A Japanese masterpiece now out on DVD
My friend Scott Tobias has a review of the DVD release of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece TOKYO STORY, one of the essential, canonized films, one that everyone serious about cinema has to see.
TOKYO STORY and Ozu’s other films offers a radically different notion of how to shoot drama. It shows ordinary people in ordinary situations and shoots them in the most-plain style I know of, but without lapsing into lazy cinema-verite. It is formal, precise, even a bit mannered at first. Very little “happens” in the course of TOKYO STORY (while a universe is happening in it): Elderly rural couple visit their children and widowed daughter-in-law in Tokyo, are treated with indifference, move on to a seaside resort, the film’s only real plot point then happens, and the survivors deal with the aftermath. Ozu’s characteristic style, at the same time one of the most subtle and one of the most distinctive of any director in the medium’s history, keeps everything calm and restrained. The camera never moves, there are no fades or dissolves, the viewer is at the eye-level of someone sitting down, the actors are restrained and speak as formally as at a Japanese tea ceremony.
The style has been linked to Buddhism, a “Transcendental” style, and a repressed, knowing acceptance of fate. But Ozu was also an ironist, though in a very gentle way. He was well aware of the gap between how people talk and what they think and how they deal with that gap, but he never “exposed” it in a sneering fit of adolescent brutalism. Scott describes well in his review the facial expressions of Chishu Ryu (the father) and Setsuko Hara (the daughter-in-law), and how they carry the film. The two actors have a rapport, born of familiarity, that suggests an ambiguous ocean of emotions under the plain surface gestures (a metaphor that pretty much describes TOKYO STORY as a whole, come to think).
But the feature of Ozu’s style that has been commented on least is how often his characters talk to the camera in an ordinary conversation. Rather than the intercutting of over-the-shoulder or profile shots, Ozu often shoots an ordinary conversation between two people by intercutting shots of each character talking in full-frontal view, eyes to the camera. I know of few other directors who have ever done this (and then mostly to talk to the audience — breaking down the fourth wall as it were) and none who made it part of their habitual style.
The effect heightens subjective involvement by having us sit in one character’s shoes while another talks to him with eye contact, just like a real conversation. At the same time, it also, by forcing eye contact with the *other* character, this shooting style makes *him* more sympathetic as well. Ozu’s technique heightens subjectivity without sacrificing objectivity, like most first-person camera techniques tend to. Although Ozu’s films are about family ties and thus sound like soap opera, there is no melodrama or heroes and villains in any of the half-dozen films of his I’ve seen. Just people living.
As implied by my unfavorable comparison of cinema verite, Ozu’s aesthetic shows that it is possible to achieve the goals of capturing the real without abandoning art. The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffman said it may be the greatest art work of the second half of the twentieth century. Like all such superlatives, take that with a grain of salt, but suffice it to say that the statement will never be cited on Kauffman’s commitment papers. (Also very much worth catching: AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON, EQUINOX FLOWER and FLOATING WEEDS — all available on tape, though not DVD, for right now anyway. Unseen by me, but with very high reputations and available on video are GOOD MORNING and I WAS BORN BUT …)
TOKYO STORY does make demands on you because you’ve never seen a film quite like an Ozu before. But for those who can make the demand of themselves, it is as deeply moving and unsentimental a film as you’ll ever see. “Dry-eyed tears” is the metaphor that comes to mind — the DVD box on the Onion site is a facial closeup of Hara shedding a most-discreet tear. And yes, years ago, when I saw this film for the third time (first in a theater), when Hara is describing to one of her in-laws her expectations of life, I shed a few of my own.