“No one can serve his parents beyond the grave.”
For the past week, I’ve been thinking about Yasujiro Ozu and his lasting influence on cinema, and that it was about time I wrote about him. During a recent conversation with Lee Isaac Chung about his film “Minari” (2020), the name of the great Japanese director came up because of the impact that Ozu has had on his own work as a filmmaker. Last March, “Sight and Sound” magazine polled 358 directors, including Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, to name the 10 greatest films of all time. Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953) came out on top.
Yasujiro Ozu didn’t follow the traditional rules of filmmaking. He built his own set of aesthetics. “Tokyo Story” is his most accessible work and undeniably his masterpiece. The style and pace of the film is slow and very determined, but it builds brick upon brick until the last thirty minutes, which are as inevitable and powerful as anything you’ve seen.
You will notice from the get-go that Ozu’s techniques are distinctly his own. When people are conversing with each other in “Tokyo Story” (which happens a lot), Ozu breaks the 180 degree rule of editing which encourages that the camera should stay on one side of an imaginary line between two characters so that each person always appears to be facing the same direction, regardless of where the camera is positioned. This creates a sense of stability in the viewer, where physically you understand where the two people are, and you don’t find yourself distracted by different backgrounds. Ozu goes against that suggestion. When his protagonists speak to one another the camera faces straight to the speaker. When the other person responds, the camera shows the perspective of the listener. Thus, every few seconds, to you, the background will shift. It’s a bit disorienting. It’s as if you were caught smack in the middle of the conversation as your head ping pongs back and forth. What it ultimately creates is a level of intimacy and focus like you hadn’t felt before. It has the effect of me grabbing you by the chin and demanding your attention.
He places the camera as if he were taking a portrait (well, duh, he is!) of the person by placing the artifact at waist level. Remember how the Japanese kneel on the tatami and face one another? So he’s basically recreating that feeling of dignity and respect. It puts one as an equal with the performer. It furthers our connectivity and sense of investment in what is unfolding and being said to us. This has become known as the “tatami shot.” He also frames the characters emphasizing innocent lines around them, like walls, doorways, corridors. Because of the rectangular shape of the movie frame (or in our current state – television frames) – we get a frame-within-a-frame reverberation.
There are two other major characteristics worth nothing. Between scenes he does not use fades or dissolves. Instead he will show a river with a boat tugging along or linger gently on a lantern outside a home, letting you listen to the wind or diegetic sounds in the city. He doesn’t use music during scenes, but it’s in these transitional moments that you will listen to it. In “Tokyo Story” these moments also symbolize the passage of time and of actions taking place outside of our realm. Which leads me to the fact that in his narrative he chooses not to show you a particular event, jumping over it, allowing the viewer to hear about it after the fact – and encouraging you to use your imagination. In a way, it’s like when you hear about an accident happening to a close friend of yours. You’re receiving the news the way most of us receive it. Am I blinding you with too much science? There’s a lot more, but this is not a class, just an introduction. Ozu is a genius, and it’s worth knowing what he’s doing while you watch his films.
“Tokyo Story” follows a retired couple living in the Western Japan town of Onimichi with their youngest daughter, making a trip to Tokyo to visit their other three adult children. Their fifth child died during the war and has left behind a young widow, Noriko. The crux of the film is how modern life has created a divide between the generations. It’s about how families can endure the passage of time and changes. Although very emotional, it’s not sentimental nor melodramatic. It presents the facts to you – and that’s what ultimately makes you feel. We’re not accustomed to having to decipher things and watching fiction unfold without judgement. Ozu shows us great respect by inviting us to see for ourselves.
The locomotives that will carry our characters become themselves symbols of change, time and modernity. The watch that gets handed to Noriko is all about time and its continuum.
Shige: “Isn’t life too short, though?”
Available to stream on HBO Max and to rent on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Apple TV+.
Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu
Directed by Yasujirô Ozu
Starring Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama and Setsuko Hara
The Making of “Tokyo Story”
Ozu’s most important collaborator was no doubt the scriptwriter Kogo Noda (1893-1968). Noda had worked with Ozu since the latter’s first feature in 1927 and with some frequency during the Twenties and Thirties. After the war, Ozu brought him back to work on “Late Spring” (1949), another great masterpiece, and he worked on every subsequent film that Ozu directed. It was in fact Noda who had initially suggested the plot for “Tokyo Story,” which was loosely inspired by Leo McCarey’s “Make Way for Tomorrow” (1937). Ozu hadn’t seen the film, but Noda recalled it from its initial release in Japan. Typically, Ozu and Noda would work on the script over much food and drink. In his diary, Noda noted that the writing of “Tokyo Story” took 103 days and 43 bottles of sake. Having already identified which actors would play the parts, they strongly emphasized character over plot, building the characters painstakingly through dialogue. In an article published in the 1964 issue of Sight and Sound, the lead actor Chishu Ryu recalled: “By the time he had finished writing a script, after about four months’ effort, he had made up every image in every shot, so that he never changed the scenario after we went on the set. And the words were so polished up that he would not allow us even a single mistake.” Ryu also emphasized Ozu’s close control over the performance of actors in general: “[He] had made up the complete picture in his head before he went on the set, so that all we actors had to do was to follow his directions, from the way we lifted and dropped our arms to the way we blinked our eyes. […] Even if I did not know what I was doing and how those shots would be connected in the end, when I looked at the first screening I was often surprised to find my performance far better than I had expected.” (tcm.com)
About Actor Setsuko Hara
She was born Masae Aida in Yokohama, now Japan’s second largest city. Still a teenager, she was introduced to Nikkatsu studio by her brother-in-law, the director Hisatora Kumagai. After appearing in a few films for the studio, she was chosen as the female lead in “The New Earth” (“Die Tochter des Samurai,” 1937), a German-Japanese co-production directed by Arnold Fanck and Mansaku Itami. Hara played a delightful schoolgirl learning the ancient Japanese rituals and set to marry a man who happens to prefer his European girlfriend. The film led to a tour of Europe and a visit to Hollywood, where Hara was shown around by Marlene Dietrich. She returned to Japan before the outbreak of the second world war, during which she made a number of period and propaganda films, including “The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya” (1942), which contained an impressive recreation of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After the war, Hara emerged as one of Japan’s biggest and most popular stars, mainly due to her role in Akira Kurosawa’s “No Regrets for Our Youth” (1946). Kurosawa’s most feminist film, it revealed that Hara was capable of a far wider range than the films made with Ozu would imply. Focusing on a decade in the life of a woman caught up in the political repression of the militaristic regime of the late 1930s, the film shows Hara moving convincingly from carefree schoolgirl to working woman to worried housewife to prisoner to, eventually, determined farmer.
In Kurosawa’s transposition and updating of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” (1951), Hara, as Nastasya Filipovna (here called “Taeko Nasu”), plays a role unlike any other in her career. Clad throughout in a sleek black cloak, she is a tempestuous, sexy woman, a far cry from the serenely smiling daughters in Ozu’s films. Closer to the Ozu heroines, though with little to smile about, were her roles as discontented wives in three superb films by Mikio Naruse: “Repast” (1951), “Sound of the Mountain” (1954) and “Sudden Rain” (1956). Hara, now entering her 40s, also played widows in Naruse’s “Daughters, Wives and a Mother” and Ozu’s “Late Autumn” (both 1960), and in Ozu’s penultimate film, “The End of Summer” (1961). Hara made two brief appearances in films after Ozu’s death in 1963, then, despite public demand and many offers of roles, she retired without explanation from the screen, and from public life. She lived alone in a small house in the picturesque city of Kamakura, about 50 kilometres from Tokyo, close to where her beloved Ozu had died and was buried. (theguardian.com)
About Actor Chishū Ryū
