For a long time, Yasujiro Ozu’s movies were thought too Japanese to appeal to American moviegoers. The 50 movies he made between 1927 and 1962 have rarely been seen in the U.S. But recently, Ozu’s movies about everyday middle class life have begun trickling into your local video store. Despite the wisdom of past film distributors, it’s hard to think of a movie more relevant to contemporary American family life than Ozu’s wonderful Tokyo Story, recently released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.
Tokyo Story is about an elderly couple who takes a trip from their small town in the country to the big city of Tokyo to visit their grown children. Their kids welcome them, take them sightseeing, shuttle them from one family to another, and, to keep from getting too far behind with their own lives, send them on a weekend getaway to a nearby spa. While it’s never mentioned, the distance between the parents and their busy children grows painfully obvious as the days pass. The sight of the old couple sitting on a sea wall—frail and alone, staring at the horizon—is so real it’s heartbreaking. Those are your parents sitting there, and mine.
Anyone who ever moved away from home, played tour guide for visiting in-laws, or made a trip to see their children will recognize the interactions in Tokyo Story immediately. Jonathan Franzen’s recent novel The Corrections is about a similar situation—a mother wants her grown kids who live in New York to come back to the Midwest for one more Christmas together. That a movie made in Japan in 1953 can touch the same nerves as a hip, modern American novel shows just how common these themes are, spanning media, languages, cultures, continents and decades.
By the time he made Tokyo Story, Ozu was well established as a master filmmaker. He’d sharpened and reduced his style to a small set of crisp, deceptively simple elements. His camera rarely moves. It sits three feet off the ground, at eye-level if you’re seated on the floor, as his characters often are. He begins each scene with a brief montage of beautifully composed shots that prepare us for what’s next—the drying laundry of domestic life, the smokestacks of city and commerce, the trains of transition—a kind of grammar built out of simple clauses, “pillow shots,” they’re called now, little cushions between interactions. He famously omits events other filmmakers would highlight—a wedding, say—far more interested in the conversations before and after the event than the spectacle itself.
His later movies have similar titles, like Late Spring, Late Autumn, or Early Summer. The plots often revolve around the marriage of a daughter and the meaning the act has to her and her family. Ozu even built up a company of actors he reused time and again, often in similar roles. Japanese audiences watched the great Chishu Ryu, who plays the elderly patriarch in Tokyo Story, grow from a college kid into a distinguished gentleman by watching 35 years of Ozu’s movies.
And yet while they look similar, they’re made of the stuff of life—marriage, war, children, separation, loneliness, joy, sacrifice—and Ozu demonstrated that with enough care and precision, these elements are reconfigurable into an infinite number of delicate truths. He specialized in the little things, the smiles on people’s faces when they’re in pain, the politeness of disappointed parents. But he wasn’t afraid of the big issues, either. He dealt with the growth of wartime prostitution in 1947’s A Hen In the Wind, and abortion in 1957’s Tokyo Twilight (Yes, 1957). His early silent masterpiece I Was Born, But… is ostensibly a charming comedy about the two new kids in town trying to make friends in the neighborhood, but an hour into the movie it turns on a dime, making a devastating commentary on class inequities, something the adults know all about but the kids are just discovering. In the movies Ozu made after World War II, the remnants of the war lurk around the edges, never forgotten, echoing in the lives of people who lost family members or struggled to make ends meet. Ozu is so often thought to be gentle and mannered that people sometimes forget he could be equally honest about the ugliness of life.
Although the movie-going public may not know Ozu, many of them have unwittingly felt the impact his movies have had on filmmakers around the world. In the bonus material on the Tokyo Story DVD, Aki Kaursimäki, the fine filmmaker who made last year’s The Man Without A Past, says he’s made a dozen “lousy” movies and he’s going to make more, if only to prove once and for all that he’s not as good as Ozu. Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Ghost Dog) likes to focus on the spaces between the actions, something he picked up from Ozu. Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) said that, for him, Ozu’s work is the closest thing cinema has to a sacred treasure.
Calling Ozu a “Japanese master” makes him sound daunting, but his movies are actually quite accessible. He does expect patience, however. His movies are calm and quiet, and he plunks you down in the middle of things without explaining who everyone is right away. But he’s not trying to be difficult, and he’s not playing a game. He’s evoking the feeling you’d have if you walked into another family’s gathering, and if you pay attention long enough, you’ll figure out who is married to whom, whose kid is whose, and what historical events are still important, because your family probably isn’t all that different.
In Ozu’s last movie, An Autumn Afternoon, a widowed father played once again by Chishu Ryu sits alone in a bar after his daughter’s wedding. In the right light, the barmaid reminds him of his late wife, when she was young. She pours him a drink, and someone plays a war march on the juke box. We know from earlier in the movie that this man was a ship captain in the war. As he sips his drink in silence, we begin to understand from the look on his face that this moment must be a reminder of all of the losses in his life. While the tails of his tux drape over the back of his stool, he drinks whisky poured by the familiar looking barmaid and listens to the sounds of a war in which he fought for the losing side. “Funeral?” the barmaid asks when she sees his formal clothing. “More or less,” he replies.
This is the sort of subtle climax Ozu builds to. There are no villains in his movies, but sometimes there are heroes. Sometimes the characters are foolish, or prideful, or naive, or disrespectful, but Ozu doesn’t beat them down. He helps us understand them. Sometimes they grow. Sometimes they decide to change. And if I identify with them, if I am the ungrateful child of Tokyo Story, then I can change, too.
Seldom does a movie reach so deep and so far with a voice so still. Seldom does a movie make me want to be a better son.