Home > films and reviews > Concepts behind the artistry of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).

Concepts behind the artistry of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).

Tokyo Story (1953) is a critically acclaimed film by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. It is a film about the relationship of parents with their adult children and how this changes through the passage of time and circumstances. It starts by introducing us to two ageing couple (Shukichi and Tomi) who are eagerly preparing for their first trip to visit their grown-up children living in Tokyo. We soon see how the couple adapts to the bustling city life, the evolving behaviors of their children towards them, and the physical limitations of their ageing bodies. McDonald (1982) in his analysis of this film identified three parts to this tale. The first part was set in the small town of Onomichi where we see the elderly couple preparing for their trip; the middle part that contrast the different attitudes and behaviors of the children to their elderly parents’ presence on their hectic work days; and the last part that involves the climatic ending which is the untimely death of Tomi and how her family responds to this life-event (McDonald, 1982). The plot is a simple narrative yet it masterfully provokes emotions through feelings of nostalgia and introspection.

Yasujiro Ozu was born from a middle-class family during the Meiji Era which was the time when Japan opened up to the world after centuries of feudal isolation. He grew up watching a lot of Hollywood movies which outnumbered Japanese films during this youth. He was an employee of Shochiku Kamata studio for most of his life, starting as an assistant cameraman at 19 years old until he died of cancer as a renowned director at 60 years old (Rayns, 2010). Themes of his movies focus on domestic issues such as marriage, generational differences, and life of the elderly. In an analysis of his work, Rayn (201) discusses how the director’s chosen themes are not inspired by his personal life. Ozu never married or had children and other than being in films, he had significant experience as a Japanese army reserve yet he never made a film featuring a soldier’s life (Rayns, 2010).

In Tokyo Story (1953), Ozu shows several unifying concepts that guide his artistic decisions. One of which is the power of simplicity. His work during post-war Japan was identified by his fondness of the fixed low camera position shots whose goal was to attain flatness and monotony that limits strong emotions (Geist, 1987).  This technique is applied several times in the film, most significantly during conversations among the family while sitting on a Japanese tatami mat. Such power of simplicity is also parallel to his use of non-complex daily life narratives used to gain insights on the personality of the characters. McDonald (1982) cited examples from the film which include trivial comments between the siblings Shige and Koichi on how they do not need to serve sukiyaki with sashimi or elegant cakes to their visiting parents in contrast to Noriko’s efforts to serve sake to them despite her limited resources. McDonald (1982) also pointed out repetitive patterns in the narrative such as the appearance of the neighbor on the first scene who wishes them luck on their journey to Tokyo and the re-appearance of the same neighbor at the end of the film, using the same compositional frame, as she converses with Shukichi who is about to take a new life journey as a widow.

Harmony is another major concept evident in Ozu’s artistry.  McDonald (1982) argues that Ozu’s use of “pillow shots” instead of the typical fade away style to transition scenes is a significant example of the harmony between man and his surroundings. We see this technique of transition “from exterior to interior to human figures” in the film’s opening sequence where we first see the landscape of Onomichi with its static ocean and busy commuter trains, which then eventually moves to a shot of a street by the mountains, then the camera moves into the interior of the house with an empty hallway, then ending inside the couple’s room before the couple are focused in a frame (McDonald, 1982, p 23). Despite the contrasting behaviors and attitudes of the children to their ageing parents, there were minimal emotional outburst and arguments among them in narrative. McDonald (1982) argues that conflicts among the characters are never shown in opposition to one another. In fact, the characters try to accept each other’s faults and learn from others, as evidence by the scene when the Noriko attempts to justify Koico, Shige, and Keizo’s indifference to the confused young Hirayama (McDonald, 1982). Domestic unity between the elderly couple were evident in many of their scenes, especially through their sense of humor displayed when they were looking for the air pillow as they pack for their trip and when they were commenting at the vastness of Tokyo as they share their common fears and disappointments about their children and grandchildren. How the adult children echo their reluctance to care for their elderly parents also show elements of harmony, as if the attitudes displayed by the three children came from one character.

Ozu’s films are full of other unique artistic elements. An example is his technique of showing the aftermath of a dramatic event instead of the event itself, as shown in the film when we see Tomi on her deathbed with her family around her, skipping the scene of how she got sick in the train and progressed to a critical state. Another style would be the use of inanimate objects and surroundings to capture the passage of time like laundry drying in a clothesline, a train passing by a quiet town, and shots of the ocean that are repeated at different times in the film. These profound concepts behind his artistic decisions are one, among the many, reasons why he is a beloved director of classical world cinema.

References:

Geist, K. 1987. Narrative Style in Ozu’s Silent Films. Film Quarterly. 40 (2). Pp 28-35

McDonald, K. 1982. Ozu’s Tokyo Story: Simple Means for Complex Ends. The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese. 17(1). Pp 19-39

Rayns, T. Ozu Yasujiro, Tofu Maker. Sight & Sound 20(2), 22-26.

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