Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Tokyo Story (1953)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Writer: Yasujiro Ozu, Kogo Noda
DP: Yuuharu Atsuta
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Score: Kojun Saito
Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto
Starring: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kyouko Kagawa, Eijiro Tono, Shiro Osaka, Hisao Toake, Zen Murase, Mitsuhiro Mori, Kuniko Miyake, Nobuo Nakamura
Distribution: Shochiku
Length: 2 hrs. 16 min.

The music for Tokyo Story was composed by Kojun Saito, and not by Senji Ito of Late Spring and Early Summer. This is noticeable from the start. The music that plays over Tokyo Story's opening credits is more dramatically plaintive than the calmer, more contented music from either of the other two films. I find this appropriate, if not telling; while Tokyo Story is perhaps not very dramatic, it is more intuitive than those films. A lot of things in Tokyo Story serve as little more than painterly accents to the drama of human life coming into conflict with the flow of time. This may be why the film is widely considered Ozu's best, and has received such accolades as "the greatest film of all time"; while it mostly has Ozu's characteristic mildness, its final act is extremely upsetting, and the way everything builds up to it is a factor in that.

The film follows an elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, as they take a trip to Tokyo to visit their adult children, Koichi and Shige. They also spend time with their daughter-in-law, Noriko, who was married to their son but widowed in World War II. The film's plot consists of selected events from the ten days of their trip, as well as a short period after they return home.

As one would expect from a post-war Ozu film, the characters modify their otherwise mostly-static environment as a mode of expression. Tokyo Story is notable for having these modifications occur between interior and exterior spaces, between homes and the communities outside of them. When people from outside disrupt the interior spaces, it's invasive.

For the characters, these literal, physical disruptions are taxing. Shukichi and Tomi are also outsiders intruding on their children's homes; their arrival interrupts their children's lives, which manifests in environmental changes. Disruptions like these make Koichi and Shige uncertain as to how to treat their parents: they want them to be happy and to enjoy their visit to Tokyo, but they feel they simply don't have the capacity to put them up. They do what they can to give them a good time, but ultimately end up trying to delegate the job of looking after them.

This puts Koichi and Shige in contrast with Noriko, who takes time off work so she can have her parents-in-law over. They don't place as much of a burden on her, and when they arrive at Noriko's home, she and they enter together. Noriko welcomes their presence, and treats them more kindly than the other children do. Her household is a place of different circumstances than Koichi's and Shige's; she's lived alone for a long time, and doesn't seem to have any family besides the Hirayamas. While Koichi and Shige frequently receive unsolicited visitors, Noriko is left mostly in solitude.

This leads to an especially heart-wrenching scene between Noriko and Tomi. The latter insists that if Noriko so desires, she should remarry, saying that Noriko deserves to live a happier life. The difficulty with this is that if Noriko should marry, she would probably end up like Koichi and Shige, unable to attend to Shukichi and Tomi without her life being disrupted. Tomi understands this; when she tells Noriko to consider remarriage, she also says she and Shukichi are unlikely to ever return to Tokyo. To create a chance for Noriko to be relieved of loneliness in the future, Tomi consigns herself to loneliness.

Ozu's tendencies to emphasize environmental features and to shoot conversations by cutting between head-on shots of the characters allows us to understand them without placing us in their shoes; instead of taking on any character's point of view, we understand them as we would understand someone in a conversation, as separate bodies. They're physically limited, and when they talk, it looks as if they're addressing us. In Tokyo Story, this is important because the ways the characters complement each other is as important as the characters themselves: they don't purposely, outwardly comment on each other, but the presence of each character throws those of the other characters into perspective.

Consider Koichi's children, Isamu and Minoru. The inclusion of children highlights contrast between generations; we see how the elder of the two can feign politeness for his grandparents while the younger acts more impulsively. We also see how dependent they are, ultimately unable to defy the will of their parents. Such details bring us to consider Tokyo Story's characters in terms of their respective generational contexts. The fragmentation of the Hirayama family, then, is attributed simply to the passage of time.

This is where Tokyo Story derives its power: everything therein serves its overall effort to make the viewer feel that there's an inherent pain and loss in the passage of time. This shouldn't come as a surprise, considering how Ozu's previous two films engaged with the aftermath of World War II, urban development, aging, and tradition. Shukichi and Tomi's loneliness in Tokyo is accompanied by a portrayal of the city as complex and sprawling; full of life, but also somewhat alienating. It rather closely resembles Ozu's final film, An Autumn Afternoon, would touch on something similar, but with more specificity: in that film, an aging man finds himself unable to adapt to changes in his life because his memories of pre-war Japan and his service in the military keep him at a distance from the more westernized Japan of the 1960s.

The film's final two scenes are very brief, but they provide the perfect emotional capstone to the film through gesture and irony.  First, we see two characters going about their daily lives, glancing wistfully at their watches.  Then, one last time, we see a character's home intruded on by an outsider, but only to remind them of the loneliness that awaits them in their home.  Tokyo Story contains characters who accept their transience with grace, but the empathy of the film itself prevents it from doing the same (which I don't mean in a bad way).  Instead, even as it's incredibly rewarding, it hurts to watch.

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