Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari)


Director Yasijirō Ozu

Ozu on the set with Setsuko Hara
















TOKYO STORY (Tokyo Monogatari)               A                                                                       Japan  (136 mi)  1953  d: Yasijirō Ozu

a thoughtful meditation on the transitory nature of life

The defeat of the war was a shock to the Japanese people, psychologically, with the entire society undergoing a thorough search for a new identity, yet war doesn’t end at the Armistice, as it takes generations for things to change, with a newly evolving Japanese society ultimately embracing this ponderous, overly melancholic morality tale that quietly builds to such an emotionally impactive finale.  Considered the most Japanese of all Japanese directors, Ozu’s contemplative pacing and low-key direction embraced the ordinary and everyday, paying special attention to elders and shifting family practices while juxtaposing tea cups and tatami mats against Tokyo’s gritty postwar urban landscape.  Yet more than anything, Ozu’s understated onscreen poetry translates to a universal language with the power to influence and inform through simple yet accessible storytelling.  Listed at #3 on the 2012 BFI Sight and Sound Critic’s poll of the greatest films of all-time, Critics' top 100 | BFI and #1 on the Directors top 100, the top choice of 358 film directors, this is a brilliantly directed film, where the austere, “deceptively simple” look builds the details of everyday life into a moving climax that couldn’t be more honest and unpretentious, looking underneath the politeness and quiet smiles to find sad, alienated voices lost in the modern world, establishing a beautiful pace through transitory images of shrines, train stations and railroad tracks with trains passing by blowing their whistles, a home overlooking rooftops below, with laundry hanging from the lines, and beyond, a tranquil river where boats off in the distance can be heard puttering by.  The minutiae of moments are recorded using Ozu’s fixed camera positions, which pass no judgments but simply observe, familiarizing us with the ordinary through observations of great detail, rhythm, and restraint.  Very much in the same vein as Kurosawa’s IKIRU (1952), which was released one year earlier, this slowly evolving story captures the small moments that comprise each day, as grandparents Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū, featured in 52 of Ozu’s 54 films), a former school administrator with an extraordinary degree of gentility and grace, and his wife Tomi Hirayama (Chieko Higashiyama), a retired couple in their 60’s from Onomichi, a hilly port city in Western Japan, decide to leave their grown daughter behind, Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa), to visit their grown children in Tokyo, and by extension the younger generation in postwar Japan, whose middle-class lives are too busy for them, eldest son Kōichi (So Yamamura), a doctor working out of his home, and his wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), with two unruly children, eldest daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), who runs a beauty salon out of her home, and her husband Kurazō (Nobuo Nakamura), widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), an office secretary living a life of loneliness and poverty, whose husband Shōji (the middle son) died in the war, while also visiting the youngest son Keizō (Shirō Ōsaka) in a stopover in Osaka.  But once in Tokyo they realize Kōichi is not the success they’ve been led to believe, only a small practice working out of his home, living in a poor suburb that is not conducive to economic opportunities, becoming disillusioned with the life he’s chosen, yet they have their own lives where their schedules are full, leaving them little to no time at all for their parents, who are grateful for even the brief moments they can spend together.  Shige seems even less interested, appearing resentful of the intrusion, initially pawning them off on Noriko, who willingly spends a day with them touring the sights of Tokyo, before Shige and Kōichi send them off to the Atami hot springs resort by the ocean, presumably for comfort and relaxation (ironically Ozu and Noda habitually retreated to hot-spring resorts themselves to work on their scripts), yet it’s more of an all-night playground for the young, with live music shows and gambling, where the incessant noise and paper-thin walls prevent them from getting any sleep, returning early the next day, which leaves their children ill-prepared for their return, as another social engagement is filling their home, as she’s running a beautician’s workshop, so, thinking nothing about separating them, perhaps for the first time in a sprawling metropolis, Tomi stays with Noriko in her tiny one-roomed apartment, while Shūkichi goes out drinking with old friends, hoping one might put him up for the night.  That plan fails, as no one can put Shūkichi up for the night, though perhaps it was his own delicate sense of not having to ask, so he’s actually brought to Shige’s home by the police in the middle of the night dead drunk, along with a companion, receiving an earful from Shige about his bad habits, spewing anger and disappointment.  Much of the film revolves around the disparity between life as it is and the characters’ expectations of it, where the children always accomplish less than the parents expect, while the children’s devotion is less than admirable.  Aging brings about loneliness rather than satisfaction, while the children are allured by tantalizing changes brought about by Westernization.  Moments of kindness appear effortless, and happen all too infrequently, but they are appreciated with a great sense of awareness and dignity by this elderly couple, yet sensing they are a burden, they decide to cut their visit short and return home, but the grandmother falls critically ill.  A telegram to each child communicates the urgency and they all rush to her bedside, one son too late, but the others are there as she dies peacefully in the night.  While initially grief-stricken, the children quickly return to their normal lives, with only Noriko staying behind.  It’s important to note that Setsuka Hara’s Noriko is seen only sparingly early on, as the parents are bandied about from child to child, yet she is held aside, becoming the heart and soul of the film near the end, saved for specific moments of intense contemplation that are built into the film, written, apparently, solely for her.  Revered novelist Shūsaku Endō said of her, “Can it be possible that there is such a woman in this world?”  An actress of extraordinary restraint, unfailingly honest with her emotions, including excruciatingly personal scenes with Tomi, Shūkichi, and finally their daughter Kyōko, these scenes resonate long afterwards, etched into our perception of family, and become the poetic essence of the film. 

