Tokyo Story (1953)
The first of the new decade and I can’t think of a more apt beginning to proceedings, a bona-fide all time cinematic masterpiece, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is playing as the centrepiece of an exhaustive two month retrospective of the Sensei’s work at the National Film Theatre. If you thought, as I did for many years, that Japanese cinema consisted mostly of indestructible, stoic Samurai cleaving through numerous scores of whelping peasants, psychopathic yakuza waging incendiary turf wars through the streets of Shinjuki or unconvincingly clad stunt men wrestling each others monster clad forms on sound stage simulacrums of the Tokyo skyline then think again, beyond the cult and genre favourites there is a rich vein of intimate, spiritually humanist, dare I say it Zen like films that represent some of the best achievements of the art form. It took many years for the work of Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and others to reach the West, Rashomon is credited as almost single-handedly opening up Japanese cinema by winning the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, an achievement that whetted the appetite of a generation of film lovers bored of the stale Hollywood tropes for a feast of distinctive forms of storytelling, of refreshing approaches to empyrean subjects, of utilizing the conventions of cinema in unusual and illuminating ways. Ozu in particular took some time to be assimilated and understood by the European and American critical intelligentsia, Japanese distributors who were reaping the profits of Kurosawa’s Western like Samurai epics throughout the Fifties and Sixties simply assumed that Ozu’s work was far too mannered, too gentle, perhaps too idiosyncratic of a glacial vision of Japanese life that would find no audience outside of its host country and therefore rarely bothered to sanction new, expensive prints to be shipped abroad. They failed to sense that the themes that he explored throughout his magnificent career – the family, marriage, the clashes of generations – are universally appealing on a global sense, Tokyo Story arguably serving as the apotheosis of his oeuvre.
Plot-wise Toyko Story is minimalist to the max, or erm, something. In the early 1950’s an elderly couple, Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (the former played by Ozu stalwart Chishû Ryû) make a rare journey to visit their children in Tokyo. Their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) has little time for them, absorbed as she is in her popular beauty saloon business, she makes arrangements to despatch them to a nearby spa to keep them occupied. Similarly their first son Koichi, a doctor finds his medicinal duties more pressing than his familial obligations and quietly welcomes this diversion of a potential drain on his precious time. A solace of sorts is found in the shape of the Hirayama’s sister-in-law Noriko, portrayed by the legendarily radiant Setsuko Hara, who welcomes their visit and enjoys the time she is able to spend with her extended family, both her and Tomi mourning the loss of her second son, Noriko’s husband during the war. Shukishi visits some old work colleagues and they all get amusingly drunk, the imbibed sake prompting the aging patriarchs to slowly reveal the resigned disappointment they feel of how their children have fared and succeeded to varying degrees in the great game of life. Off-screen on the way home Tomi passes away and the family coalesce outside Tokyo for her funeral, leaving Shukishi a widower who calmly accepts the lonely life that he now faces in his twilight years. That’s pretty much it.
Ozu frequently found himself touching on the shift of Japanese sensibilities and traditions straddling as he did work in both the pre and post War periods. Crucially there is no lecturing or finger wagging from Ozu in Toyko Story, he merely presents this contemporary shift in societal dynamics as a fact of life, not necessarily a cultural tradition to be mourned. In the context of todays production models his career is quite amazing, Ozu worked at the same Shōchiku film studios for over forty years, like the Hollywood golden age it was a self contained world where directors would draw on the in-house artisans and technicians to construct their films, from the script departments to focus pullers, the gaffers to art directors, all working together to reveal something of an in-house style which in Shōchiku’s case were home centred dramas that mostly appealed to women. For a precis of the Japanese studio system, take a look here.
That clip demonstrates everything that makes the film so refreshing and new to an audience weened on the traditional Hollywood film grammar that had been established over the previous sixty or so years – the action occurring in the centre of the visual plane with various foreground objects such as furniture, corridor walls and other household accoutrements delivering a more enveloping, hermetic aura to the scenes, all of which are framed from a tatami mat level. Ozu cuts on dialogue in close-up, the usual method of communication but abandons the eye-line match, having his performers address dialogue direct to the screen, provoking a more intimate connection to the characters and drawing more attention to not only what is being said but the spaces between the words, the reactions to the colloquy. Rather than use the ubiquitous fade to black or dissolve to indicate a shift in time and space Ozu uses an unusual method, an insert of a vase, a train, a chimney stack (perhaps a sly nod to his perceived interest in Modernism) to signal a forward progression in the story, a transition to another day, to another scene and encounter – the so called ‘pillow-shot‘.
Treading very carefully, having endured another painful and disappointing festive season the film is exceptionally moving with a devastating penultimate scene – after the funeral the families youngest daughter, the unmarried Toriko who lived with the elders complains that her older brothers and sisters don’t seem to care for their deceased mother. With a gloomy acceptance Noriko explains that children inevitably drift away from their parents – ‘Isn’t life disappointing?’ complains Keiso, ‘Yes it is’ comes Noriko’s heart-breaking reply. A masterpiece.