The elderly Shukichi and Tomi Hiroyama leave their youngest daughter Kyoko in Onomichi to visit their other grown-up children in Tokyo. Mild disappointment dogs the whole enterprise as their presence is clearly considered burdensome. Only their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko shows genuine warmth and welcome. Returning home, Tomi falls ill and dies. The family expresses regret but only Noriko and Kyoko show more than superficial duty. Shukichi urges Noriko to remarry and move on while he contemplates his own lonely future.
Tokyo Story’s plot is simple. However, ‘explaining’ Tokyo Story is like trying to have the last word on Citizen Kane. Its director, Ozu Yasujiro has been considered both modernist and traditionalist; his work Zen-like while wryly urbane; his themes specific to their context, yet universal. Ozu’s films were not seen outside of Japan until after his death in 1963 because domestic critics considered that, ‘the West couldn’t possibly appreciate anything so “truly Japanese’’’ (Mars-Jones, 2011: 5).
Though universal acclaim met their international release, what strikes the first-time viewer is the unfamiliarity of Ozu’s technique. Its antithesis to Hollywood style prompted David Bordwell to outline a formalist analysis that links Ozu’s stylistic ‘self-imposed constraints’ to the rigid codes of Japanese poetic tradition (1988: 144).
Additionally, Western analysis of Ozu’s work is dominated by identification of his apparent Zen aesthetic, characterised in 1972 by Marvin Zeman as ‘the immediate and therefore inexpressible individual experience whose aim is inner enlightenment’ (1976: 17) – essentially a mastery of technique presented as simplicity, harmonising form and content without irrelevant details. This approach describes Tokyo Story well, but so does Mark Cousins’ description of Ozu’s films as ‘classical’ as the term is applied to European art (2004: 129); though different in culture, the appreciative outcome is the same: form and subject are harmoniously balanced. Thus, we could conclude that Ozu’s mature films are simultaneously radical in their deviation from (relatively recently established) cinematic tradition, while conservative in general aesthetic.
Seasonal moods are said to be central Zen tenets. Most closely cited in reference to Ozu is ‘mono-noaware’, a melancholic, autumnal awareness of impermanence. His films are characteristically concerned with stillness and contemplation and his composition compares to classical Japanese art. Conversely, this stillness has led some critics to note similarities with European near contemporaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni (Desser 1997: 3). The stylistic similarities may be superficial but as far as cinematic aesthetics go, to label Ozu as uniquely Japanese is arguably reductive.
Similarly, while his titles have an air of haiku (e.g. An Autumn Afternoon, Early Summer, Equinox Flower), the Japanese critic Hasumi Shigehiko questions the Orientalist stereotyping, noting that the seasonal titles divert attention from the characteristic weather in the Ozu film: a dry heat more reminiscent of Californian Hollywood than subtropical Japan (in Desser 1997: 119). A typical Ozu scene usually disrupts character stillness with the persistent wafting of fans.
David Desser convincingly argues that Tokyo Story is ‘paradoxically, both insular and immensely universal. Is it about the breakup of the traditional Japanese family in the light of post-war changes …? Or is it about the inevitabilities of life: children … leaving their ageing parents behind?’ (ibid: 4). Uniqueness of style and universality of theme both suggest why Ozu’s films and Tokyo Story in particular hold such international acclaim and affection.
Central to the emotional weight of Tokyo Story are the performances of Ryu Chishu and Hara Setsuko as Shukichi and Noriko respectively. Ryu recalled endless retakes as Ozu harmonised even the smallest movement by actors within his compositions but it is these two performers upon whom Ozu’s calm cinematic rhythms depend for the full dramatic effect of both Tokyo Story and Ozu’s other masterpiece, Late Spring (Zeman 1976: 26).
For example, Ryu utilises a non-verbal purring noise (‘hmmm’) to express a huge array of complex emotion and meaning. Whilst fanning the ailing Tomi, his calm assurance that she will soon recover is belied by a look of awful panic that briefly clouds his face. Later, he conveys the full devastation of Shukichi’s loss when told Tomi will be dead by sunrise through the barest of physical movement.
Matching the complexity of Ryu’s minimalistic purr is the much-discussed Hara smile. This seems to convey everything from unguarded joy to a polite veneer masking devastation, disgust or fury. When Noriko brings her parents-in-law home, she pops to her neighbour to borrow sake. She returns to find the Hirayamas admiring a photograph of her dead husband. Her smile rises in polite response but realisation that she also needs to borrow cups gives her reason to momentarily excuse herself. Their backs turned, the smile lightly crumples. It is the gentlest of scenes in this unwaveringly gentle film that transcends context, culture, formalist debate and ideology. When Noriko receives news of Tomi’s critical illness over the phone, at last she has a moment alone to let the public face drop. Her reply to Kyoko’s blunt, ‘Isn’t life disappointing’ is a beaming, Beckettian ‘yes it is’. In this, the film’s most famous exchange, every possible emotional interpretation can be found – the crystallisation of Ozu’s cinema in two lines of dialogue.
A particularly noted Ozu technique is the ‘pillow shot’; not a term used by Ozu himself, but a way of defining his singular method of moving from scene to scene. Breaking with conventional dissolves or establishing shots, Ozu generally offers a cluster of exterior views using straight cuts between key scenes. Debate clusters around whether these provide the same function as a theatrical curtain, as a brief respite from the ‘action’ of scenes or an embodiment of Zen aesthetics. Interpretation can run wild but it is worth noting that in Tokyo Story these shots often suggest thematic links to the characters’ living circumstances and, by extension, personalities. Onomichi (and thus the Hiroyama elders) is signified by gently chugging tugboats, temples and open landscapes.
