Through death or oblivion: Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu

6 05 2013

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Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?”
Noriko: “Yes, it is.”

Yasujiro Ozu places a family drama inside a broad social canvas. Near the end, one of the main characters suggests that the conflicts they have suffered were the products of generational gaps, thus removing some blame from the supposedly heartless older siblings who have forgotten their parents. Their detachment, under this view, would be a natural element of growing up in Japan. This challenges our instinctual condemnation of the siblings: forced to look at these people as subject to a universal law, we appreciate them as representations of a grander tragedy.

A similar idea is contained in Ozu’s famed “pillow” shots. Veering away from the plot, these shots contextualize the main event within a larger world. The story does not inhabit a vacuum, it is not an isolated island but is surrounded by continental mass. Although we are only afforded glimpses of this mass, we still sense its weight, its lingering presence outside the borders of the story. We are aware, not just that there is more to this celluloid tale than the claustrophobic intimacy of a family, but that said intimacy is occurring in a landscape of unknown individuals, modern buildings, traditional houses, idyllic towns, and hectic cities. The main event loses its tyrannical grasp, its absolute rule. It is merely a thread among other threads, which has received the camera’s gaze almost by chance. And so we are encouraged to see how the main event relates to the events around it, and how perhaps there is nothing special about it.

When the elderly father reunites with his friends, we realize they all have similar complaints, as if the plot of the movie were being reproduced all over Japan. They all moan about their children, about how they’ve grown distant or failed to meet expectations, except for those who died in World War II.  These anecdotes, and the affinities between them, define the lives of the tellers as unremarkable, and suggest that some ubiquitous historical force is leading them all in like directions.

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It is indeed the War and its memory that watches over every scene like a specter. We feel its tragic aftermath in the lingering shadow of those no longer there.  The daughter-in-law, Noriko, still suffers her widowhood after a decade. She is tormented by her supposed responsibility to her former husband. She wants to move on, yet she holds fast to a mode of conduct that prevents her from doing so. For her, the War remains a jealous captor.

Another effect of the War has been economic and urban growth. During the fifties, Japan began what, ten years later, would be termed an economic miracle. Industrialization and urbanization were flourishing, and the immediate economic woes of the post-War period were buried under an era of new-found prosperity. The siblings in Tokyo Story are too preoccupied with success in this dynamic environment to properly attend to their parents. At an important juncture in the concluding act of the film, they choose not to look after their father because of their jobs, and even before this, we have already perceived the hints of generational rupture. While the old couple lives in a serene town, the siblings have blended into the frenetic schedule of a swelling metropolis.

These juxtaposed rhythms – the peace of old age and the speed of middle-aged dissatisfaction – unearth the profound disparities between each generation’s approach to life, as potentially inevitable as they are, perhaps, also a matter of choice. Kyoko, the youngest daughter, still lives near her parents and holds different values than her older siblings. However, if we agree with Noriko, who believes in a kind of cyclical generational process, then we might suspect that, if Kyoko has not distanced herself from her parents, as the other siblings have done, then it is only a matter of time before she does. However, there is a competing explanation: Kyoko, in addition to being the youngest, is also the least involved of the siblings in the future economic miracle. Her aspirations, as well as her daily routine, are unassuming. If we adopt this “social dimension,” as David Bordwell puts it, then we will notice that “Shige and Koichi,” the most selfish siblings, “have been changed by the Tokyo rat race, while Noriko is at least temporarily content to be simply an ‘office lady,’ and Kyoko can live at home and teach elementary school.” We have, then, two outsiders to the financial boom, Noriko and Kyoko, and both prove to be the most faithful to the old couple. This undermines the argument in favor of inevitability, since age is no longer the discriminating factor and is, instead, replaced by lifestyle choice. In this new reading, children step away from their elders when their value systems cease to be compatible. Those children who retain a measure of the ‘old ways’ – and Noriko, after all, in her steadfast widowhood, might be more conservative than her parents-in-law – can continue to foster a connection with the elderly.

Other readings are possible. We cannot forget that, despite what I pointed out above, it is Noriko who argues in favor of inevitability, as the quote that opens this essay demonstrates. She is the one who anticipates that, one day, she will be no different from the other, supposedly heartless, siblings. Indeed, she submits to life’s inescapable disappointment. Perhaps the “social dimension” does little other than reinforce preexisting likelihoods. Time has always ravaged everything and everyone, and the War’s only effect has been to trace a clearly defined boundary between generations. How long will Noriko and Kyoko resist until the world consumes them? Are they really special? Keiko McDonald, in an essay on the film, writes about the final sequence: “Aboard the train, Noriko puts her watch, the memento, to her ear and falls into a reverie. These watch images are a clear indication of the flux of time, to which human beings are subject.” Yes, but must this “flux of time” bring the same tidings to everybody? By allowing inevitable disappointment into her outlook, Noriko seems to argue that, yes, time passes, and in its passing, it destroys or ruins everything that is old, and in so doing erases, through death or oblivion, those who populated the past.

Originally published in the first incarnation of the Next Projection website, now unavailable. Revised slightly for this republication in Elevator to Alphaville. 

— Guido Pellegrini

Twitter: @beaucine

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