WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
The children live in Tokyo now, all grown with kids of their own, as they work from sunup and create the lives which their parents envisioned as better than their own. They have educated themselves properly, applied their skills, and have found modest comfort in a moderately-paid desk position. They have raised their youth to do the same, for better or for worse, to ensure the continuity of the family’s success. They have done this, just like those before them and those to come, for tradition, if nothing else. We notice, though, a trend in our children, in the distance they grow from us as they get older. No longer do they feel truly like ours, like we raised them. We give our children the sincere hopes that they grow up in a better world, that they foster a better life for themselves, that they live happily. What should we expect, then, when that wish is fulfilled, and suddenly our children, in the midst of their goals and aspirations, simply forget about us?
The questions of family, of generational connection and disconnection were often posed by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, and throughout his heavy, soul-shaking mid-20th century filmography, no film of his has brought itself to the forefront of the human conscience more overtime than Tokyo Story, released in 1953, which presents the dilemma described above. Two elderly parents, five grown kids, and though only hundreds of miles separate them, it feels as if the world has spun them away from each other in a permanent, immovable way. The parents have to ask themselves, do we let our children be, or stand there, yearning, trying to make ourselves seen?
Tomi and Shukichi (two Ozu favorites, Chieko Higashiyama and Chishu Ryu) can’t decide. When they first arrive in the city, their children are already accommodating them just fine at their homes (though the inconvenience is already present via one of the grandchildren’s fits about the changes), and seem dually engaged in their responsibilities and their parents. As the days pass, though, the only person truly focused on conversing with Tomi and Shukichi is their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (the ineffably performing Setsuko Hara). Noriko takes them sightseeing, where they are dissonant with the modernity and shapeshifting downtown Tokyo. She sits with them in discussion and truly opens up; one can reckon her loneliness from being widowed renders her able to empathize with these freshly neglected parents. It is one of the great, layered performances in cinema, and Hara delivered many throughout her life.
Eventually, two of the couples’ children pay for and send their parents on an excursion to the Atami Hot Springs Spa, but to little avail; the two find it too noisy and claustrophobic, and the next morning, seem homesick. As they get up to leave, Tomi struggles to find her footing. She and her husband dismiss it, but we have no choice than to begin to see the roots of the third act begin to form. As they return to Tokyo, we learn that sending their parents to Atami was crucial for the daughter, Shige, who had a business meeting that we gather could not have transpired with Tomi and Shukichi present. Then, a sequence which packs the first big punch, in which Tomi implores Noriko to remarry, to forget Tomi’s son’s demise. We can feel the tremors of Tomi’s worries: she feels her own passing may be soon, and reinforces the film’s thesis, that we mold our youth, so desperately attempting to let them learn from us. It becomes the film’s most emotional component; two generations, so deeply interconnected but helplessly unfamiliar with the other. It’s as if the young can never see themselves in declining health, with fading skin and trembling muscles.
Tomi falls ill on the train back from Tokyo to their hometown of Onomichi, and once arriving, she dies. As audience members, we may be accustomed to a standard order after a death on film: immediate mourning, crying outbursts, deep vocalized pain. The children of Tokyo Story barely weep. They rush to Onomichi to pay their respects and to see her one last time, and once she passes, they are silent. Numb. Immobile. It’s as if something has bludgeoned them, a feeling of failure -- of what they feel they could have done if they had paid more attention. In fact, one of the children is late due to a business conference, and arrives after her passing, denied a final goodbye.
The funeral scene which follows is one of the most famed in all of Japanese cinema, but I won’t dwell on it here; instead, I find a moment shortly after more striking. Noriko, the daughter-in-law, finds the freshly widowed Shukichi on a patio outside of the funeral home, overlooking the view. He tells Noriko, “It was such a beautiful dawn.” I can’t describe this moment, only that it knocks me out every time I see it. There’s a raw, rugged truth to it. You have nothing to hide after a moment like this. It’s absolutely beautiful, and sixty-six years later, this scene’s power and impact has no expiration date.
Ozu’s films were often composed of these moments -- the quieter conversations, the defining statements. Ozu and his writing partner Kogo Noda wrote films centered around marriages, notably Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951), only to never show the wedding. His poignant Floating Weeds (1959) followed characters in a travelling acting troupe, though we scarcely see them perform. In western cinema, the opportunity for sentiment would be too high to miss these seemingly dramatic moments, but at some point early on with Ozu, no matter which film you begin with, you begin to understand it’s not about where these characters find themselves, but how they got here. Who they had to love, and had to leave, to become who they are in front of the camera. There’s irony in Ozu’s films employing the well-known Japanese actors of the time -- in his work, they never feel like actors. They feel seen, and uncomfortable, and insecure. We feel great shame for watching their failures, and sometimes we are proud of their triumphs after only ninety minutes of viewing them. In the end, they’re here like us, trying to find answers.
Yasujiro Ozu’s work was never seen outside of the Japanese archipelago until the early seventies, when British film scholars began to discover the cinema of Asia. During his life, his contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa found international acclaim with samurai epics and Shakespeare adaptations, while Ozu himself couldn’t find distribution, as decision-makers deemed his work “too Japanese” for foreign audiences. With this label, Ozu finished his career with over fifty directing credits, without a reel of his ever seen outside of his home country. He lived with his mother in a modest house, and despite its impact on his work, marriage never found him (his likely homosexuality may have made marriage nearly impossible in his time). He died mere months after his mother, on his sixtieth birthday. Today, you won’t find a filmmaker on Earth who doesn’t owe some of their craft (and their tears) to his wonderful work, and in 2012, after never having thought his work would be seen the world over, the British magazine Sight and Sound voted Tokyo Story as the third-greatest film of all time, and the best film to ever be produced in Japan.
A beautiful dawn, indeed.
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.