Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story has been released on DVD to celebrate its 50th anniversary
by Joe Sinclair, March 2004
Yasujiro Ozu is known as the most Japanese of Japanese film makers. His 'domestic dramas' portray ordinary lives in everyday situations. There are no obvious dichotomies of Good and Evil and no extravagant plot-lines. Yet his films are poignant, mysterious and often disturbing.
Tokyo Story was made in 1953, after seven years of American occupation following Japan's defeat in World War II. The Japanese were undergoing great psychological change, abandoning their imperialist past to face a democratic future.
In this post-war period Ozu was at his peak as a director, having made films such as Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951).
Considered as his masterpiece, Tokyo Story is a consistent front-runner with the critics for best-film-of-all-time.
The film exemplifies all of Ozu's film-making characteristics: unobtrusive, simple shots framing family groups; meticulous scripting with precisely composed dialogue; repertory casting; and quiet, lingering shots of landscapes or empty rooms, giving the audience time to consider and refresh.
The low camera angles bring the audience down into the traditional Japanese seating position, low on the tatami mat floor. This position is considered conducive to reflection. There is no God's eye view. The film-maker places himself and the audience at the level of the characters, emphasizing our connection with them, admitting that nobody knows all the answers.
In Tokyo Story an elderly couple, Tomi and Sukichi, travel from their quaint coastal town near Hiroshima to visit their married children in the sprawl of post-war industrial Tokyo. But the children - a local doctor and a beautician are busy with their own lives and have little time for their parents.
The parents only find genuine acceptance outside the family, when Sukichi spends a drunken night with old friends, and Tomi visits her daughter-in-law, Toriko, whose husband went missing in action during the war eight years ago.
The antithetical notions of tatemae' and honne' are used in Japanese to refer to public appearances and private feelings the difference between what is shown on the surface and the true inward emotions.
The film explores these notions, with the still and quiet camera work suggesting something held back beneath the veneer of polite smiles, bows and small talk.
The film culminates in an exchange between Toriko and the youngest sister, an unmarried school teacher who still lives with her parents. With saddening acceptance, Toriko explains that children gradually drift away from their parents.
'Isn't life disappointing?' comes the heart-breaking reply.
For a film which is 50 years old, Tokyo Story portrays a remarkably familiar Japan. Post-war Tokyo is sprawling with industrial growth; its narrow streets, not yet flooded with neon, are never-the-less a cacophony of signs.
The characters themselves also continue to inhabit modern day Japan. A spoilt primary-aged grandchild stresses about his studies, then throws a tantrum when he doesn't get his way. A young lodger goes out to play pachinko. Drunk old men flirt badly with a hard-nosed mama-san, conveying the eternal refrain of the older generation: that the younger generation has no backbone.
2003 was the centenary of Ozu's birth. His career lasted from 1927 to 1962, when he died of cancer. Although Ozu won more Kinema Junpo 'Best Film' awards in Japan than any other director, and despite the success of Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi at international film festivals, his films were not immediately introduced to the West because they were thought to be too Japanese for western audiences.
In fact, Ozu's films reach beyond their regional, cultural and historical context. Ozu has influenced western Directors such as Martin Scorcese, Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) and Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club). Tokyo Story is a simple, contemplative and unsentimental film, which will give you as much insight into Japan as it does into yourself.
Also by Joe Sinclair
Interview with a Kabuki Actor