Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Three More From Ozu

In his book "Ozu and the Poetics and Cinema," David Bordwell argues that Ozu is a playful, "experimental" filmmaker whose style emphasizes abstract patterns--not only across individual films but his entire oeuvre as well. After watching five Ozu films in two days, I'm about ready to declare the experiment a failure. That's not a strike against Ozu's films so much as Bordwell's book, since a lot of the things he talks about can't be perceived by human beings while watching a film in a theatre. To cite only one example, in a chapter on Tokyo Story (1953), he discusses several aural motifs associated with the mother, none of which I noticed even after reading the book. At times he acknowledges as much, as in his discussion of shot lengths. Maybe I'm just inattentive but I felt somewhat vindicated reading Michael Sicinski's review of Norbert Pfaffenbichler's Mosaik Méchanique (2008)--"a grid like arrangement of every individual shot of a 1914 short film [...], each shot playing out as a loop within its place in the grid"--in which Sicinski writes: "Is this what it looks like inside the mind of David Bordwell when he watches a film? Now we can observe tonal and spatial differentials and anomalies imperceptible when actually viewing the film such as patterns of light and dark, or preferred gestures and directions!" My point is, if you have to analyze a film a shot at a time for something to be perceived, it might as well not even be there to begin with.

The Record of a Tenement Gentleman

The first film of Ozu's post-war period, The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) is a didactic liberal message picture about social responsibility. Set in the poorest slums of Tokyo, the plot is surprisingly similar to that of Walter Salles' Central Station (1998). As the film opens, Kohei/Hohi Aoki, a young boy who's either lost or been deserted by his father, follows Tashiro/Chishu Ryu back to the tenement on the outskirts of Tokyo where he lives with Tamekichi/Sokichi Kawamura. Neither one wants to take responsibility for the boy, so they ask their neighbor, Otane/Choko Iida, a selfish curmudgeon, to take him in for the night which she agrees to do reluctantly. When Kohei's father can't be located, Otane becomes his permanent care giver. After Otane scolds him for repeatedly peeing the bed, Kohei runs away, and in his absence, Otane comes to realize how much she truly cares for him. Finally, Kohei's father/Eitoro Ozawa shows up to claim the boy, and Otane decides to adopt one of the many children orphaned by the war. The film ends with a sequence showing dozens of homeless children standing in a park that's designed to make us want to walk out of the theatre and adopt the first needy child we see. Though not a major work, the film offers a fascinating glimpse into post-war conditions.

Tokyo Twilight

Once you get past the shock of an Ozu film that deals with premarital sex and abortion, Tokyo Twilight (1957) is actually pretty conservative. It opens with Shukichi/Chishu Ryu, a 50-ish bank employee, coming home to discover that his eldest daughter, Takako/Setsuko Hara, has left her husband taking her infant son with her. Meanwhile, his younger daughter, Akiko/Ineko Arima, is trying to get in touch with her college-age boyfriend, Kenji/Masami Taura, who's been avoiding her. She goes to speak to his friends, who seem to spend all their time playing mahjong. Their favorite hangout is a mahjong parlor on the bad side of town that's run by Akiko and Takako's mother, Kisako/Isuzu Yamada, who they haven't seen since they were children. Takako thinks Akiko's problems are directly related to the fact that she never knew a mother's love (we learn through the dialogue that Akiko was a baby when Kisako abandoned them). Akiko herself remarks that her mother's "bad blood" is in her veins. Both literally and metaphorically, the poorer parts of Tokyo associated with Kisako and Kenji are polluted. Surgical masks are a recurring motif in the film, although they work symbolic overtime as both an indicator of contamination and as masks that conceal various characters' identities. A man who approaches Akiko in a tea room where she's waiting for Kenji pulls out a badge from his coat to reveal that he's a cop. When Takako confronts Kisako in the mahjong parlor, she takes off her mask only after telling Kisako her name. Takako also wears a mask when she goes to pick up Akiko at the police station, and before she arrives, there's a brief scene in which a pervert is interrogated by an off-screen police officer. Finally, Takako decides to go back to her husband because a child needs both parents to be happy. However, the film doesn't portray Kisako as a villain. After Akiko is killed in a car accident, Takako goes back to the mahjong parlor to tell Kisako that she's responsible for Akiko's death. After Takako leaves, the film lingers on Kisako's grief as she walks down the street to a bar where she spoke with Akiko in an earlier scene. Her current husband, Sakae/Nobuo Nakamura, comes to look for her and Kisako asks if his job offer in another town still stands. At the train station, she waits in vain for Takako to see her off. In the next scene, Shukichi tells Takako she should say good bye to Kisako before she leaves and that there's still time if she wants to, but Takako doesn't budge. Is she being unfair to Kisako? Is it wise for her to go back to her husband? The film ends, somewhat enigmatically, with Shukichi alone going to work, echoing the opening sequence in which he stops at a bar on his way home. (In between, he's so passive that he's almost irrelevant to the plot.) Neither scene advances the story or theme, and there are similar digressions throughout. When Akiko is hit by a car, a noodle vendor/Kamatari Fujiwara, waits with her until the family arrives at the hospital. When they do, the film follows him on his way out. In these scenes, Ozu moves towards pure observation without advancing a thesis.