Conversely, Ozu largely ignores any Tokyo landmarks except for a few cursory tourist shots on the Hiroyama’s bus ride, preferring images of smoke-spurting chimneys – suggestive of their children’s urban lives and personalities. Noriko lives in the same city but Ozu signifies her key scenes with images of washing (purity or duty, perhaps). These sequences are generally considered to operate outside of the narrative, which is what differentiates them from straightforward establishing shots, but occasionally over-interpretation misses the point when Ozu actually is giving us an establishing shot. The Hiroyamas’ unanticipated stopover at Osaka is signified by Osaka Castle, for example.
Tokyo Story is typical of Ozu’s narrative structure, which deliberately omits the events one would anticipate as the most dramatic. Thus, the most seemingly substantial scene occurs off screen: the collapse and illness of Tomi. Counter-intuitively, we are instead shown Keizo, a son mentioned but until here unseen, discussing the incident with a work colleague. This approach asks the audience to fill in the gaps, trusting the spectator to do some dramatic work and respect the characters’ dignity. It also maintains the consistently moderate pace of the film and mirrors the realities of our participation in the action. As in life, we hear of crucial events related second-hand.
Instead, Ozu’s scenes often commence with an empty space into which characters enter. He then either refrains from cutting for several seconds after characters exit or lingers on them after conversation has ended. Thus, the silences and empty moments become the lyrical points of signified meaning far more than the deliberately understated dialogue.
Typically, interiors are largely shot from an unusually low camera height of two feet, just below head-height when the characters adopt the traditional kneeling position for socialising. More extraordinary is Ozu’s unique approach to cinematic space. Almost all filmmakers obey the 180° rule, where an invisible line is never crossed for fear of breaking the directional continuity. Ozu operates within a 360° space, with the result that characters suddenly appear to be facing screen left when in the previous shot they had faced screen right. An example of this can be seen when Keizu approaches his office late in the film. He is shot outside entering a door screen right but the following shot shows him enter the room also from screen right, not the customary left. He appears to have turned back on himself. This would normally be considered cinematically ‘wrong’.
While many viewers may not notice this oddity at all, what is unmistakable is the framing of dialogue. Ozu positions the spectator literally at alternate perspectives in a conversation so actors often speak facing the camera. This again can be unsettling at first but perhaps allows an unusual intimacy with the characters. Conversely, Ozu never milks emotion through an overemphasising close-up, instead typically holding fast to the medium or even long shot. His camera may loiter for longer than comfortable but never ‘cheats’ by intruding on heightened emotion, evoking perhaps a sense of polite awkwardness.
While the overall theme is certainly accessible, some context does prove useful in engaging with Tokyo Story. As with all of Ozu’s mature films, it is an example of the shomin-geki genre. This typically focuses on the lives of the contemporary Japanese middle class, though logically its characters (most clearly the war-widow Noriko) are still reeling from post-war defeat, devastation and humiliation. 1953 saw the end of a period of allied occupation and cinema censorship. Thus, the inter-generation fissure between the traditions of the elders and the Westernised attitudes of the younger generation takes on a far more dynamic resonance than might at first appear, notable for instance, when Shukichi’s friend Hattori complains about his young lodger’s attitude and addiction to pinball. Subsequently, while out drinking, an off-screen, very Western big band tune diegetically intrudes on the elders’ reflections on their past.
In his critical study Noriko Smiling, Adam MarsJones takes Ozu critics to task for ‘extreme readings’: ‘the history of his films’ reception in the West has been a tug-of-war between the Zen transcendentals, with Paul Schrader at their head, and neo-formalists like (Kristin) Thompson and her husband David Bordwell. For both camps the films are apolitical, indifferent to history except as it impinges on family relations’ (2011: 34). Mars-Jones instead considers the context of a nation adjusting to the aftermath of being the losing side of a devastating war and ‘the recent replacement of a theocratic militarism by a democracy that no-one had voted for’ (2011: 141) as vital in reading Ozu.
However approached, Tokyo Story boasts dozens of beautiful and striking moments. Space allows three examples. The heads of the passengers gently bobbing about in comical unison during the Hiroyama’s bus tour is a droll sight gag straight out of a Harold Lloyd film. In contrast, as the couple prepare to leave Tokyo, gently joking that they are ‘homeless’, Ozu allows his camera to perform its rarest of functions in his films: it moves. A brief tracking shot reveals them sat isolated on the grass and ends with a second, following them up the road. Their remoteness from their disappointing family and the loss this implies is severe.
Lastly, while fondly watching her grandchild, Tomi shifts from doting to sudden awareness of her mortality. The boy is oblivious to this moment of terrified insight and blithely picks flowers. There are many scenes in this beautiful film that suggest not so much a Zen-like wisdom nor an approach to cinema art that is predominantly Japanese or formalistically different. It is universal and in touch with human frailty. There is more, of course. There is no last word on Tokyo Story.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Japan. Production Company: Shochiku Eiga. Director: Ozu Yasujiro. Screenwriters: Noda Kogo and Ozu Yasujiro. Cinematographer: Atsuta Yuhara. Cast: Hara Setsuko (Noriko), Ryu Chishu (Shukichi), Higashiyama Chieko (Tomi).]
David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1988.
Mark Cousins, The Story of Film, London, Pavillion, 2004.
David Desser, (ed.), Introduction to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Adam Mars-Jones, Noriko Smiling, London, Notting Hill Editions, 2011.
Marvin Zeman, ‘The Zen Artistry of Yasujiro Ozu’, in John Gillet and David Wilson (eds), Ozu, London, BFI, 1976.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.