Sunday, January 07, 2007

Tokyo Story


by Ryland Walker Knight

The everyday banality distances the viewer, at first, in Yasujiro Ozu's 01953 TOKYO STORY but its purity of expression, its contemplative rhythms and its observations culminate in an ending that evokes the best of Anton Chekhov & Andre Dubus: you learn how to live. Were we all so selfless as Setsuko Hara's Norika, we (humans) would, to say it simply, be better. Norika has the highest of standards for herself but she can see virtue in what we viewers, along with Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), are inclined to dismiss as selfish in Shige (Haruko Sugimura); but its Shige who cries first, remember. Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) & Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) are proud of their children in the end despite the Tokyo-bustle pre-occupations that keep Shige and Koichi (So Yamamura) busy because they are successful and there is a time when children outgrow their parents' embrace. However, this purity is at a remove from the audience by virtue of Ozu's static camera, empty frames and deliberate arrhythmia. That we can reach any emotional plateau is remarkable, nigh miraculous, and as such, it's this heart-felt and honest humanity that inspires such claims. The ascethetic framework (& a stark DVD transfer), however, can misdirect an audience into resisting how nimbly the narrative moves. This is a gentle film. And it moves great distances (albeit from one tatami mat to another (the film's opening and closing titles appear over a thatched grid akin to such floorings)) in the blink of an eye. Women cry -- and suddenly -- but it's the howl of a train and the groan of a tugboat that moved me the most as the film closed. So happy to have found this treasure at last: thank you, Dad, it's a great Christmas present. Life may be disappointing but when we can find ourselves this transported-transformed-transcended with the stuff cloudy days (not dreams) are made of, there's a light shining on the water.

01953: 136 minutes: dir. by Yasujiro Ozu: written by Ozu & Kôgo Nodo

[Thanks to Harry Tuttle and Unspoken Cinema for including me in their Contemplative Cinema Blogathon.]


  1. Ah, this is a good Christmas present. Ozu does so much to make the viewer feel at peace that it requires little effort at all to sit back and watch this one unfold.

    And I, too, was smitten with Norika even though, well, she's not really my type. Setsuko Hara was considered the Greta Garbo of Japan for good reasons, no doubt.

    Something that struck me about this film is the scene at the lake, on the causeway. It's this moment that is over almost before it has begun -- not something that can be said of many moments in this film, right? and it's just the parents, and the only time that they're really alone together. There's a humorous undercurrent to the setting -- like they almost had to come to the middle of a causeway for some sanctuary when they were really looking to be social; and, at the same time, it signals the change of the film's tone and progression so demurely.

  2. Thanks for commenting. It is my first Ozu film, actually. I don't know how I've avoided his work for so long; in the face of a personal recommendation from Paul Schrader, no less. I've tackled Bresson (to a point) so Ozu is next and then I'll work my way to Dreyer, I hope. There's so much to watch with such little time. Especially when the internet is such a diversionary opiate.

    LATE SPRING will be near the top of my Netflix Q once I sign up again.

  3. This was my first intro to Ozu as well, a good one, I'd say. this a film journal? I feel a little silly asking, but looking at the "recent posts" lists, it's hard to tell.

  4. Yasujiro Ozu is my favorite director (albeit with Mikio Naruse only a tiny bit behind) and Tokyo Story is my favorite film of all time (at least as an "honorary" matter). But the more I watch it, the more I see its humor and roughness. This starts out as a domestic comedy (and is, at times, rather raucously comic) and moves into more somber territory only slowly and gradually. And even at points of solemnity, glints of humor may show up.

    Peacefulness is not (at least not any more) the main feeling I take from this film (or from most Ozu films), there is an awful lot of underlying uneasiness and tension -- and not much of the supposed "serene acceptance" Western critics credit Ozu with so often.

  5. Johanna: most of the time, yes, this is my personal space to reflect on movies I've watched recently. But my friend Mike writes about music sporadically and Steven Boone offers some thoughts on movies when he has time and the other stevie has graced this site just once with his musings but plans to return with a post about a recent adventure in Turkey. So yes and no. My goal is to get everybody to write more often on as many topics as they want.

    Michael: I didn't mention the humor because when I shut off the movie I was mostly devestated by the final scenes. But yes, there is a lot of humor, uneasy and fragile and spontaneous. I'm sure further viewings will yeild more laughs. And now that I own the thing...

  6. Thanks. Just wanted to know before I added you to the blogroll. (Sometimes what looks like a film journal turns into a weekly treatise on smelly socks...yes, that really happened.)

    Now that Michael mentions it, I wonder how much of the humor taking time to reveal itself is a function of not knowing enough about Japanese culture and feeling a sense of distance from that. In the end, we're all people, and Ozu's wonderful at bringing that out in subtle ways.

  7. I first encountered Tokyo Story in mid-2000 (courtesy of the rather ratty New Yorker video). Since then, I have seen it screened -- and watched various VCD and DVD versions. Consequently, I must have watched this at least 10 times by now. I must confess -- I also did NOT get most of the humor in Ozu's and Naruse's films when I first encountered their work (except for Ozu's Good Morning -- where the broad humor is impossible to miss).

