Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”: The Poetry of Everyday Life

After the close of World War II, the west discovered the charms of Japanese cinema. The hero of the era was the great Akira Kurosawa, whose lively blood-and-guts productions, like Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), meshed well with western sensibilities. In Kurosawa’s swashbuckling screen epics, Toshiro Mifune became an international star. It’s not surprising to learn that Kurosawa’s formative influence was American westerns. No wonder fans of the classic American action flick revere the Japanese master whose Seven Samurai (1954) was the source material for The Magnificent Seven.

Then there was Yasujiro Ozu, whose fifty-odd films were less prone to capture the imagination of western viewers. Ozu’s spare style and avoidance of on-screen theatrics give his movies a Zen-like simplicity that lacks obvious audience appeal. Yet film-lovers worldwide have discovered Ozu, seeing in his intensely Japanese subject matter a universality that is unexpected but profound.

Tokyo Story (1953) is Ozu’s acknowledged masterpiece. At first it’s not entirely obvious why this modest story is held in such high esteem, but a serious filmgoer who doesn’t expect fireworks is soon drawn into its orbit. The plot is simplicity itself:  a long-married couple from the old seaside town of Onomichi travel to visit their married children in Tokyo. The children are not overtly unkind to their elderly parents, but their busy lives (as a doctor, as the owner of a hair salon) keep getting in the way, and it’s soon decided to pack the old couple off to a spa where rowdy fellow guests make their stay miserable. Only the widow of their second son, killed in World War II, interrupts her daily obligations to make time for them, for which they are genuinely grateful. The portrait of old age is touching (even though we discover they’re only in their sixties – yikes!), and we commiserate fully with them in gratitude for any scrap of kindness. There’s a melancholy ending to the story, which reinforces our sense of the passage of time and the evolution of family relationships. The characters may be Japanese to the core, but their situation is familiar, I think, to us all.

In keeping with his reputation as the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers, Ozu’s film makes profound use of the sense of place. Though there’s little room (or budget, I suspect) for aesthetic flourishes, we quickly see the difference between little Onomichi (in Hiroshima prefecture) and the big metropolis. Onomichi is visually represented by traditional tile roofs, a quaint Buddhist temple, and a small boat plying its way across the local waters.. Every time the scene shifts to Tokyo, the screen is assaulted by belching smokestacks. The couple’s children, who wear western dress instead of traditional kimono, live in tightly packed urban dwellings, unfolding their futons every night. and packing them up in the morning to make for living space, however cramped.. Ozu favors a low-angle camera that barely moves, and his straight-on capturing of the life that goes on in and around shoji screens makes Japanese home architecture seem much like a stage set.

 I learned to speak Japanese during my college years, and used it daily when I worked at Expo ’70 in Osaka. Tokyo Story made me profoundly nostalgic for Japanese linguistic formality and regional accents. Though any thoughtful person can appreciate this film, I feel lucky that the cultural nuances on screen (which doubtless would seem profoundly dated to a modern Japanese) did not pass me by. Moreover, I’ll long cherish the film’s depiction of the unstated but profound love between a pair who are no longer young.

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