July 10, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story. 1953. Japan. Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

These notes accompany the screenings of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story on July 11, 12, and 13.

The writings of Andrew Sarris, who died June 20, are the inspiration for this series, and it is dedicated to him. No one in the English-speaking world has done more than Andy to explain and celebrate the role of the director in making a film a work of personal artistry. The case of Yasujiro Ozu (1903–1963) is probably the most glaring example of where Sarris and I part company. In writing about Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story) back in 1972, Andy opined that the film was “as mired in malaise as anything concocted by our own professional pessimists. Ozu’s rigid frames are the most rigorous expression I know of the trap of nondramatic daily existence, that vast void of time in which nothing much ever happens.” Sarris was responding to a number of factors that make up the content and austere style of Ozu’s films, of which Tokyo Story is probably the most accomplished. In truth, there is very little plot and the pacing is slow; the director’s camera is essentially stationary and contemplative, and he shoots from a low-angle, simulating the point-of-view of a traditional Japanese person seated on a tatami mat; occasionally, he offers transitional images—still lifes, also rigorously composed, that act as codas. Yet Ozu’s films, and especially this one, are incredibly moving.

The story, such as it is, is simple. An older couple comes to Tokyo to visit their children and grandsons. They are treated by the family with passive abuse, with the exception of their war-widow daughter-in-law, played beautifully by Setsuko Hara, the star of Ozu’s Late Spring (which we showed in December) and other films, who also worked with Akira Kurosawa. After their disappointment, the couple returns home, where the grandmother dies. Hara offers to move in to take care of the old man (played by the brilliant Chishu Ryu), but he chooses to be left alone and tells her to remarry.

Tokyo Story. 1953. Japan. Directed by Yasujiro Ozu

The book on Ozu, before Donald Richie brought him to Western attention and Dan Talbot at New Yorker Films released a slew of his films, was that he would not be understood outside of Japan. Of course, Ozu himself was quite familiar with what was going on in America and Europe. He readily acknowledged his debt to Leo McCarey’s 1937 Make Way For Tomorrow (shown here at the end of 2010), which dealt with many of the same issues as Tokyo Story. Ozu had been a military officer in World War II, although one doubts he was very good at it; he had exposure to Americans and Brits, who held him as a POW. In his last film (An Autumn Afternoon), he has Ryu and some of his old army buddies wax tipsily nostalgic in a noodle bar about what it might have been like to win the war and occupy New York. As David Bordwell points out, one of the grandsons in Tokyo Story whistles the theme from John Ford’s Stagecoach. In many of his films, Ozu’s characters make reference to various American movie stars, and he shared with the Danish director, Carl Th. Dreyer, an improbable fondness for Ernst Lubitsch. As different as his films seem from ours, Ozu knew America and its movies. And, as Bordwell indicates, the director finds there is “poetic resonance” in the seemingly mundane acts and objects that Sarris sees as disappointing. Hara sums up the film’s ending by pointing out that “life is disappointing,” and ultimately we are all left alone with our personal reality.

Other writers have uniformly called Tokyo Story a masterpiece, or, as the late Penelope Gilliatt labeled it, “one of the manifest miracles of cinema.” Even that staunch critic of narrative film, Jonas Mekas, said that “there is in it none of the stuff from which movies are made—images, movement, light. But, my God, what a movie!” Speaking of God, Ozu’s strongest advocate, Donald Richie, refers to the spiritual or religious nature of the director’s films, but paradoxically emphasizes that Ozu’s worldview is completely people-centered. I find it slightly ironic that Ozu, whose movies are all about family life, never married, spending most of his adulthood living with his mother. He died on his 60th birthday and is buried in Kamakura, where he was born. The cemetery is next to the train station, just a short ride from Tokyo and modern reality. I spent a rainy day there once, trying to find him.


A few recommendations from my colleague Anne Morra’s upcoming series Unaccompanied Minors: Views of Youth in Films from the Collection: both Morris Engel’s lovely The Little Fugitive (July 23 and August 11) and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (July 22 and August 11) would be included in our series, if Anne was not showing them. Francois Truffaut (for my money the best director born in the last 80 years) has acknowledged the influence of Engel’s film on his own first feature, The 400 Blows, another film in the Tokyo Story mold of quasi-functional families. Anne is also showing the Truffaut film (July 28 and August 1).