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice

Like Early Summer (1951), the film Ozu made immediately before it, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) is fairly relaxed in terms of plot, and accordingly has a light, comic tone. Both films have reluctant brides, but here Setsuko/Keiko Tsushima's refusal to let her family choose a husband for her isn't the focus so much as the rift it helps to exacerbate between her aunt, Taeko/Michiyo Kogure, who's a bit of a diva, and her husband, Mokichi/Shin Saburi, an executive with a fondness for the simple pleasures of riding third class, smoking Rising Sun cigarettes and eating green tea over rice. His groundedness is confirmed by his friendships with his maid's brother, Noboru/Koji Tsuruta, a younger office worker, and an old war buddy, Sadao/Chishu Ryu, who now runs a Pachinko parlor. Setsuko's family arranges for her to meet a marriage candidate, but she spends the day playing hooky with Mokichi and Noboru instead. When Taeko discovers the deception, she has a fit. The closing scenes spell out the message in no uncertain terms, but Ozu's patient observation of his characters' behavior can't be reduced to simply advancing a thesis.

1 comment:

  1. “Tokyo Twilight” by Yasujiro Ozu depicts how Japan surrendered to militarism and after defeat in WW2, to a feverish industrialization and modernization, put its citizens in both these situations in a near impossible psychological turbulence. People had to forget themselves start acting like cheerful robots. Leaving today with permanent wars and with financial collapses (created by our American financial elite) we as viewers of Ozu’s film find ourselves in similar circumstances as the Japanese people in the middle of 20th century and feel that by describing the simultaneous presence of maniacal and depressive drives in Japanese life Ozu is talking to us Americans of 21st century.
    The main character of the film Sugiyama, a banker and the father of two grown-up daughters is a person whose wife abandoned him and their children long ago. Her sudden appearance in the plot is telling of mute appeal on her part – not for forgiveness but for contact, communication and confession. But buried feelings between x-spouses and them and their adult children are enveloped by an almost solemn silence. This existential silence is helped by Zen-Buddhist legacy with its meditative accent.
    Ryu Chishu playing Sugiyama acts not only the part of a concrete person with a particular destiny but impersonates Japanese sensibility under the regime of a despotic industrialization/technologization (treating people as its slaves and servants instead of serving their interests). The “Zen”-silence about personal matters and problems resonates with existential silence about social problems.
    Special achievement of this film is the acting of Tetsuko Hara (famous for her work in Kurosawa’s early films) with her ability to interiorize and contain emotions of grief. Her silent torment about her family situation is colored by compassion of co-suffering with the world abandoned by the emotional care. But Tetsuko Hara is also critical about the character she plays for her inability to talk about the tormenting emotional truths, for the timidity of her smile of compassion.
    Please, visit: www.actingoutpolitics.com to read essay about “Tokyo Twilight” (with analysis of stills from the film) and also essays on films by Godard, Resnais, Bergman, Bunuel, Bresson, Kurosawa, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Antonioni, Cavani, Alain Tanner, Bertolucci, Herzog, Wim Wenders, Maurice Pialat, Anne-Marie Mieville, Ken Russell, Rossellini Jerzy Skolimowski, Moshe Mizrahi and Ronald Neame.
    Victor Enyutin