Yasujiro Ozu:Tokyo Story
Thursday May 4, 2000
Director Yasujiro Ozu
Writers Yasujiro Ozu, Kogo Noda
Starring Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama
Japan,1953, 136 minutes
Those brought up on the energetic diet of American cinema may find it hard to
appreciate the quietist art of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. He
has been called the poet of family life, capable of taking the seemingly trivial
and making great drama of it. Nothing was too small to be significant.
Ozu steadfastly peers into the hearts and minds of his characters until we feel
we know them intimately. And the loyalty of those who love his work is as absolute
as his own conviction. The number of film-makers who have made pilgrimages to
his grave (marked simply by the Japanese word for nothing) runs into dozens.
Ozu started making films in 1927 and was one of the last to forsake the silent
cinema. Much of this early work has been lost or destroyed. But we know from
examples that he wasn't always as calmly contemplative as he was in his late
work, which reached the west only in the 60s. He could make boisterous comedies
and earthy chronicles of family life, containing outrageous sight gags. In the
last stretch of his life, however, he had refined his art so much that it hardly
seemed like art at all.
His most famous film, and certainly one of his
masterpieces, is Tokyo Story. In it an elderly
couple are taken to visit their grown-up children
in Tokyo. Too busy to entertain them, the children
pack them off to a noisy resort. Returning to
Tokyo, the old woman visits the widow of another son, who treats her better,
while the old man gets drunk with some old companions. They seem to realise
they are a burden, and simply try to smooth things over as best they can. By
now the children have, albeit guiltily, given up on them; even when their mother
is taken ill and dies, they rush back to Tokyo after attending the funeral.
A simple proverb expresses their failure: "Be kind to your parents while
they are alive. Filial piety cannot reach beyond the grave." The last sequence
is of the old man alone in his seaside home, followed by an outside shot of
the rooftops of the town and a boat passing by on the water. Life goes on.
The film condemns no one and its sense of inevitability carries with it only
a certain resigned sadness. "Isn't life disappointing," someone says
at one point. Yet the simple observations are so acute that you feel that no
other film could express its subject matter much better.
Ozu shoots his story with as little movement of the camera as possible. We view
scenes almost always from the floor, lower than the eye level of a seated character.
He insisted that no actor was to dominate a scene. The balance
of every scene had to be perfect. Chishu Ryu, who often played the father in
Ozu's films about family life, once had to complete two dozen devoted to raising
a tea cup. Tokyo Story was followed by eight other films, all of them
as masterful, and a group named after the seasons, including Early Spring
and An Autumn Afternoon. Each was about the problems of ordinary family
life. While their conservative nature made younger more polemical Japanese directors,
such as Imamura and Oshima, impatient, their universality has come to be recognised
the world over. Ozu was the most Japanese of film-makers, but his work can still
cross most cultural barriers.
As another reviewer puts it:
Ozu invented his own film language, capable of incomparably precise and
expression. It involves bold compositional contrasts; unflinching frames
that hold people and objects in complex, shifting patterns; and an engaging
way of moving a story cyclically through repeating locations. His spare,
plain stories usually permit him to explore some aspect of a breakdown in
traditional family relationships, which is partly why he has been called
"the most Japanese of Japanese directors." The more familiar one
becomes with Ozu's films, the more one becomes able to respond to them as
works of pure emotion.
Opening as an elderly couple looks forward to a rare trip to the city to
spend time with their grown children, Tokyo Story moves on from there
through disappointment, loss, and acceptance. Perhaps Ozu's most accessible
work, it's certainly one of his saddest. See http://www.hermenaut.com/a100.shtml
For more on Ozu and his filmography, see: