Week XV: Part 2
Week XV: Part 2


Key Works:

  • Ozu, "Tokyo Story" (Can be reviewed in Hillman AV Center) (Figs. XIV.2a, 2b--Hand-out)


    This great picture, one of the most consistently popular of all of Ozu's films, is also one of the very few to have been shown abroad. It might be said that his critical reputation abroad rests entirely upon this single beautiful film. If so, it is fitting, for this is the picture which among his many Ozu most prefers.

    An elderly couple decide to go to Tokyo and visit their two married children. They are somewhat disappointed with their reception, however. Both son and doughter are busy with their own lives and send the parents off to a hot-springs resort, ostensi bly as a treat, actually to get them out of the way. The only one at all nice to them is the widow of the son killed in the war.

    No sooner has the old couple returned than the children receive a telegram that the mother is sick. When they arrive back at the village the mother is so ill that she can no longer recognize them. After the funeral the children rush back to Tokyo bu t the daughter-in-law stays on. She confesses that it is difficult for her to live as a widow and the father advises her to get married again. Then--now alone--he sits in the empty house thinking of years yet ahead of him.

    Footage: 12509
    Running time: 139 minutes


    Lecture outline

    1. Yasujiro Ozu (1902-1963) and his mastery of simplicity

    II. Introduction to Ozu's "Tokyo Story"


    Richie, D., Ozu: His Life and Style, Berkeley, 1974.
    Schrader, P., Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley, 1970.
    McDonald, K., "A Basic Narrative Mode in Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story", Cinema East: A Critical Study of Major Japanese Films, New Brunswick, N.J., 1983.

    TIME LINE: (1953 A.D.)

    NOTES: What does this film say about modern Japanese life?

    Japanese Film: Ozu and "TOKYO STORY"

    Script: Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu
    Photographed: Yushun Atsuta
    Directed: Yasujiro Ozu

    Footage: 12509; Running time: 139 minutes

    "Tokyo Story" was released on November 3, 1953, by the filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63), was very popular in Japan, and was one of very few Japanese films shown abroad. It is about the life of a modern, middle-class Japanese family and how the relati onships among its members are affected by the events of their every day lives. Overall, Ozu tells us that these events lead to the dissolution of the traditional family structure. In "Tokyo Story", Ozu stresses the effect domestic turbulence of individual family members rather than its cause. Incidents of everyday life are used to reveal the nature of various characters gradually, as they act and react. These confrontations of family members within the context of daily life are subtle, familiar, and e asy for Japanese as well as western audiences to appreciate.

    Produced in the context of war weariness and disillusion, this film was first shown to Japanese audiences only one year after the end of the Allied Occupation of Japan in 1952. The reforms carried out during the post-war period were drastic. The lan d-reform program made owner-farmers out of tenants. The new "Peace Constitution" defined the emperor as a "symbol of state," instead of as source of sovereignty, and a long bill of rights gave certain privileges to individuals. The abandonment of war as an "instrument of national policy" renounced the build-up of weapons and armies, for instance. The civil code was revised in accordance with the sentiments of the new democratic constitution and the powers of the family head, which were built into the o ld code, were supposed to disappear. These reforms had a profound effect on everyday life as well as on national policy. Ozu made this film in the midst of these sweeping reforms, and clearly was entangled in the inevitable and unresolved conflict betwe en traditional Japanese cultural mores and values, especially those around family life, and the demands of life in the modern industrial era. Every moment of his film is dedicated to examination of that conflict, both thematically and cinemagraphically.< p>
    "Tokyo Story" is closely integrated around three elements: story, theme, and cinematography. The story is simple, but it is complex in meaning. It is a three part tale which focuses on the parents' relationships with their children. The first secti on is set in the little town where the old couple lives, Onomichi. The middle section sees the parents on a reunion with their children in Tokyo. Both their son and daughter are busy with their own lives and send the parents off to a hot-springs resort , ostensibly as a treat, but actually to get rid of them. The only kindness they experience while there is found with the widow of their third son, killed in the war. The third section, back in the little town of Onomichi, depicts the death and funeral of the mother. The children are called to her deathbed, but she is so ill that she cannot recognize them. The children hurry away after the funeral. Again, it is the daughter-in-law who stays behind to see the old father settled in. Then she, too, mus t return to Tokyo, leaving the father in the empty house to contemplate the years ahead of him alone.

    The central theme in "Tokyo Story" is how one comes to terms with the dissolution of the family and ultimately with death. Three alternative solutions are examined, each described in the reactions of the children. First, several are resigned and acc ept these conditions with sensitivity. Others lack compassion, are indifferent, and regard separation of the family as inevitable. Third, the youngest refuses to accept the dissolution and tries to shore up the family once again. These choices are presented as complimentary to one another and dynamic conflict never arises. Resolution is never reached and the theme of transience triumphs. The psychological tension created by this thematic and visual structure keep the viewer aware of the enormous number s of conflicts inherent in modern life.

    Given his strong attachment to daily family scenes and events, Ozu sets a very slow pace for his film, a pace which echoes the unfolding of life in the every day world. The camera is literally fixed at the eye level of someone seated on the floor on a straw tatami mat in a traditional Japanese house. He uses only three standard shots--long, medium, and close-up--and he repeats them over and over again. The medium-shot is the basic unit and the scenery in each frame is presented with an austere formal symmetry (Fig. 1). Although these standard shots repeat, they frame the subtle psychologically and emotional relationships of the moment.(Fig. 2)

    Both the framing and the pacing of this film confirm aesthetic standards held for centuries among Japanese artists. The most traditional of Japan's filmmakers, Ozu's visual as well as thematic sensibilities--emphasis on simplicity and directness, on the notion of the transience or impermanence in life--most closely resemble those of Zen artists. His black and white films have been compared to the famous gardens of Zen temples where simple, naked arrangements of dry rocks and raked sand are meant to elicit complex responses. (See "The Art of Zen") His tale, although told in the modern medium of film and focused on a problem common to the modern world, bears unmistakably traditional Japanese aesthetic standards.

    Ritchie, D., Ozu: His Life and Style, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

    FROM: Linduff, K.M., "Japanese Film: Ozu and the 'Tokyo Story'," in Art Past/Art Present, by D, Wilkins, B. Schultz, and K. Linduff, New York, 2000, 4th ed.