keep the viewer aware of the enormous number s of conflicts inherent in modern life. Given his strong attachment to daily family scenes and events, Ozu sets a very slow pace for his film, a pace which echoes the unfolding of life in the every day world. The camera is literally fixed at the eye level of someone seated on the floor on a straw tatami mat in a traditional Japanese house. He uses only three standard shots--long, medium, and close-up--and he repeats them over and over again. The medium-shot is the basic unit and the scenery in each frame is presented with an austere formal symmetry (Fig. 1).

Although these standard shots repeat, they frame the subtle psychologically and emotional relationships of the moment. Both the framing and the pacing of this film confirm aesthetic standards held for centuries among Japanese artists. The most traditional of Japan's filmmakers, Ozu's visual as well as thematic sensibilities--emphasis on simplicity and directness, on the notion of the transience or impermanence in life--most closely resemble those of Zen artists. His black and white films have been compared to the famous gardens of Zen temples where simple, naked arrangements of dry rocks and raked sand are meant to elicit complex responses. (See "The Art of Zen") His tale, although told in the modern medium of film and focused on a problem common to the modern world, bears unmistakably traditional Japanese aesthetic standards

Ritchie, D., Ozu: His Life and Style, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

FROM: Linduff, K.M., "Japanese Film: Ozu and the 'Tokyo Story'," in Art Past/Art Present, by D, Wilkins, B. Schultz, and K. Linduff, New York, 2000,4th ed.


See also some comments by Roger Ebert:

Ozu's scenes mirror the rhythms of ordinary life. He shows minor characters in desultory conversations;
we learn much about the troupe from the gossip of the supporting actors. We see a performance before a
sparse audience; the actors peer out through the curtain, counting the house and looking for cute girls. The
performance desperately needs to be restaged with a fresh eye and perhaps a more interested cast.
Ozu doesn't dart from one plot point to another. He uses his famous visual style to allow us to contemplate
and inhabit the action. The camera is always a little lower than the characters; when they are seated on
tatami mats, it is only a few feet from the floor. This brings a kind of stature to their ordinariness. Between
scenes, he often cuts to ``pillow shots''--two or three quiet compositions, showing an architectural detail, a
banner in the wind, a tree or the sky.

His camera never moves. No pans. No tracking shots. There are not even any dissolves; just cuts between
one composition and the next. This is very contemplative. We are prompted to look and involve ourselves,
instead of simply reacting.

Ozu is known for violating the traditional rules of visual composition. He often composes a conversation
so that the characters don't seem to be looking at each other. I think I know why. With alternating
over-the-shoulder shots, the audience is required to identify with the point of view of one character and
then the other. When Ozu shoots them both looking in the same direction, we are kept outside the
conversation; we can regard them objectively, and leave them their privacy. . .His shots are direct, but often beautiful.

Taken from Mr. Ebert's review of another Ozu film, Floating Weeds found at The Chicago Suntimes website: