Tokyo Story / Tōkyō Monogatari
d. Yasujirō Ozu / Japan / 1953 / 136 mins
Viewed at: A3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
Those with even a cursory knowledge of the films of Yasujirō Ozu will no doubt be familiar with the Japanese master’s unique style (which persists even if the adjective ‘Ozu-like’ pertains chiefly to his later works). Ozu’s style abounds in the gentle meandering of his films, in his predilection for ellipsis, in his preference for graphic over eyeline matches, and in his deployment of an immovably low-angle camera, which wanders around his sets in a series of static shots that consistently breach the 180° ‘rule’ of continuity editing.
Less commented upon (which is still a lot, considering how much discussion Ozu continues to generate) is something that really caught my eye this time around; the fact that many of Ozu’s shots, particularly domestic interiors, have a kind of ‘flattened-depth’ to them, where the director compresses domestic space into an almost singular dimension.
Our first views of Dr. Koichi Hirayama’s home, as his wife cleans, tidies and prepares for the arrival of Koichi’s parents (and the film’s central characters) Shukichi and Tomi, is comprised of a series of oppressively flat interior views, where depth of field is all but removed, leaving the house in a tangle of vertical and horizontal lines.
Even the shots which seem to possess the usual characteristics of depth of field, notably the blurring of objects in the immediate foreground, are uncharacteristically compressed. For the audience, this illusion of ‘flattened-depth’ is repeatedly questioned when characters seem to walk into – or through – walls, as in this sequence in which Dr. Hirayama’s eldest son returns home from school:
The mise-en-scene becomes even more disorientating when you consider the continuity ‘error’ that follows, with the son exiting the frame on the right, before reentering the subsequent shot on the same side.
Clearly, as well as being a stylistic flourish of sorts, Ozu is hoping to show the domestic environment as a site of emotional repression. In Tokyo Story, the various homes of the grown-up Hirayama children become almost prison-like, at least in the attitudes of the children, who are constantly trying to find the time necessary to accompany their elderly parents away from the domestic setting.
The need to ‘find the time’ is, of course, something of a theme for Tokyo Story, and for Ozu’s films in general. The Hirayama children are consistently busy or unable to help (or, even worse, unhelpful), whereas their partners are much more accommodating. This is particularly true in the case of their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), who proves to be the least selfish of the lot, despite also being the least obligated, since her husband (their son) had died in the war many years beforehand.
Another infamous aspect of Ozu’s visual palate is his use of ‘pillow-shots’, images often unconnected to the story which punctuate the visual narrative as some kind of atmospheric establishing shot. In Tokyo Story, there is a sense that these shots also exist to reinforce the fact that, no matter what happens in the lives of these characters, the outside world will carry on regardless.
Despite being a rather self-contained family story, Ozu seems to be constantly reminding audiences that the outside world is always present in Tokyo Story, full of comfort and full of threat. While much of the dialogue suggests just that – particularly in the elderly couple’s discussion of the sheer scale of Tokyo: ‘If we get lost, we might never meet again’ – it is these ‘pillow-shots’ which give the clearest indication of Ozu’s yin-yang-like approach to a world full of stillness and movement, stagnation and change, hope and disappointment.
Perhaps this wry abridged version best sums up Tokyo Story, as well as life in general: