Yasujirô Ozu would have been 110 years old today. He was born and died on different December the 11th’s, the latter 60 years on from the former. In a career that spanned from the silent age through to the 1960’s Ozu helped to define the form at it’s most fundamental level.
In honour of Ozu’s anniversary please find reprinted below ‘Yasujirô’s Odyssey’, an essay on Tokyo Story we ran upon the announcement that the film had been topped the directors’ best film list in last year’s Sight & Sound poll.
Yasujirô’s Odyssey – On Tokyo Story
Saitō’s beautiful and iconic opening overture is one of the few genuinely extravagant elements of Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story, with the soaring piece of music almost at odds with the restrained nature of the rest of the film. With that in mind, the few glimpses of the outside world, one of which the picture opens on, do hint at an extravagant, modern space, again at odds with the physical image of the films protagonists Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, both elderly and on their knees when the audience is first introduced to them. Youth and movement are represented by the trains that pass by the Hirayama household, and by the communication cabling that fills much of the skyline surrounding the theoretically backwards town of Onomichi, the geographical polar opposite to our eventual destination of Tokyo city. Tokyo is home to the Hirayama’s children, who have their own lives and little time for their parents. As the pair travel to Tokyo to visit their children the nature of the familiar relationship in a post-World War Two Japan is laid bare.
There’s no wit lost in the use of trains and wiring in the landscape of the modern Japan. Both are lines, and lines heading somewhere, unlike the lines that form the squares that make up much of Ozu’s compositions. A remarkable depth comes with the layering of such linear shapes, the geometrically inclined nature of it all proving immensely cinematic: The world in front of the camera feels like an extension of the 1.37 : 1 lens employed by Ozu to tell his tale. The compartmentalised nature of the locations (usually homes, but occasionally shops, hotels or businesses) means that the whole picture plays out like an encapsulated space or place. It feels fluid and real, but wholly cinematic too. The 180-degree line, something synonymous with the post-1915 cinema, and especially that of the Western world, is flipped on it’s head and reversed with liberal wanton, while stairs are seemingly absent in Ozu’s Tokyo. While time itself may not be the victim of constriction, almost every other dimension is privy to pitch-perfect control.
“Restraint” is a word that rears its head quite often when Ozu’s direction is under discussion. Tokyo Story contains very little camera movement. The most viscerally stimulating sequence in the entire film involves a young boy in motion, yet it’s the scenario that moves, not the camera, as the child spins in his chair, in protest at the controlled nature of his own situation (the boy has to give up his own space so that his parents can house his grandparents). This restraint, both aesthetically and emotionally, is endemic of the social protocol of the nation in which the work was produced. The employment of his trademark camera position, the side-on seated figure, is the ideal physical manifestation of a society in which even that most closely knit social grouping, the family, greet one another with formalities that may seem alien to those of us from outside such a setting. As the figures turns from towards one another, their bodies facing another direction entirely, they in turn address the camera and the immediacy of the movement is clear, and says more about the relationship between the people than any amount of aural or written explanation ever could.
The films key dramatic moment revolves around the literal separation of the core protagonists, with Shukichi and Tomi having decided that together they form too great a burden for their increasingly busy offspring. Once the elderly pair find themselves separated from one another the film enters its most interesting and emotionally devastating phase. The sight of Tomi, the matriarch of the family playing with a young child reminds of the scope of the familiar situation, her story playing out to a temporally backdrop that a more romantic writer might deem as “timeless”, whereas the masculine equivalent, the tale of Shukichi takes place in a space firmly of the modern, with the sight and sound of trains and automobiles filling the background. As the latter heads out on a booze-filled adventure, the likes of which represent youth-filled hardy like nothing else, note how the conversation shifts generations in single beats: from cherry blossoms to pinball in a matter of seconds, the dialogue indicating that the advertised woes of each men might not be as severe or dramatic as feared.
In a similar fashion Ozu uses straightforward editing to indicate changes in locale. A single cut from the sea to a factory setting indicates the films great (in both distance and tonality) geographical movement from the small town that the film opens in to the titular, eventual megacity. That the return journey, is portrayed in such a different manner is important, and is indicative of the way in which the subtle dramatic escalation of the piece works. The scale of the journey, and indeed the country in which the film takes place and the time in which the whole thing is unfolding is fully revealed in the films final act, with the communication chaos that comes with the attempts to notify the family that Tomi is critically ill. The emotional struggle of the film is made literal, and acted out dramatically. The scope and scale of everything once solely the domain of the internal and personal plays out for all to see, and how appropriate it is that those damned communication cables that have been blighting the composition of the frame that’s to blame all along? At one point Tomi asks “Is Tokyo vast?” and yet we never see it. A wall blocks the view of the camera in that particular sequence, while a bus-ride tour takes place solely from inside the tour-bus, our only gauge for the world outside being the expressions on the faces of those enjoying the sights. The relationship between the viewer and Ozu’s Tokyo becomes a neat analogy for the relationship between the family members whose story is playing out across the vast city.
While it’s the films closing retort (“Isn’t life disappointing?”) that has entered the film lexicon, it is a much more subtle exchange made earlier in the film that strikes most deeply, with one of our protagonists attempts to explain the selfish behavior of their children with the excusatory declaration of “Of course we have, we’re a couple of old folks now“. It’s in these moments of contextual freewheeling that Ozu reveals his true hand: while the film is perhaps most celebrated for it’s emotional restraint, it’s in these releases of passion that it affects the most. When it rains, it falls, and when it falls it does so only after the guard of those enraptured by it has done so too.