Thursday, October 14, 2004

Film: Tokyo Story (1953). Dir. Ozu, Yasujiro.

(Ozu, Y.)

As was their customary practice, the renowned Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu met with his scriptwriter friend Nodo Kogo in an inn in Chigaski to discuss the plans for their next collaboration. A hundred and three days and forty-three bottles of sakē later, the script was finalised and ready to go into production. An apparently modest tale documenting the lives of an elderly couple arriving from the country to visit their children in the city (Tokyo), the script followed themes that Ozu had explored on previous occasions (see for instance his first “talkie”, The Only Son) and took nearly five months to shoot. The film, entitled Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story), proved to be a masterpiece of modern cinema.

(Tokyo Story)

Ozu, a director often recognised in the West (where he is at all recognised in the West) as a truly Japanese director in style and technique, was in fact far more of a singular director than such a label would suggest. Apart from it being documented that in his childhood he showed greater passion for the works of particularly early American filmmakers of the time than that of his own country, his films lack many of the signatures that are commonly associated with the works of traditional aesthetics. It was for instance, interestingly observed in one article on his work[1] that Ozu is a director of clear blue skies: that is to say his films aren’t responsive to “seasonal aesthetics” – something which is itself common, if not an entirely integral feature, to Japanese cinema. Indeed, the article further stressed that neither is Ozu particularly received in Japan as a traditional filmmaker – rather that this view has proliferated as part of his Western reception. Yet while Ozu was not purely marked by the traditions of Japanese cinema, neither could he in any way be called a Western director. His whole conceptualisation of space and temporality resists the Western cinematic template. In truth, like all great directors, the power of his cinematic vision was unique. His lightness of touch, his ability to graduate a remarkable subtlety of emotion, grouped together with his technical mastery and assuredness of form, served to render in his films a simplicity and purity of the medium that has never been assailed.

Tokyo monogatari is the most legendary celebration of these skills. In this film the flow of everyday life is magnetically displayed on the screen, drawing the viewer in to an intimate world of family relationships. Before one’s eyes, the “cinematic” withdraws as spectacle even as the drama quietly increases: the “epic” is banished in favour of intimate portraits and beautifully weighted performances. Yet the film is not, on closer inspection “naturalistic." Rather, the audience is elliptically drawn into the individual movements of the characters, so that the plot appears to draw itself naturally out of the folds of the dialogue and events – the simplicity of the story belies a narrative subtlety that communicates via the creation of anticipatory connections which continually lure the viewer further into the story as part of its unfolding.

David Desser, in his informative introductory essay on Ozu[2], diagnoses many different forms of ellipsis appearing in Ozu’s work[3], which highlight that the astonishing temporal flow achieved in Ozu’s films is in fact derived from a disjunctive synthesis. That is to say, Ozu recognises that time itself is conditioned in “moments”, temporally grounded via interruptions that naturally appear to reconstitute time. These moments serve as transitional spaces between elisions: they are pauses which condition the experience of time in his films. As was previously alluded to, the construction of space in Ozu’s films is also unusual in cinema. Unlike the tradition in Hollywood of using a 180 degree space, Ozu’s cinematic spatial construction via the use of camera angles is in fact 360 degrees, thus creating an entirely different notion of spatiality in his work. His approach further differs from Hollywood in that, radically, he is happy to mismatch action. For example, when someone disappears off screen on the right, they will appear re-emerging from the left (ad vice-versa). This linearity is a tacit rule of Western film in order to hide the cut and thus retain the flow of the film. With Ozu however, there is little or no attendance to this principle – yet this nevertheless appears as an entirely natural feature of his direction. There are other examples of this mismatching[4] which, by Western standards, should by rights count as fatal errors, but with Ozu are effortless cinematic presentations of spacing and temporal forms.

Hence what we see in Ozu’s films is a different conception of temporality and of spatial continuity than is typical within at least a Western framework of filmmaking. Yet while this gives us a little technical insight into the way in which Ozu’s films operate in a distinctive manner, we cannot begin to reduce a work like Tokyo monogatari to these features. What we see in this film is beyond any such reduction. In a review, Lindsay Anderson refers to its “essential humanity”, and its “humane virtues” as its essential feature. Yet Ozu directs with a dry eye. He was known to have directed in an extremely systematic measure – the actors followed the script to the letter. While Tokyo monogatari induces at times a powerful sentiment, the film is in no way sentimental. The director is entirely invisible, withdrawn from comment, maintaining the perfect balance of an ironic disposition. The power of Tokyo monogatari is not its humanity, but its ability to act as a mirror in which we discover our own.


[1] See Ed. David Desser, Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni. Press, 1997.
[2] See Ed. David Desser, Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni. Press, 1997.
[3] For example, “surprise ellipsis” and “dramatic ellipsis”.
[4] Refer to camerawork where characters exchange positions in shots.

3 Comments:

Blogger Scott said...

In retrospect I recognise that I overlooked the obvious: Deleuze speaks about Ozu very perceptively in his cinema books and that this would have proved a more compelling point of reference. Hopefully I'll expand on this at a later date.

11:42 PM  
Blogger edward said...

I find this review very interesting. I have not yet seen the film but am certainly intending to. I want therefore only to put a few questions that occured to me. At the end of the second paragraph, you write that Ozu achieves a 'simplicity and purity' that has never been assailed. This makes me think of Vertov's 'Man With a Movie Camera' which begins with a statement of intent for the film which amounts to a manifesto for film. Vertov wants to create a 'universal language of cinema' and sees himself as supervisor of this experiment. It is without script, actors or any such trappings of theatre. I also think of Chris Marker's 'Sans Soleil' with its connections and associations between images composing a world memory, a transversal and open whole. Do you think that Ozu offers an alternative to these two forms of pure cinema (Vertov spatial and Marker temporal).

In the third paragraph you put it that the audience is drawn into 'the individual movements of the characters, so that the plot appears to draw itself naturally out of the folds of the dialogue and events.' Does this mean that the individuality of the character form a singular point within a broader movement? If these singular 'anticipatory connections' animate the this 'unfolding', does this mean that the film is open onto a virtual that is expressed through these singular points?

Do the mismatches of action express some form of non-psychological unconscious?

At the end of the essay you put it that the film acts as a mirror in which we discover our own humanity. What is the nature of this humanity would you say? Is it impersonal? I assume that it isn't 'the inhuman' if you use the word 'humanity.' Deleuze in 'Cinema 2' talks about Ozu's spaces reaching the absolute as 'instances of pure contemplation.' Do you agree with this reading where the identity of mental and physical, real and imaginary, subject and object, world and I, are immediately brought about? If so, would you say this is a form of humanity?

Thanks for introducing such a fascinating area. Proves how valuable Parallel Processes is.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Bicho said...

El Gobierno de España quiere erradicar la Filosofía del Sistema de Educación. La opinión pública no lo sabe... Estamos indignados Pedimos solidaridad.
Abrazos.

10:46 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home