By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
When the British Film Institute’s prestigious monthly magazine Sight & Sound published the new results of its once-a-decade poll for the title of greatest movie ever, the big news was that Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” had dethroned Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” in the poll of film critics — the first time since 1962 that “Citizen Kane” failed to finish on top. Film lovers also took note of the third-ever poll of the greatest film directors. “Citizen Kane” had won the first two director polls in 1992 and 2002. This year, however, “Kane” dropped to third place and a modestly-budgeted, black-and-white Japanese film from 1953 rose as the new champion.
“Tokyo Story,” directed and co-written by Yasujirō Ozu, is a quiet film with no genre elements. Unlike many works of Akira Kurosawa, the best-known Japanese director in the West, Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” and the 52 others he finished, contain no samurai, swordplay, detectives, yakuza, guns, or wild acrobatic stunts. Ozu made films about ordinary people doing ordinary things, one reason why his fellow film directors and critics know his work better than the general public. Ozu’s work illuminated the depths of ordinariness. He gave humanity a new cinematic vitality .
The film’s simple plot concerns a trip by an elderly father and mother (Chishu Riyu and Chieko Higashiyama, respectively) to Tokyo to visit family. Once they arrive, they find that their own children don’t have time for them. The children say so with classic Japanese politeness, and the couple accepts being ignored and shuttled around. But the old couple secretly wonder if they’ve done something wrong.
Ozu is well-known for his distinctive photography. He often shot inside traditional Japanese houses, and he liked to position his camera a few feet off the floor, roughly where a person would be sitting on a tatami mat. He also moved the camera less and less as he aged. “Tokyo Story” contains a few tracking shots, but by his last films in the early 1960s, the camera does not move at all.
Ozu always constructed his shots elegantly and knew exactly when to cut between actions. The static camera becomes less important compared to his overall mastery of action. He used prominent static shots, often of outdoor building scenes, to indicate time passing and a new setting for action.
Ozu’s examination of post-war Japanese life is fascinating in its detail. The director examines everything from wives cooking to trains clacking to children horse-playing before school. But the director also knew what to leave out of the frame. World War II is only briefly mentioned, but its cost, both in human lives and in the disruption of tradition, plays out among the characters on screen.
The director collaborated on the script with his longtime screenwriter Kogo Noda and installed his favorite male actor, Chishu Riyu, as the father. Ozu enjoyed working with the same people over and over until they felt and worked together like family. Indeed, Chishu Riyu appears in all but two of 54 Ozu’s films.
“Tokyo Story” illustrates Roger Ebert’s principle that the film’s true virtue lies not in its ‘what’ — the plot — but in the ‘how’ of its storytelling. “Tokyo Story” practically tells you, through its actions, that it is going to break your heart. When the heartbreaking moment comes, it’s tough to hold back tears. That’s the everyday brilliance of Ozu. (end)
“Tokyo Story” plays from Sept. 21 to Sept. 26 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th Street in Seattle’s University District.
For prices and showtimes, call 206-523-3935 or visit www.grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.