Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

A Twist on Japanese Film

J.K. Simmons urged a captive audience to give their parents a call two weeks ago in his Oscar acceptance speech, and with that advice in mind—and with many of us returning home for the break—now seems as good a time as any to talk about “Tokyo Story.”

Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece tells a simple, no-strings-attached tale. An elderly couple living north of Tokyo takes the train down to the city to pay a visit to their grown children, most of them now married with kids of their own. During their stay, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) become aware that their children are too invested in their own lives and families to pay proper attention and give adequate care to the parents who once cared for them. Shukichi and Tomi return home, illness strikes and the tables are turned when the kids are forced to confront the fact that they’ve been terrible sons and daughters.

That’s pretty much it. No fireworks, no fight scenes, no overturning of tea tables. This simplicity is in keeping with Ozu’s directorial style, and it contrasts sharply with the whizz-bang pyrotechnics of contemporary Japanese directors. Just two years before “Tokyo Story,” Akira Kurosawa—perhaps you’ve heard of him—burst onto the international cinema scene (much to his own surprise) when “Rashomon” became a hit at the Venice Film Festival. Kurosawa would continue to make a series of highly-regarded samurai films that have since become the gateway drug of choice for movie junkies-turned-cinephiles in the Western Hemisphere. While Kurosawa’s period action films garnered universal adoration, his elder, Kenji Mizoguchi, was simultaneously impressing discerning cineastes with period films (“Ugetsu,” “Sansho the Bailiff”) that had a decidedly more supernatural and Japan-specific flair.

Poor Ozu took a while longer finding his footing outside of Japan, and if this summary of “Tokyo Story” is any hint, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see why. In the ‘50s, international audiences, and Americans especially, came to associate Japanese cinema with excitement via the samurai-era stories Ozu’s contemporaries were telling. By comparison, Ozu took an almost exclusive interest in mellow, slice-of-life dramas; you’re more likely to watch a woman passive-aggressively pressured into finding a husband than you are to see a sword drawn on a feudal battlefield in an Ozu film. Even his filmmaking quirks—shooting low to the ground, eschewing soundtracks, using the same collection of actors and character names from film to film—are well suited to the intimacy of his stories.

It took international audiences a while to catch on, but there’s a method to Ozu’s madness that elevates his films to the same level of greatness achieved by those such as Kurosawa or Mizoguchi (for the record, I mean to knock neither of those directors. “Rashomon” and “Sansho the Bailiff” would each hold a place on my as-of-yet hypothetical list of the greatest films ever made). What Ozu lacks for operatic staging and dazzling fight scenes, he more than makes up for in his hair-raising perceptiveness of human nature.

Tokyo Story” helped catapult Ozu into the pantheon of great filmmakers in part because of its universally-relevant observations about the relationship between parents and their children. Despite cultural and historical differences, there’s very little separating a 21st century American from the characters of Ozu’s 1950s Japan. The problems of moving out of the home of your caregivers, only to become less able and less interested in returning the favor as they begin to need you most, is a common conundrum that even modern technologies cannot fully alleviate (if, that is, technology hasn’t exacerbated the divide between parents and children).

What really makes “Tokyo Story” special, though, is the way it sneaks up on you. There’s a deceptive side to Ozu’s spare approach to filmmaking. The lack of music to cue us in to what emotions we ought to be feeling at a given moment paired with conversational dialogue that avoids obviousness while still delivering Ozu’s message with perfect clarity works some sort of subtle alchemy on the viewer. By the time it starts wrapping up, viewers realize how hard the film has hit them, yet without being able to pinpoint the precise scene where it begins having such a strong influence. As film watchers through the years have learned, Ozu’s magic lies in knowing how to lure his viewers into an emotional mousetrap without recourse to the usual bag of sentimental tricks.

I fully realize that “Tokyo Story” is the kind of film that no one wants to watch amidst schoolwork. Yet Ozu’s lessons are timeless and his movies worth checking out—if not right now, then at least some point in your future. For today, perhaps it’s just worth taking the time to remember the people—parents, guardians, or otherwise—who helped you get to where you are now. Ozu would undoubtedly agree with J.K. Simmons; a simple phone call is the least you could do to begin repaying them.

Tim Markatos is a senior in the College. The Cinema Files appears every other Friday.

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