    It took a bit of time to rinse my brain of the notion of "the transcendental Ozu" -- but I have enjoyed his work all the more since doing this.

    Early Summer, btw, is an absolutely wonderful film -- and it has one of my very favorite Ozu scenes (involving Setsuko Hara and a funny but very loveable Haruko Sugimura).

    One advantage of all of Ozu's many great films is their inexhaustibility. Each watching yields new discoveries and pleasures.

  8. Tokyo Story is indeed a lovely film. My own favourite Ozu movies are Early Summer, End of Summer and An Autumn Afternoon.
    And then of course there is the sublime Setsuko Hara.
    Another great Asian director whose work I love is Hou Hsiao Hsien. His recent film Three Times is great.

  9. Very nice post, Ryland. As heartwarming and subtle as Ozu is, I agree with Michael Kerpan that there is a roughness to him. I’m thinking, in particular, of the scene where the father (Chishu Ryu) is out drinking with his old friends and talking about how all children disappoint their parents. He seems resigned to the fact that he is fortunate his own children are not worse than they are. Somehow, Ozu expresses this hollow disappointment in a manner that is not bitter or resentful. Also, in portraying the selfishness of the daughter-in-law (Haruko Sugimura), an American director would have opted for the exposé method (ie: uncovering the secret truth of the “American Dream” or the reality of the American family ala Arthur Miller) but Ozu does so in a matter of fact way this is truly refreshing. He doesn’t vilify or criticize her. About the only idealized character in his later films is Setsuko Hara.

    Anyway, I look forward to your take on Early Spring.

  10. > About the only idealized
    > character in his later films
    > is Setsuko Hara.

    Have you seen Tokyo Twilight? ;~}

    Even in films where her character is nicer, Hara is not really idolized. For instance, as one re-watches Tokyo Story, one realizes that her self-criticism is actually quite accurate (even if it does not tell the whole story).

  11. Thank you all for the thoughts, advice, personal takes. This was written after one viewing (a little hastily) so it may not address all that's going on for that very reason. I want to re-iterate that I did find the humor in the picture and acknowledge that there is a roughness to Ozu's aesthetic: without the rough edges to the characters, the ending would not play as powerfully, obviously. But still, the roughness feels blunted by the warmth of the performances of the parents -- and the conclusion. It may be rough but it offers a refreshing gentility as well, inside that rigid framework.

    Jeffrey: Your thoughts on how Shige is presented & portrayed are spot-on. She's more compelling a character that way as you can see she really does love her parents. It's a pragmatic approach I already see traces of in relating to my parents. For all the worthy craft and care in something like MAGNOLIA, it's still a fairy tale in terms of honest emotional portrayals on film (Tom Cruise looked ready to explode SCANNERS style at Papa Robards' bedside). But I still love the fairy tale aspects and the frogs are a master stroke that trumps the earthquake from SHORT CUTS -- it's a much more cathartic, and, well, transcendent linking device. Plus, I dig biblical shit...

    Peter: I almost bought THREE TIMES today but held back because I haven't seen it. Although, two people I really trust told me it's one of the best things they've seen in 02006 (as well as more than a few critics I trust). The only Hou I've seen so far is GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE. It's pretty good but nothing really hit me like the first shot from the rear of the train and the final car wreck. I was really tired so I didn't watch it again but in the middle I wasn't ready to put that kind of effort into the picture. I also hear MILLENIUM MAMBO is a good entry point for him.

    Michael: That idea of Setsuko Hara's self-critique being accurate struck me right away and I didn't quite relate that in the post. It's that kind of introspection we rarely see, in life as well as movies. I meant it: we need to offer ourselves more. This can't cure all that ails us -- and it's damn dewey eyed idealism -- but it's a hope I'll cling to because it can help repair, at least on an interpersonal level.

  12. Sadly, my Ozu watching is confined primarily to what is available on VHS and DVD. So I'm thinking mainly of Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story (basically, whenever her character is named Noriko). I wouldn't say she's faultless - certainly in Early Summer and Late Spring she is very stubborn and resistant to getting married. I'd say her self-criticism and humility are both Japanese ideals (at least back in the 40s and 50s when Setsuko was a leading role model for women)- plus, her infinite kindness is close to angelic. But you are right, her characters are more than simple ideals.

    I once read, probably in Donald Richie's Ozu that the director tended to get tongue-tied and bashful around Setsuko Hara and his friends would tease him about it. Not that that has anything to do with her characters in his films.

  13. For those who can play Region 3 DVDs, Panorama (in Hong Kong) has been releasing many of the films ignored (so far) by Criterion -- including some of his wonderful 1930s films. These are inexpensive -- and adequately subtitled. (Some of the later films have problems -- including Autumn Afternoon unfortunately. While others -- like Equinox Flower and Late Autumn are quite decent).

    Haruko Sugimura (Shige) was a wonderful actress -- more famed for her stage work (she was the first -- and still most renowned -- Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire.