The concluding segment of the Noriko Trilogy, following Late Spring (Banshun) (1949) and Early Summer (Bakushû) (1951), a film described by Ozu about “how the Japanese family system has begun to come apart,” it instantly received critical success in Japan when it was released, though first drew attention in the West as the first recipient of the British Film Institute Sutherland Trophy in 1958 for “the maker of the most original and imaginative film,” the only time his work was seen overseas while Ozu was still alive, though appreciation for the film didn’t really take hold until after his death in 1963 when it was paraded at various festivals, including an Ozu retrospective at the Berlin Film Festival.  While works of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi were already distributed worldwide, Ozu’s films were not, a decision made by his distributor Shochiku, as company president Shiro Kido thought Ozu’s works “would not be understood by foreigners.”  The first public screening in America took place in 1964 at the Museum of Modern Art, part of a package of six Ozu films, however the film didn’t receive a proper commercial release until nearly two decades later in 1972, revealing an Ozu habit of borrowing from American films since the 1930’s.  While many point to the fact that the origins of the film is Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937), which co-writer Kōgo Noda had seen, writing in his diary that the writing took 103 days and 43 bottles of sake, but there’s a vast difference between the tearful Hollywood direction of McCarey, who mostly wrote screwball comedies, and that of Ozu, whose position in the pantheon of directors in Japan and the West is unmatched.  Both films are about sibling self-centeredness and parental disillusionment, but Ozu reworked the film by de-emphasizing the plot, preferring instead a minimalist approach while changing the ending, accentuating the cultural and emotional differences by altering the American perspective from the Great Depression to the postwar Japanese recovery, as Japanese sovereignty was reclaimed in 1952, joining the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, with its American-crafted constitution creating a more democratic state.  Rarely has a film been so immersed in the specifics of period and setting, so thoroughly pervaded by the culture from which it was produced, yet universally beloved and acclaimed, as Ozu’s insight into the break-up of the traditional extended family is directly influenced by postwar changes, increased urbanization and industrialization, viewed as the Westernization of Japan, where work becomes the overriding factor in the lives of individuals who no longer have time for family.  Shige, in particular, seems to hold her parents in a low regard, not wanting to spend much money on them, criticizing her husband for buying their favorite cakes instead of crackers, which they were served the night before, instead finding ways to be economical, while never rearranging her schedule for the family visit, which was planned ahead of time, expressing a rude sense of ingratitude.  Perhaps most egregious, when her parents return home while she’s servicing a customer, she describes them as friends from the country, showing complete disdain for who they are.  Curiously, key scenes take place off camera, only hearing about it through bits of dialogue, as we never see the visit to Keizō in Osaka, and Tomi’s illness rapidly develops offscreen as well, as she’s in a coma by the time we see her at home again, yet what may be most intriguing are the transitional shots of trains passing, boats chugging along the waterways, or still images of Buddhist shrines, as Ozu builds into his films moments of quiet reflection, poetically connecting the modernist approach of the film to its ancient past.  Setsuko Hara plays the considerate daughter-in-law who always places the grandparent’s concerns above her own, who is trapped in her world of showing kindness to others, but is honest enough to know her limitations are keeping her lonely, still grieving for a man who has been dead for nearly a decade.  In the stunning final dialogue, one of the most famous scenes in all of Ozu’s works, younger daughter Kyōko, a local school teacher, who still lives with her parents, is appalled at the rudeness and self-centered behavior of her older siblings who can’t rush home fast enough after their mother’s death, denouncing their selfishness, yet Noriko strikes a more conciliatory tone, suggesting this is inevitable, because as children age they have to look after their own lives, with Kyōko pondering, “Isn’t life disappointing?”  Noriko answers, quite simply, “Yes, it is.”  The title of the film suggests the city itself, with its sprawling landscape and furious drive to get ahead, may actually shape the temperament of the older siblings living there, who may be viewed as failures, as they don’t live up to expectations, yet each day they strive nonetheless, caught up in the rat race.  It’s Noriko who strikes a different tone, deferential throughout to the family, acknowledged and appreciated by Shūkichi, who thanks her for her honesty and her gracious hospitality that his own children failed to provide.  Noriko deflects praise, however, filled with remorse and self-recrimination, claiming she has not been the dutiful widow, describing herself as selfish, living a life of loneliness and uncertainty.  But Shūkichi, a wise sage, equally modest and self-reflective, knows better and couldn’t be prouder, realizing just how cherished she is, particularly in comparison with the flaws and disappointments of his own children, gifting her with a watch that belonged to his wife.  What elevates this material is that even virtuous people are clear-sighted about their own shortcomings.     

