Yasujiro Ozu is the sort of filmmaker for whom each film is but one slice of the whole. Each work was a quiet prayer for the human existence, but they do not individually begin or end so much as always exist, flowing off the screen and into one another to create a tapestry of past, present, and future. Tokyo Story is usually considered his most enduring film, partially for outside reasons (it was the one historically most available in the West for one), and while the film speaks for itself, it does Ozu a disservice to play the game of superlatives and pass them all Tokyo Story’s way, as so many Western viewers have taken to over the years. He was a quiet, reserved director who let his images do the talking, and each image exists primarily in tandem with those around it, and to those of his entire career. Many of the things that can be said of Tokyo Story, and have been said throughout the decades, apply to his corpus of work; Tokyo Story itself serves a utilitarian purpose to elucidate what made the director’s incorporeal style so attuned to humanity’s woes, and so able to transcend simple melancholy for perhaps the most warming, comforting filmmaking to ever be given to this world. But if Tokyo Story “defines” Ozu, that is because Ozu so carefully defines Tokyo Story in the way he would define all of his films.
The most obvious defining feature of Ozu’s style, and perhaps the one that allowed the other aspects their greatest room to breathe and flourish, is his simple economy of narrative and streamlining of event in favor of a temporal sense of momentary stillness and poetry. With Tokyo Story, he found something truly graceful: an elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) who reside in a small town in Japan visit their children, most of whom live in more developed Tokyo. They stay a while, and on the return trip Tomi falls ill, prompting her children to make the reverse trip out to stand by her side in the long silences and empty spaces of rural Japan.
What Ozu does with this baseline is another question entirely. His cautious, deeply felt camera depicts, with a steadfast, painterly lens, the surface level public performance of family and the private tensions, guilt, fear, and concern underlying it. A hefty portion of the film takes place in one house, and he massages out a sense of plaintive character befitting only such a place where the past and present meld uneasily. The house is represented almost artificially from resting deep focus camera angles constructing the rooms almost as dioramas to box them off for us and highlight the set-aside timelessness of his tale of the human experience. The house exists in Japan in the 1950s, at a time where globalization and urban lifestyles confronted traditional agriculturalism, but the structure’s implication is much more elemental and universalize-able, hinting at and whispering forth the totality of age, family, the ties that bond us, and the very tensions in those ties which keep up apart.
The end result is a film that is uniquely keyed in to the rhythms of Japanese life at its specific point of entry into the world (it is not for nothing that Ozu is often bestowed the title of “most Japanese of the great Japanese directors). Yet this specificity also elides something else: Tokyo Story as not simply the story of Japan at the cusp of modernity, but a tale of human experiences both grand and small that extends beyond Japan and into the ebb and flow of everyday life from a human perspective. If some of Ozu’s style, most notably the diorama mise en scene, owes its humanity to Japanese storytelling, Ozu uses this specificity of storytelling to bridge cultures and explore something much more fundamental. We see, in Tomi and Shukichi’s eyes, in how they change composure when someone else enters the room, that they are trying, constantly, to live a functional life, and that they are being torn apart by the sands of time. The effect is not simply an expose of Japanese culture, but a pertinent examination of human frailty and the double-edged sword of age and family (fittingly Ozu drew inspiration not only from Japanese storytelling but Leo McCarey’s unsung masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow). Ozu’s camera sighs, but it does not sigh for the Japanese past. It tips its head to humanity as a whole, connecting all under its gaze.
Befitting its connection to McCarey’s humanist tapestry, Ozu’s film isn’t wrought with the contempt that pooled at the bottom of so many international films of the ’50s and ’60s. Instead, it is imbued with a deep, powerful respect for humanity found in everyday life, and a forgiving, enduring belief in its power to persevere, to love even when it finds it difficult, and to care and come together, if only in perpetual loneliness. It’s a sad film, but its sadness is of great respect and humanizing glow, largely owed to Ozu’s hypnotic spiritualism, his pastoral transcendence which depicts everyday human acts as part of a larger stew of nature and geography.
Which brings us to Ozu’s greatest achievement. For all his human perceptiveness, he doesn’t individualize. Most tragedies are about individuals seeking redemption, but Ozu can not be bothered with this. Ozu’s film isn’t about individuals. It is about the family as they are together, and he films them from far away or at middle distance, structured in their lives in relation to each other as they are in the shots and not focused on as individuals in and of themselves. He often centers on small details in the way people position themselves around others, with the elderly couple’s physical positions relative to not simply each other but the camera telling more than any dialogue can about the way they compose themselves and prefer to exist in static positions where their composure dictates their resilience in the face of brewing trouble. They don’t emote, but Ozu finds in their lack of emotion an understanding of the human soul.
Almost singularly in the cinematic canon, the heedful Ozu understands how people unthinkingly express their shifting affinities and desires visually – through minute movements and shifts in their posture and position – even when subsuming their true feelings underneath the stern stoicism of diligent, dignified people. He simply understands group dynamics better than any filmmaker in history, excepting perhaps his polar opposite, Jean Renoir, whose roving, inquisitive camera constantly hunted for new nooks and crannies of human connection and disconnection in the background of its frames. Renoir’s films restlessly shift foreground and background on a dime, pungently unwinding and defying emotional totality by displacing central cores to variegated and sometimes unreconcilable (or not easily reconcilable) moods and feelings excitingly charged with the belief that they can sidewind into new registers via exploratory spasms of the camera on the drop of a dime. Contrarily, Ozu’s placid but deeply pregnant pauses and notionally restful but immanently worrisome waiting episodes locate a core in empathic emptiness, in how people make and unmake themselves below the perceptual threshold, as much when they aren’t speaking as when they do.
It’s easy to look at Ozu’s work and lump it in with the European realism movement just past its first peak in the early 1950s, and they do share a certain sense of purpose to earn the comparison. But Ozu’s company is not Rossellini’s or De Sica’s. His work is not nearly as material as theirs, firstly, nor does it concern itself so much with diegetic troubles like where one’s next meal would be coming from. Ozu’s films are of the internal world, and his concerns are less tangible than the realists. He is also primarily vested in the problems of the mind and how they manifest in the exterior world, exploring natural distance that grows between parents and children and not so much tackling peaks in human woe (such as the abject poverty after World War II, to namedrop the realist’s most common stomping ground) as focusing on the day-to-day silences of sorrow. The end result gives his film more of a transcendental air, not quite the luster of a fable, but certainly a work with a more assured sense of itself as a composed product for a timeless audience.
Ironically then, considering its fixation on the internal, Ozu’s work is also far more externally satisfying than any realist work, essaying the mind on an aesthetic plane and trading in scrappy realism (less generous viewers would refer to it as lazy composition) for an elegant formalism and a composed, contained beauty. Everything in Ozu’s films exists for a purpose; nothing seems ornamental. Nor does anything seem spontaneous, fitting considering his exploration of how composed and practiced life’s everyday rhythms are. It would be easy to reduce Ozu to naturalism, but his style is much more precise and positioned, with his vision on display in every little object placement, every change of a character’s position, every frame. He doesn’t explore how life sneaks up on us but how we spend all of our time trying to keep life from doing as much, and he defines his film in the same way, exploring our inner most selves in the slightest, deftest of strokes. If his film doesn’t feel as lively as many other art-house works from his time, that is because it is about the lack of spontaneous liveliness in so much of life, about how life keeps us from truly living. Ozu’s greatest trick: despite this, or perhaps because of it, perhaps no film ever made has more to say about that nebulous concept referred to as “life”, and certainly no film says it as perfectly.