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Saturday, 1 August 2009

Tokyo Story (1953)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Stars: Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu

The opening scenes of Yasujiro Ozu's rightly acclaimed Tokyo Story, a landmark in Japanese cinema, hammer home the congruence of ancient and modern in Japan. It's obvious in the landscape: trains and factory chimney sitting amongst serene looking pagodas. Ozu isn't a director known for blatancies though, he's renowned as the epitome of subtlety, someone who conjures stories out of what appear to many to be nothing. The key is that those people apparently aren't paying attention because there's subtle detail everywhere.

This is a simple story: an elderly couple, Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama, travel from the small town of Onimichi to the big city to visit their children and grandchildren, who are apparently doing well but never come to visit them. The only child they see regularly is their youngest daughter Kyoko who still lives with them. Their youngest son Keizo is in Osaka so we don't meet him until much later, because they initially travel to Tokyo where eldest son Koichi is a paediatrician and their eldest daughter Shige works at a hairdressers, at the Ooh La La Beauty Salon no less. The middle son Shoji died during the war, but bizarrely, it's their daughter-in-law Noriko who spends most time with them.

And here's the key. We learn about these characters not by what they do but how they do it. All of them do all the dutiful things: seeing them off on the train, coming round to see them, buying things for them, even treating them to a trip to the Atami spas. These kids do care about their parents but they're also very absorbed in their own lives, lives that are thrown out of whack by the visit. Their parents become an inconvenience. They shuffle them around to each other to give themselves more time and that spa trip was at least in part to get them out of the way.

They all try to find that delicate balance between doing their own thing and spending time with the elder generation. They get progressively worse at that as time goes by, but as they later discover they really didn't do very well to begin with. Tomi Hirayama falls critically ill after returning home to Onimichi and only after she dies do they realise that so much of what she said in Tokyo had meaning that they completedly overlookat the time. They just hadn't paid enough attention, doing enough to satisfy duty but not really anything more.

And here's the lesson for us, not just a life lesson but a cinematic one too. We have to pay attention to see just how much is going on in this film. So much of the dialogue is laced with double meanings, there are suggestions in statements and weight in apparently throwaway comments. Whole conversations are full of people saying they don't want things to happen but then feel slighted when they don't, only they can't show that they feel slighted because they said they didn't want whatever it was to begin with.

What appears at the outset to be amateur acting is merely cleverly realistic, shorn of theatrical elements and stripped bare to honesty, so as to be able to carry this depth. The fact that the actors so often speak directly to the camera, as if talking to us, takes a little getting used to as well, and that's only one device used here. The other obvious one is the fact that almost the entire film is shot from a camera positioned a lot lower than we expect, as if we're in the middle of the scene ourselves, kneeling on a tatame like the rest of the characters. It's a very effective pairing of devices, set up a full half century before the modern reality TV craze.

I caught some of the extra meanings here but it's pretty clear that this is a film to explore deeper with repeat viewings. The connections to reality really ought to resonate too, because this isn't a single message film. There are parts that connected with me at the point in life that I'm at right now but I'm sure that it'll be different parts that touch me ten years from now or twenty or thirty. It's obviously a film to grow with, as it seems to have done for many viewers already.

It's the genius of this film that there are so many of these little touches that it's hard to count them and often to even notice them because they're so subtle. There are so many points where we suddenly realise what a previous scene meant or a line spoken earlier in the film really tied to. Everything seems to have something to tell us, if only we care enough to step away from our own lives for a couple of hours to pay attention. It speaks to the differences between generations, between country and city living, difference between tradition and modernity; to the differences between characters and noise and movement.

It also tells so much about things we don't even see. We don't meet our elderly couple until they're, well, elderly, and there are no flashbacks or imaginings in this very linear story. Yet we get massive insight into their life together through dialogue and reactions. We learn about who they are because of how they play along with their children's plans, how they react to what they do, how they talk under the influence of drink. We also learn about them from their family, comments here and there gradually filling in our picture like a jigsaw puzzle. So by the end of the film, we know about their life together that we didn't see, about Shoji and Noriko's parents who we never see.

We're also treated to subtle comments on Japanese culture. A couple of exchanges of dialogue really stood out for me, even though they're not highlighted above any other. Right at the beginning of the film they lose their air cushion. Of course it's the woman's fault, and of course the man doesn't apologise when it turns out that it's his fault, but it's played out as utterly routine. There's no bad feeling, it's simply how things are expected for a traditional elderly couple. Later on, Tomi says that 'I'm glad I lived to this day. The world has changed so.' The immediate reaction is 'But you haven't changed at all,' only for her to reply in turn, 'Of course we have. We're old folks now.' This is utterly throwaway stuff if you take it at face value. The more you learn about the characters and about Japanese culture in general the more that becomes a definitive summing up of the last century in Japan.

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