Blog Directory CineVerse: Honor thy father and mother -- and this Japanese masterpiece, too

Honor thy father and mother -- and this Japanese masterpiece, too

Monday, April 12, 2021

Voted by directors as the greatest film of all time and the #3 best movie ever by critics, per a 2012 Sight and Sound poll, Tokyo Story stands as a towering cinematic achievement that accomplishes so much with so little when it comes to story and style—demonstrating that a minimalistic approach is often best for films  aimed directly at the heart. CineVerse studied this picture last week, arriving at several key findings and interpretations (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

Hallmarks of director Yasujiro Ozu’s style

  • Low camera angles, with cameras anchored merely three feet or so from the ground – a height amenable to ideally framing subjects sitting or kneeling on a Japanese tatami mat.
  • An unmoving camera; Ozu rarely used tracking, panning, dollying, craning, or other camera movements, instead choosing to let visual emphasis rest on his characters and their movements or positioning within the shot.
  • Transitions between scenes using seemingly random long shots of outdoor environments, including clouds, shorelines, cityscapes, and other vistas. Where other filmmakers may use dissolves, fade-outs, fade-ins, and wipes to transition between sequences, Ozu preferred poetically visual still life-type shots.
  • Placing the camera between two subjects to convey a dialogue scene. Rather than use the traditional Hollywood over-the-shoulder shot back-and-forth between characters, Ozu puts us at the center of the conversation, creating more intimacy. His subjects often look directly at the camera—thereby addressing the viewer—when they speak to an adjacent character.
  • Remaining on a character for the entirety of their speech. When a character says something to another character, Ozu’s camera doesn’t stray from that subject or introduce a reverse shot showing the opposite character’s nonverbal reaction.
  • Not allowing any single character to dominate a given scene.
  • Letting shots breathe by lingering in an empty room or space before or after characters enter or exit the scene. This defied the Hollywood rule of “invisible editing” in which the cuts between shots were meant to be seamless, smooth, and often quick.
  • Letting situations and conversational scenes unfold naturally and organically and choosing to not crowd his stories with subplots, turning points, or scenes that would detract from the strong focus on emotions and relationships. For example, we aren’t shown the grandparents’ journeys on the train, their actual visits to the Atami baths, or Tomi’s moment of falling gravely ill. We learn about these things simply through exchanges of dialogue. Also, ponder how the city of Tokyo itself is not extensively shown, including its landmarks and famous places.
  • Ozu’s narratives are minimalistic, uncomplicated, unpretentious, unfussy, relatively tranquil and calm, and laced with wistfulness.

What elements from Tokyo Story made a strong impression on you?

  • The entire story is infused from start to finish with a tone of melancholy.
  • Slant Magazine’s Chuck Bowen wrote: “underneath the film’s ostensible logline, which involves an aging couple’s trek to see their adult children, resides a large cast of characters lost in a dense thicket of disappointment, tension, and unquantifiable and unresolved emotional, political, and cultural fallout. The film is an epic disguised as a short story, or, more specifically, it documents the largely unceremonious end of an epic that’s mostly unseen. The source of the film’s brilliance and of its considerable pathos resides in how gradually and subtly Ozu transforms the domestic, “simple” quotidian into the stuff of great universal tragedy.”
  • This is the most meager of tales; Tokyo Story has a narrative that can be quickly summarized. But the plot is not the point: The value is in the way the characters are written and performed and in how the filmmakers choose to strip away any flashiness or stylistic grandeur, letting a simple story hook itself into your conscience by focusing on the character’s often unspoken internal struggles and the fractured family dynamics.
  • Ozu avoids painting these characters in black and white; each has shades of gray. For instance, the father appears docile and friendly, but it’s revealed that he was a problematic alcoholic when his children were younger. Eldest daughter Shige would seem to be an irredeemable, ungrateful, and materialistic woman but she breaks down in tears multiple times when her mother dies and is concerned that her father might succumb to his old drinking ways. Additionally, the children aren’t evil or unforgivable: Many of the reasons they have for not being able to spend time with their parents are valid and understandable.

Themes built into Tokyo Story

  • The generation gap, and how it’s usually inevitable that adult children drift away from their parents physically, emotionally, morally, and value-wise.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “It is about our families, our natures, our flaws and our clumsy search for love and meaning. It isn't that our lives keep us too busy for our families. It's that we have arranged them to protect us from having to deal with big questions of love, work, and death. We escape into truisms, small talk, and distractions. Given the opportunity at a family gathering to share our hopes and disappointments, we talk about the weather and watch TV.”
  • Every clan has skeletons in its closet – some that may come back to haunt the family.
  • The dissolution of the traditional Japanese family and its value system, replaced by a less sensitive and more frenetic, modernized, industrialized, and Westernized culture. Consider that, following the new Civil Code instituted in 1948, much of Japan had adopted Western capitalist notions and abandoned older traditions and mores.
  • Life is often imperfect and unsatisfactory. Recall Noriko’s comment to Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?” Also, remember how the grandparents commented privately to themselves about their dissatisfaction in their grandchildren, the fact that their eldest was not a successful doctor, and how their eldest daughter’s attitude had changed for the worse.
  • The inability to talk frankly with loved ones about problems. Even though Shukishi consistently semi-smiles, nods, and utters words of acknowledgment, like “yes,” we discern through context that he’s subtly hiding many of his problematic emotions. Also, the children engage in ample small talk with their parents.

Similar films

  • Make Way for Tomorrow
  • Ikiru
  • The Straight Story
  • Sansho the Bailiff
  • Yi (2000) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991) by Edward Yang
  • Still Walking
  • Driveways

Other important films directed by Yasijuro Ozu

  • Late Spring
  • Early Summer
  • An Autumn Afternoon
  • Late Autumn
  • Floating Weeds

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP