Tokyo Story (U)
Recently displacing Citizen Kane as the critics’ choice as greatest film ever made, Tokyo Story is a very hard film to write about. Critics, when asked to account for why the film packs such an emotional punch, have fallen back on phrases such as ‘it’s true’, and ‘it’s just life’. But this begs the question what they might mean by ‘life’ or ‘truth’ in this context. And it’s a curious choice, too, in terms of cinematic technique. As we shall see Ozu allows himself a very limited range of filming techniques. So it’s rather like saying, to use a painting analogy that a Mondrian is ‘better’ than the Sistine Chapel.
Ozu’s style is highly rigorous and formalised. The camera is generally positioned just a few inches above the floor. There are no shots closer than a medium close up and no character is allowed to dominate in any one scene where two or more characters are present. Unlike in conventional cinema where the audience can understand the space created on screen by avoiding showing the ‘fourth wall’, Ozu shoots in one direction then straight back the other way, creating 360 degrees of on-screen space. This was much more radical during the Hollywood studio period that was just coming to an end when the film was made in the early ’50s. The camera very rarely moves. This inflexible formal style has a number of effects. For some people, to speak plainly, it’s boring – big fans of Baz Luhrmann are likely to be screaming ‘get on with it’ at the screen within the first twenty minutes. Without patience you’ll ‘miss’ Ozu. On the other hand it creates a sense of intimacy, peace, a quiet imposed on the audience that encourages us to feel like respectful guests in the households ‘we’ visit. Between these two feelings and hopefully creating a bridge between them it also enables a very ‘actorly’ cinema. Ozu used a reportory of actors again and again in his films and the style shows how complex, profound characterisation can be achieved through tiny gestures or slight changes in facial expressions.
First amongst those actors was Setsuko Hara who plays Noriko. Tokyo Story was the third of the Noriko Trilogy that had included ‘Late Spring’ and ‘Early Summer’. Noriko, a hugely popular figure in Japan at the time in each film is a woman without a husband, good, but suffering because of her goodness. In ‘Late Spring’ she cannot leave her beloved father. In ‘Tokyo Story’, she cannot forget her long dead husband. Independent-minded Noriko was a role model for many Japanese women in the ’50s and ’60s but as the film shows her attitudes leave her confused and lost. Ozu knows to live we must leave people behind. It is in the nature of things. Not to abandon people is to try to stop time.In one of only three camera movements in Tokyo Story we track slowly along a cemetery wall and then find sitting, metaphorically at the edge of mortality, the aging couple at the centre of the film.
Ozu had the Japanese word ‘mu’ inscribed on his headstone, ‘nothingness’. The seasons turn. We live, we die and if they’re sensible those that are left forget us and move on. Again and again Ozu shows us empty rooms both before the characters arrive and after they leave as if to say that they are just interruptions to the ongoing emptiness of those spaces. Being is just a blip on the horizon of nothingness. But, because of that, the films also call us to share with Noriko, the old couple, and surely Ozu himself, what the poet Wilfred Owen, in a very different context, called ‘the eternal reciprocity of tears’.
Yasujiro Ozu | Japan | 1953 | 136 minutes | U