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 http://www.pitt.edu/~asian/week-14/week-14.html)
"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
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
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:
From Wim Wender's Tokyo-ga:
"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 colour films until his death on December 12th, 1963, on his sixtieth birthday.
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.
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."