Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A few words about: Tokyo Story (1953)

Since it is the 60th anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story I have re-watched it yet again. It is on many levels a very good film. The formal elegance and precision is wonderful, and it is filled with warmth and humanity, and it is very moving. But there is one thing that I have a problem with, and that is its superfluous, or overtly explicit, dialogue. In the beginning there is a sequence where the old couple the film is about is seen packing for their trip to Tokyo. A neighbour stops by and they talk about them going to Tokyo to see the children and the neighbour says that it must be lovely and wonderful and the children must be looking forward to it so much, and so on. This is the first instance of this recurring feature in the film, that at regular intervals a character will say something that is meaningful for the plot, which is then repeated by another character. Towards the end of the film the couple's youngest daughter says "Isn't life disappointing." while looking earnest and thoughtful, and the couple's daughter-in-law answers "Yes, nothing but disappointments." The worst example though is at the very end, when the old man is sitting alone in his living room. Suddenly the neighbour from the opening scene appears again and says "You must be feeling lonely with them gone." He answers "Yes." and he adds that he will be lonely now and the neighbour concurs "Absolutely, you'll feel lonely." The scene had the potential to be beautiful but it is ruined for me by this repetitive dialogue.

This need to explain to us what is happening and treat the audience as if it had been taking naps during the film irritates me, and makes me hesitant to agree with the general consensus that Tokyo Story is a really great film, one of the very best. Another thing about Tokyo Story is how transparent it is that the mother will soon succumb to some unspecified illness. It is there from the beginning and clearly sign-posted repeatedly. Its alleged inspiration, Leo McCarey's remarkable Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), is actually more subtle, and for me the better film.

Yet when critics write about Tokyo Story they see it differently. Here is for example Roger Ebert, who says that one of Ozu's strength is his way of "removing the machinery of effects and editing and choosing to touch us with human feeling, not workshop storytelling technique." But is not the opposite the case, and is not Tokyo Story actually very much an example of "workshop storytelling technique" by Ozu and his longtime co-writer Kogo Noda? This is not to deny that there are also many examples of subtlety. For example, in the opening scene when the couple is packing they have an argument about an air cushion. That says a lot about their relationship, without in anyway being explicit. As with my earlier comments about The Searchers (1956), I would not mind these issues I have with Tokyo Story if the film was not so good. But now they get in the way.

By the way, in his review Ebert quotes Donald Richie, who says that "The reason for the low camera position /.../ is that it eliminates depth and makes a two-dimensional space." This is puzzling and I do not understand why a low camera position would eliminate depth. But more to the point, Tokyo Story has great depth, using both deep space and deep focus to telling effect. Perhaps especially in order to create a sense of the larger world, since the lives of their neighbours are often seen through windows in the background, but most of the shots, even those showing street scenes and nature, are carefully staged and framed to create depth.

Finally, I have seen some 15 of Ozu's films and although it is hard to choose between them, if I had to pick one as my favourite, it would be I Was Born, But (1932). It is close to sublime.

In an earlier post I wrote about the common but bad habit of comparing everything to Hollywood, and this tendency is something that is a consistent problem when it comes to Yasujiro Ozu as well. When critics and historians discuss him it is almost always focussed on how he had a unique style that was "the complete opposite of Hollywood" (as if all Hollywood films were in the same style), but it is much rarer to see comparisons between Ozu and for example Mikio Naruse or Sadao Yamanaka, even though that would be more apt.

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