Back when I watched and reviewed Mark Cousin’s Story Of Film (Review No.126) one directors work featured in that documentary struck me strongest. It was the work of a director I only had a passing knowledge of having never seen his work and only knowing him by name. I was unaware of his techniques and what it was that made his films great. I decided to research his methods and work and find a film that would be a good starting point. That director was Yasujiro Ozu and now I know just what is so great about the man and his work. Last night I watched Tokyo Story and I’m pretty sure I just added a new film to my top ten favourite films of all time.
Tokyo Story tells the, well, story of two elderly parents, Shukichi (Chisu Ryu) and Tomi Hirayama Chieko Higashiyama), from the South Western coastal town of Onomichi who have come to Tokyo and Osaka to visit their adult children. Whilst there they find that their children are living far too busy lives to spare any time for their parents. They’re not necessarily bad people, they just lack the kindness to make time for their parents. Their lack of familial kindness for their parents is juxtaposed with the genuine kindness and effort put in by their Daughter-In-Law Noriko (Japanese legend Satsuko Hara).
The story moves along in what many would describe as a slow fashion, the wiser film fan would call it calm. Ozu isn’t one for having characters get into arguments and to draw on melodrama to force the audience to feel a certain way. He instead purposefully will leave out certain events and deal instead with the relationships of the characters after the event. In one of his films (An Autumn Afternoon) he has the story move toward a wedding we never see. His films are so solidly focused on the family life and how people interact with a very natural tone for the era that he eschew all romanticism in favour of pure classical story-telling and film making. It’s really tough to sell a modern film fan on why this works so well, it just does. You will watch Tokyo Story and find yourself identifying with characters, being drawn in by their plights and disgusted by certain attitudes.
Part of the reason you can get so drawn in by Tokyo Story is just the basic method Ozu shoots his scenes. He places the camera at around 18 to 33 inches off the ground, a type of shot that has become known as the Tatami shot because of Ozu. When using shot-reverse-shot for conversations Ozu places the camera nearly entirely face on to the character talking rather than over the shoulders of the actors. A technique that places you, the audience member, directly in the middle of the conversation. He doesn’t actually use shot-reverse-shot as much as is common on film. He instead places the camera in a position and sticks with it, maybe occasionally committing the ultimate cinematographic crime of breaking the 180 degree rule. Ozu also nearly never moves the camera. As his career moved on he moved the camera less and less, Tokyo Story only has one camera movement which Roger Ebert described as being “more than usual”. Again, it’s tough to explain just how well this calmer style of film making works, you just have to see it.
Another technique I should discuss is one that I cannot ignore because it really is the work of a true auteur. Ozu very very rarely allows any character to break the edge of the film frame. By which I mean they almost never walk into or out of the edges of the frame. He achieves this a few ways, one being using his Tatami shot to maintain a wide angle on the shot capturing both the floors and the ceilings. If a character walks from one room to the next they will pass behind a wall or a door rather than walk out of the frame. I find this method of shooting fascinating. It requires such a large amount of planning, especially with a director that does not move his cameras, to make sure that each location is set up with this stylistic choice in mind. Another technique he uses has always been a favourite of mine but is almost never used in modern film making and that is the pillow shot. Instead of transitioning from one scene or location to the next directly or via an establishing shot Ozu will shot near static images rooms or objects. This gives his scenes time to breath. A pause before we continue with the story. It gives his films that calm rhythm that stamps them as truly his work.
As the story moves on we really begin to feel for the elderly couple and develop a bond with the character of Noriko. She is a centrepiece to the film and of Ozu’s career. The character of Noriko appears in multiple Ozu films, this being the third in his Noriko Trilogy along with previous works Late Spring and Early Summer. In each film Noriko is a 28 year old woman who, through different reasons, is currently unattached. She is the same person in each film but also different. Think of her as being a representation of the changing roles of women in Japan at that time. Here she is the Daughter-In-Law of the Hiriyama’s but is living alone as her husband, their second eldest son, had been lost to the war. When I say lost to the war that is literal. They don’t really know if he is still alive or not, all they know is that he never returned. She is asked a few times by both Shukichi and Tomi to move on and find a new man to share her life with. Clearly Noriko is still grieving the loss of her husband. Her grief is matched in size by her kindness. Despite not being a blood relative she is the only member of the Tokyo residential family members (They have another younger daughter who lives with them in Onomichi) who makes time for them. She asks for a day off work at the last minute to take them on a tour of Tokyo, she shares food and drink with them at her home when she has neither the money, or the food and drink (She borrows from a neighbour), to actually do so.
In contrast to this Shukichi and Tomi’s children send them to a hotel with a hot springs to get their parents out of the way for a few days. The hotel is noisy and they cannot sleep. As a result they decide to head back home after spending a night apart. Shukichi heads to stay with an old family friend and returns to drinking, something he had gave up in the past. Whilst Tomi finds herself staying with Noriko.
What really gives this film resonance is just how much of the familial relationship can be seen in our own lives. I’m sure at some point most of you have found yourself either not having time for a family member or maybe making time for a friend that is currently being neglected by their own family. What makes this film work even more is the fact that most of us are aware of just how much the Japanese revere their elders, especially in the rural areas. Tokyo Story was made in 1953 and even then Ozu was seeing the breakdown of the Japanese family unit due to the increase in convenience of living brought in by the Western influence and the busy life of the city.
The film has a sting in it’s tale for the films final half hour and it allows the story to really strike home. I don’t wish to spoil it but for me it managed to really hit home some personal feelings I have had about close family. Regrets for time not spent and whatnot. I think Tokyo Story may not be a film for everyone but I believe that at some point in everyone’s life this film will resonate with them in a very profound way. I cannot recommend this film enough for students of film, for lovers of cinema and for anyone that’s ever considered picking up a camera. Films like Tokyo Story give viewers either the chance to reflect on their own lives or, in the case of the film students, a chance to see a very different way of making a film. I’m actually a little amazed that Ozu’s work wasn’t even touched on when I did film studies at College. He should be required learning and Tokyo Story should be required viewing.