Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Tokyo Story (1953)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #3

By the time filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu made Tokyo Story in 1953, Japanese cinema had already begun gathering international attention and acclaim. Akira Kurosawa was becoming a famous presence thanks to the success of Rashomon, while films from Teinosuke Kinugasa (Gate of Hell) and Kenji Mizoguchi  (Ugetsu monogatari) were causing stirs at various film festivals. However, Ozu wouldn't begin to receive the same level of attention outside of Japan until the 1970s, nearly ten years after his death in 1963. Ozu has since become one of the most well-regarded directors in the history of cinema, yet appreciation of his films is still a fairly recent phenomenon compared to that of his national contemporaries.

This isn't necessarily all that surprising. Ozu's filmmaking style was much less dynamic than Kurosawa's, and his films focused more on intimate family dramas and lighthearted comedies than the historical epics and samurai tales that Kurosawa crafted. Ozu was content to let his characters speak for themselves, trusting that their interpersonal relationships would be enough to keep audiences engaged. Ozu's films are contemplative and stylistically simple; it only seems appropriate, then, that he once described his role of director as "tofu-maker."


Tokyo Story is, at first glance, a relatively low-key picture, even for Ozu. Shukichi (Chrishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) Hirayama decide to leave their small town of Onomichi - and youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa) - to visit their adult children in Tokyo: oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura), a pediatrician; elder daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), a hairdresser; and widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Their children welcome them, but only Noriko finds the time to entertain them during their visit. When they stop to visit their youngest son, Keizo (Shiro Osaka), in Osaka, Tomi falls ill, bringing the family back together in Onomichi.

Yet Tokyo Story, largely regarded as his masterpiece, betrays this surface simplicity and exposes why Ozu would go on to become such a highly-regarded filmmaker. It demonstrates the many ways that Ozu's style defied cinematic conventions of the day, even if he was only slightly tweaking them.

More after the jump.

The most obvious deviation from convention in Tokyo Story is on the plot level, in that it only has the barest bones of a plot at all. In fact, Tokyo Story is one of Ozu's least-plotted films, as he uses the simple structure of the Hirayamas taking a visit to see their children as a canvas to paint the relationships within this family. As a result, Ozu places the audience's focus on the characters' relationships rather than on expository events. It's here that the title makes sense: Tokyo is a setting, not the driving force of the story. The details of the journey isn't what matters. It's the characters' journeys that do.

This is especially evident in a scene midway through the film where Shukichi goes drinking with some of his old friends in Tokyo. While they are out, they lament the way their children have turned out: detached from their family, thinking only of their own lives. Normally, it would be easy to read this scene as a commentary on post-war Japan, with the elders wondering what happened to the old ways of life and why the younger generation seems so disinterested in preserving them. But such an interpretation is only there for those seeking it; it is clear that Ozu is only interested in what this information reveals about the characters, particularly Shukichi. He alludes to past alcoholism, which put a strain on his relationships and marriage, but these are only referenced in the dialogue briefly.

To that end, Ozu was also an innovator in the use of narrative ellipses. What this means is, where it is traditional for a film to showcase major events within the narrative (i.e. a wedding, a funeral), Ozu's films often bypassed showing these events onscreen and instead sharing the details only through dialogue. In Tokyo Story, the Hirayamas' journey is never shown onscreen; the film cuts from them preparing to leave Onomichi to them arriving at Koichi's home. In the previously described scene of Shukichi's night on the town, this kind of parceling out information means that their are no flashbacks to earlier years. The audience is only aware of these details through the dialogue. Similarly, the audience sees the resonance of these events for the characters, rather than having the events themselves being manipulative forces.


Ozu's staging of the camera is also significantly different from cinematic convention. The traditional placement of a camera in conversational scenes is approximately eye-level, with the intention of positioning the audience into the conversation. However, Ozu uses what has been referred to as the "tatami shot:" a low-angle placement near floor-level, as if the eye of the camera were sitting on a tatami mat. The characters, then, don't make eye contact with the audience (the traditional way), but rather with each other, which makes the conversation feel more natural. The audience, then, feels even more like an invisible interloper in the film, quietly observing these characters and their interactions.

Similarly, Ozu was notorious for his limited use of camera movements, and Tokyo Story may be his most still film. In most scenes, the camera remains in a fixed spot, with the editing cutting between shots from only a handful of shooting spots (compare this to a modern film, where the camera is almost always moving, either in subtle zooms, jittery hand-held, or grandiose sweeps). There is only one scene in the entire film where the camera makes an obvious movement: the camera gently tracks along a brick wall until it reaches the Hirayamas, who have just been evicted from Shige's house and are about to make their way to a resort their children have picked out for them. When Ozu's camera moves, it's jarring; it indicates a shift in the direction that the film is going to take. Here, the audience sees just how distant the children are from their parents, and the movement indicates that that distance is about to be confronted.


There is much more than can be said about Tokyo Story and how it has become considered a masterpiece. There's more that can be said about how high Ozu's reputation has risen in the past few decades (it's no surprise that this film topped the most recent Sight & Sound Directors' Poll). But the way Ozu utilizes camera placement and narrative in ways that were subtly unconventional for the time demonstrate a filmmaker who was more in-tune with what cinema could be than most of his contemporaries.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": Ugetsu monogatari (1953)

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