Chishū Ryū was the second son of the priest of Raishoji Temple in a village of Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. His childhood and adolescence spent there certainly had a great influence on his character. In 1924, he went to Tokyo, intending to study Indian philosophy at Toyo Daigaku. But, like many Japanese ‘students’, he rarely attended classes. In 1925, the Shochiku Movie Company held its first audition for young talent, and Ryu-san’s classmates as a joke challenged him to go and take the test. He was not particularly good-looking, but to his astonishment he was accepted. Later, he was to say he impressed the selectors because he was wearing his university uniform. At first, he played extras and bit parts, and he was a permanent member of what was called the obeya, or ‘big room’, where all the small fry of the movies waited for the big break. In 1928 he was noticed by Ozu, who saw promise in this awkward young man who seemed not very talented, and he was given a small part in the director’s second movie, Wakaudo no yume (“A Young Man’s Dream”). In 1929, he married a Shochiku script girl, and they lived together happily for the rest of his life, for he was unusual in the world of cinema in having no scandal attached to his name: he did not drink, did not gamble, had no hobbies, although he was good at judo at school. In 1930, his name appeared for the first time in the film credits and on the posters for Ozu’s Rakudai wa shitakeredo (“Though I Failed the Examination”). Then came one of Ozu’s best early works, Umarete wa mita keredo (‘I Was Born, But . . .”, 1932), a very touching social comedy about two small boys who become disillusioned by their salesman father. Ozu made an updated version of this film as Ohayo (“Good Morning”) in 1959…
Ryū -san was chosen by Ozu to play older men, and in 1936, when he was only 32, he appeared as an old man in Hitori Musuko (‘The Only Son’) which was the first Ozu talkie. The coming of talkies to the movie studios of Japan had as traumatic an effect as it had in Hollywood. Ryū had the picturesque accent of his strong Kumamoto dialect, but it gradually became accepted as part of the unusual charm of his unassuming character. In 1949 he received the Mainichi Film Award for best actor, the first of many such prestigious acting awards. There were no hidden secrets in Ryū’s life: he was plain and clear as day, the perfect prism for refracting the subtle tones of Ozu’s art. In his typically modest autobiography, Ryū- san disarmingly says he was not a natural actor, nor a good one, but for some strange reason Ozu detected possibilities in his unactorly acting, and brought out hidden qualities that made him a star. He was forever grateful for that, though the intensity of Ozu’s direction often made him shake with nervousness. It was in 1953 that Ozu made his greatest film, now a universally admired classic, Tokyo Monogatari (“Tokyo Story”). Ryū, 49, played an old man of 72 partnering as his wife the veteran actress Chieko Higashiyama, playing her actual age, 65… It is in this film that Ryū plays his typical Meiji period (1868- 1925) character to the best advantage. He tells us in his autobiography that Ozu kept telling him he was not ‘acting old enough’…He tells us Ozu did not allow his actors to improvise and once told Ryū not to spoil his picture composition by moving; ‘My frames are more important than your acting, so don’t act]’…In 1962, Ozu made his last movie, “Sanma no aji” (“The Taste of Mackerel Pike”). Ozu died the next year…(independent.co.uk)
About Director Yasujirô Ozu
Born in Tokyo’s Fukugawa, Yasujiro Ozu moved to his father’s hometown of Mie when he was ten, while his fertilizer salesman father remained working in the capital. At Mie Ozu discovered motion pictures, impressed by the Italian spectacles, the films of Lillian Gish, Pearl White, William S. Hart, and later, the films of Thomas Ince and King Vidor. Though his brother was a good student, Ozu was a mischievous child, failing the entrance examination for the Kobe Higher Commericial School, which he skipped for Rex Ingram’s “The Prisoner of Zenda” (1922). Graduating from Uji-Yamada Middle School, he worked as a substitute teacher before returning to Tokyo in 1923 where, through an introduction from his uncle, he started as an assistant cameraman at Shochiku Kamata Studios. By 1926 he was assistant director to comedy specialist Tadamoto Okubo. The following year he made his debut, the period drama “The Sword of Penitence” with scriptwriter Kogo Noda. Ozu’s first films, all silent, received much praise, “I Was Born, but…” earning the Kinema Jumpo Best Film Award in 1932. After his first talkie, “The Only Son” (1936), he left Kamata to enlist in the army (spending much of his service in the army hospital with a feigned ailment) before returning to the Shochiku Ofuna Studios to make two of his finest films, “The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family” (1941) and “There Was a Father” (1942). Based in Singapore for a period during the war as a member of the military news film team he spent his time making propaganda films and watching Hollywood pictures. After the war, Ozu again worked with Kogo Noda, creating several masterpieces: “Late Spring” (1949), “Early Summer” (1951), and “Tokyo Story” (1953)—films that depicted the relationships within the Japanese family with unequalled depth and simplicity. His signature style—a low camera angle, an objective remove from the story, an absence of dissolves and camera movement—combined with his aesthetic and humanist values, to earn Ozu a reputation as one of the greatest ever film-makers…he won numerous international awards during the late 1950s. While his reputation was at its height, Ozu died of cancer on his sixtieth birthday, December 12, 1963. (madman.com.au)