    Tokyo Story definitely affected my personal life. When my parents came to visit after I first saw this, you can bet I took off plenty of time from work to take them sightseeing.

    The interesting thing about Ozu's actors performances -- they only LOOK natural. In fact, every gesture (even the tiniest) was controlled by Ozu.

    Setsuko Hara is my favorite actress -- and she is equally wonderful in Naruse (Repast and Sound of the Mountain and Kurosawa (No Regrets for Our Youth and Idiot). Her work for Kinoshita is much less distinctive (not surprisingly). Of course, I love Kinuyo Tanaka and Hideko Takamine almost as much.

    Millennium Mambo is a wonderful film -- possibly my favorite by HHH. His Cafe Lumiere is also wonderful -- and probably his most "comtempative" (in Harry Tuttle's use of the term).

  14. Hi Ryland,
    I would certainly recommend buying Three Times. It is a beautiful film about time and memory. I bought it myself, after seeing the film on the big screen. My favourite Hou is probably The Time to Live and The Time to Die.
    I recently watched Takeshi Kitano's Hana-b again. I like it a lot.
    By the way, where does that aphorism at the top of the web page come from:"Open your eyes, your ears, your nostrils: the weight is over." I like it.

  15. Peter: Thanks. Just me tryna talk purty. It's also kind of a pun, given the name of the blog and all...

  16. Glad you liked Tokyo Story, Ryland. Ozu's humor is a very important part of his work, I think, one that tends to get ignored by his admirers and imitators (Jarmusch excepted). Bresson suffers from that too, I think. I'm anxious to read the Schrader book, as "transcendence" is far from how I think of Ozu. Instead, I see a unmatched warmth, empathy and fully terrestrial humanism.

    Café Lumière, of course, is HHH's tribute to Ozu, shot in Japan as part of what was supposed to be a three director tribute to his 100th birthday (the other two films never happened). Where's Hou's camera wanders seemingly aimlessly along a fixed plane in all his other recent films, in Café Lumière it doesn't move at all.

  17. I will always be grateful to David Bordwell for teaching me (through his book) how to transcend (and set aside) the whole notion of the "transcendental Ozu". Schrader may well love the films of Ozu -- but his conception of Ozu excludes almost every aspect of what I find most appealing about Ozu.

  18. Ozu reminds me of that other great film director, Mike Leigh, whose films also explore the infinite richness and complexity of so-called ordinary life, in a very non-transcendental way.

  19. Tokyo Story and Ozu is probably a major influence of the emmergence of the "contemplative" generation, so thank you for contributing to the blogathon. I even added it to the chronology. The film is definitely all about pace and stretching time for a pause of visual pleasure.
    I second the encouragement to discover other Ozu films. ;)

    The discussion here about the transcendental and the non-transcendental is really interesting. The concreteness and matter-of-fact of a contemplative film, is not necessarily transcending a superior meaning, or reaching toward existentialism. The everyday life treatment is often very immediate, superficial (non-intellectual), and just true to life.

  20. I wish the work of Ozu's great contemporary Hiroshi Shimizu was available on DVD (and with subtitles). His work anticipates Kiarostami's work to a remarkable extent. One of my favorites, Arigato-san (Mr. Thank You) is largely shot inside a mini-bus traveling its ordinary daily route (with a few brief scenes shot right outside the bus), following the comings and goings of the passengers. Another film (Star Athlete) simply follows a cross-country hike by college students who will soon be entering military service. My favorite, Ornamental Hairpin, just shows people spending a couple of weeks at an ordinary hot spring spa -- with no particular plot to speak of.

    Naruse (among others) was influenced by Shimizu. One of his most lovely unknown films, Spring Awakens, follows the life of a young girl (future star Yoshiko Kuga -- at age 16 or so) as she makes her way through her last year of high school. No "drama" at all -- just the ordinary experiences of teen-age life.

  21. One of the best films I saw recently was Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu. It is a good example of a very honest film that stays close to unfabricated life and reality.

  22. I don't have a whole lot to add to the discussion here, but: from your original post, Ryland, "the howl of a train and the groan of a tugboat that moved me the most as the film closed" is a great way of describing specifically how Ozu diffuses the emotional content of his work across the image/sound spectrum. (Trains are an important peripheral trope in Ozu's cinema, too.) My own favorite Ozu is Late Spring.

    And I'll second Michael Kerpan's recommendation of Hiroshi Shimizu's Arigato-san. I wish I hadn't missed the few other films of his that screened in NYC a while back.

  23. Ry,

    I love TOKYO STORY, but I'm in love with LATE SPRING. The latter will simply destroy you. (overselling? prolly.)

    Lovely piece, man.

  24. Hey Ry,

    Interesting thread in response to your post. Before I bought Tokyo Story as your Christmas present, I had only seen it twice, and that was in the past 12 months. So you're way ahead of me. I love how many of your friends see the humor and 'roughness' in Ozu. A good counter argument to the Paul Schrader theory of 'transcendental style' which vastly oversimplifies Ozu's work. Have you seen "Junebug" yet? This contemporary tribute to Ozu, shot in the American South, is what lured me to the master.