Taking the Sixties out of Tokyo Monogatari

Edan Corkill

When Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953) was shown in several overseas festivals in the 1960s, a love for the director's handiwork became like a badge of honor for those Western film aficionados riding the New Wave. This was partly because the films were thought to be unprecedentedly "slow" - so slow, in fact, that among devotees of the then-dominant auteur theory, the ability to "enjoy" them served as proof of dedication to the director-as-artist creed. Add to that the perceived "Japaneseness" of Ozu's subject matter and you had the perfect filmic complement to the "Book of Tea"-inspired Japan boom that was sweeping Europe and the United States at the time.

These days, of course, both the '60s Japan boom and the auteur movement are long gone. But has Ozu's reputation recovered from their influence? Probably not, and hence it is worthwhile explaining why Tokyo Monogatari, in particular, is neither as "slow" nor as "Japanese" as it has always been thought to be.

Ozu has a well-documented distaste for onscreen movement. In Tokyo Monogatari he doesn't dolly or crane, he pans only sparingly, and the fastest things he allows in his frame (beside from the occasional "curtain shot" of a train in motion) are gently waving, handheld fans. But, he does make some surprisingly dramatic - disorienting even - cuts, and while they alone don't justify calling the film "fast," they provide a certain briskness.

Tokyo Monogatari is the tale of an old couple (played by Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) visiting the families of their sons and daughter in Tokyo. Editing-wise everything is orderly until it becomes clear that the couple's Tokyo offspring - each with their own successful businesses and families in buzzing postwar Tokyo - have no time for their parents. Let down by their eldest son, who pulls out of a planned sightseeing trip out at the last minute, the old couple retire to a room in his house. That's all easy enough to follow, but one cut later and they're suddenly relaxing at the house of their daughter - having apparently been shunted on. Next thing we know the daughter is suggesting to her brother that they send their parents to the nearby beach resort of Atami. One cut later and the old couple are looking at the ocean. It is brisk and disorienting, but constructively so - Ozu masterfully leads his audience through the same whirlwind of sights that the elderly couple experience. The result? It becomes abundantly clear that in this noisy metropolis there is no place for them.

Ultimately, the only person who treats the old couple with any kindness is the widow of their second son, who died eight years earlier in the war. Played by Setsuko Hara, the character's devotion to her parents-in-law has been interpreted overseas as representing "traditional" Japanese respect for the family - in contrast with the "modern" selfishness of the couple's other offspring. But this interpretation is simplistic if not mistaken. At one point the character breaks down telling her father-in-law that there are days when she doesn't remember his son. In an oddly uncomfortable moment - when it seems her frustrated affections might latch on to the father - it becomes clear that Ozu sees her not as an honorable upholder of tradition, but as a character as complicated and ultimately as self-serving (if not selfish) as the others. Her "kindness" is motivated by a desperate desire to regain anything - a scrap of memory, or perhaps a semblance in another face - of her long lost husband. Those emotions are neither peculiarly traditional nor peculiarly Japanese - they're as universal as any, and that's the real reason why Ozu remains as relevant overseas as he does in his own country and as engaging now as he was four decades ago.

Tokyo monogatari

Director :Yasujiro Ozu
Producer :Takeshi Yamamoto
Writing :Kôgo Nodo, Yasujiro Ozu
Cinematography :Yuuharu Atsuta
Production Design :Tatsuo Hamada
Costume Design :Taizo Saito
Film Editing :Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Original Music :Takanobu Saitô
Cast :Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Sô Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyôko Kagawa, Eijirô Tono, Nobuo Nakamura, Shirô Osaka and others

1953/JAPAN/136min./Black and White/1 : 1.37/Mono/Shochiku Kinema Kenkyû-jo