Like the French New Wave (which history remembers primarily as the movement of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard), the vanguard of postwar Japanese cinema was piloted by two divergent, well-revered cineastes. Akira Kurosawa was the country’s film laureate, renowned for his cosmic characterizations, orientalist aesthetics and Shakespearean moral quandaries. His feudal fables of samurai derring-do—particularly Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashomon (1950)—became the face of Japanese movies around the world. Ozu, meanwhile, was a considerably more introverted raconteur. While Kurosawa broadcast his sensibilities to the world in epical form, Ozu introspected on Japan’s cultural shift from a sublunary standpoint.
This is not to say that Ozu was free of culling from global influences. Perhaps his most famous film, Tokyo Story extracted the premise of Make Way for Tomorrow, Leo McCarey’s Depression-era Hollywood tearjerker, and transplanted it amid the cultural climes of industrial Japan. While somewhat maudlin in its execution—disjointed families, ungrateful children and latent tragedy have been the subject of too many gauche weepies and melodramatic geegaws—Ozu’s emotional percipience and awry stylizations lend the subject material new dimensions.
The story is catholic, yet interminably mired in Japan’s postwar cultural flux. Tokyo Story commences in a gorgeous, lakeside idyll of terracotta roofs and Bodhi trees. Ostensibly of an indeterminable past, only an overhead lacework of power lines and the chugalug of a passing train denote modernity. Inside their cottage, a pacific elderly couple makes preparations for a pilgrimage to visit their adult children in Tokyo. Flash-forwarding to the city, the children and their families begrudgingly make room for the apparently fusty and inconvenient visitors.
The old couple alternates between the residences of their ultra-reticent son and their garrulously brusque daughter, both practitioners of casual cruelty. The children confabulate to ship their parents to a seaside resort. When the old couple returns ahead of schedule (the resort was populated by too many young rabble-rousers), the daughter greets them with a suppressed glower. They dawdle around the city for another few days before returning home, when illness strikes and guilt afflicts the whole family.
With virtually no cinematographic movement, Tokyo Story’s armature is a series of static, individual shots. Ozu beautifully rhymes successive images of isolation and loneliness. Interiors are cloistered and abject with the camera often capturing on-screen action from the far end of a hallway. The effect is akin to that tunnel vision—a fitting visual analogue to the director’s depictions of humans blinkered from one another by their own self-interest. For dialogue scenes, he frames the speaker in head-on close ups, as if the listener does not exist. No one truly breaks the fourth wall, but the actors’ words nevertheless assume a direct, confessional aura.
Upon moving outside, Tokyo is reduced to unsightly snapshots of disgorging smokestacks and prefab high-rises. Whatever its benefits, Ozu elucidates that Japan’s recent societal makeover (enacted and overseen by the United States military during its post-WWII occupation of the country) engendered as many vicissitudes as it did new virtues. His nostalgia for a bygone way of life, emblemized by Tokyo Story’s golden-aged protagonists, grows glutinous with melancholy.
Were Tokyo Story merely Ozu’s flak for paradigm shifts and the generation gap, stodgy fulminating and simpleminded antipathy might have anaesthetized the film’s impact. However, the film’s tone is ultimately more elegiac and traditionalist than bitter and reactionary. Rather than lambast change, Ozu laments newfound complications. Slivers of war, death and destruction creep in by way of innocuous exchanges. Inward conflict and outward malaise are registered within the actors’ ambivalent facial tics. Some moments are even ruefully amusing. Child and parent are forced to swap roles when the old man, sad and sozzled after a night out on the town, staggers into his daughter’s apartment at midnight, flanked by two equally morose drinking buddies.
And, for all his focus on the blighted Tokyo cityscape, Ozu still limns passages of sublime visual wonderment. In one succinct sequence, the elderly couple, full of wistful reminiscences, balances awkwardly on a concrete guard rail. They patter along while the sea beyond them winks in the sunlight. Despite their physical ungainliness, at no other point do the old man and woman seem more at peace. It is an instance of muted, almost introverted splendor, caught up in the antediluvian innocence of the natural world.
Tokyo Story is part homily, part haiku. Sentimental almost to a fault, Ozu balances his fulsome urges with a nonpareil eye for the beauty and deep-rooted sorrow existing within the mundane of everyday life. That families fall apart is inevitable. Ozu makes the effort to understand why.