One constant factor throughout this film is the oppressive heat, not to mention humidity, with characters continually fanning themselves, never experiencing any sense of relief, which suggests just how hot it can be during the summer in subtropical Tokyo.  The other, particularly when viewed from the perspective of an aging couple, is there never seems to be any difficulty sitting on the floor, or getting up from the floor, a nagging problem for the elderly who are besieged by a variety of bone deterioration and arthritic ailments that make this kind of thing problematic.  Not so in Ozu films, where characters rarely sit in chairs.  Like most Ozu films, it’s the accumulation of small details that makes the film resoundingly human, never milking scenes for their overwrought emotions, where the insensitivity of the children is developed gradually through trivial incidents and small remarks, like Shige and Kōichi heard remarking that sukiyaki is good enough for their parents, and that they don’t need to splurge on sashimi.  Despite the fact this is a special occasion, as the grandparents rarely visit, the emphasis is on frugality.  On the other hand, what’s immediately noticeable to the aging couple’s arrival to Tokyo are those ugly industrial smokestacks spewing out a cloud of black soot into the air, an unwelcome sight to any new arrivals, so they resign themselves that things will be different, capturing the solitude and loneliness experienced by the old couple, including a shot of Shūkichi sitting alone slowly fanning himself, staring out in the distance in a moment of sad resignation.  In stark contrast, when Tomi spends the night with Noriko, we are immediately taken by the degree of affection shown, with Noriko massaging Tomi’s shoulders, and the heartfelt conversation that follows, where a mutual compassion is demonstrated, with Noriko exhibiting acts of kindness that truly touch Tomi.  Ozu accentuates this moment of intimacy with a rare close-up on Noriko’s face, showing a slight tear, demonstrating sympathy.  Meanwhile, Shūkichi’s drinking with old friends reveal some startling confessions from these fathers about a dissatisfaction with their children, actually blaming the explosive size of Tokyo, claiming there are too many people, suggesting it’s easy to get isolated and distanced from their neighbors, losing that communal spirit, instead thinking only of themselves.  One of the most dramatic scenes of the film is Tomi’s funeral, with Shūkichi and his children all formally sitting in a row, finally in harmony, all experiencing the same loss, with their own individual sense of regret, as we hear the solemn drumbeat of Buddhist prayers.  In the way this scene is shot by Yūharu Atsuta (an assistant cameraman for 6 years, then Ozu’s primary cinematographer for 25 years from 1937 to 1962, never working with anyone else after Ozu died) there isn’t a hint of asymmetry or disharmony.  Yet in the middle of the ceremony, Keizō suddenly leaves the main hall and finds a place to sit outside, where the sea can be seen off in the distance.  Noriko follows to check on him, with Keizō acknowledging the sound of the drum gave him the impression that his mother was gradually diminishing, openly regretting that he wasn’t a better son.  Yet what follows is equally remarkable, with the family sharing memories of Tomi at a restaurant near the ocean, still the moment Shūkichi excuses himself from the table, first Shige, then Kōichi, followed by Keizō all express their selfish intent to leave as quickly as possible, with only Noriko agreeing to stay behind.  Ozu frequently returns to shots of the ocean, tranquil, serene, a transcendent force of nature that stands in stark contrast to the squalid petty discord of the three children.  Shige even has the audacity to demand personal mementos and even her mother’s favorite kimono immediately after the funeral, something that really draws the ire of Kyōko, expressed to Noriko after they’ve all left, claiming that was openly shameless and disrespectful of her father.  While not necessarily defending them, Noriko is more forgiving, which only accentuates an acceptance of the crude reality of the progression of time.  Compassion is a hidden key, anticipating the deeply felt sympathy between a father and daughter-in-law, with Ozu preparing viewers for an especially intimate climactic affinity, where Shūkichi empathizes with her in the deepest possible sense, which momentarily shames Noriko, thinking she is undeserving, but Shūkichi insists she is, simply a spectacular moment of profound intimacy that defines why this film is so dramatically impactful.  While spoken in a matter-of-fact manner, with Chishū Ryū deserving praise for his authenticity, he acknowledges that her demonstrated kindness during their visit exceeded that of all his other children, expressing how much this meant to his wife, where his heartfelt gratitude is directly communicated.  It’s a rare moment that may explain why actress Setsuka Hara had such a close personal relationship with this director.  Like Ozu, she never married, but when Ozu died in 1963, she retired from acting shortly afterwards, perhaps in honor of his memory, preferring to lead the solitary life of a recluse. 

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