Virtually unseen in the West for a decade after its initial release in Japan, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) has since become recognized as Ozu's masterpiece and among the greatest films ever made. In the British journal Sight and Sound's most recent Top Ten poll (2002), Tokyo Story ranked number five with the critics, and Ozu himself ranked in the top ten among the critics' list of greatest directors. Those voting either for the film or for Ozu as a director included such diverse figures as Manohla Dargis, Roger Ebert, Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismäki, Clara Law, Karel Reisz, and Paul Schrader.
This critical reappraisal is all the more notable since Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63) didn't specialize in the kind of costume pictures that initially attracted audiences in the West to Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. Although Ozu himself was a great admirer of Hollywood directors, among them Ernst Lubitsch and John Ford, his seemingly mundane "home dramas" were at first considered "too Japanese" for Western audiences.
The impression of "Japaneseness" was no doubt encouraged by his severely restricted visual style. It consisted of low camera placement, usually from the perspective of someone seated on the floor, with virtually no camera movements and only straight cuts between shots. Especially characteristic of Ozu's style are the carefully composed shots of landscapes or domestic interiors that often serve as pauses or transitions in the narrative. But in retrospect, Ozu's loving attention to the textures of everyday life is precisely what gives his films their universal emotional resonance, and his rigorously formalized visual style invites the most subtle analysis.
Ozu's most important collaborator was no doubt the scriptwriter Kogo Noda (1893-1968). Noda had worked with Ozu since the latter's first feature in 1927 and with some frequency during the Twenties and Thirties. After the war, Ozu brought him back to work on Late Spring (1949), another great masterpiece, and he worked on every subsequent film that Ozu directed. It was in fact Noda who had initially suggested the plot for Tokyo Story, which was loosely inspired by Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). Ozu hadn't seen the film, but Noda recalled it from its initial release in Japan.
Typically, Ozu and Noda would work on the script over much food and drink. In his diary, Noda noted that the writing of Tokyo Story took 103 days and 43 bottles of sake. Having already identified which actors would play the parts, they strongly emphasized character over plot, building the characters painstakingly through dialogue. In an article published in the 1964 issue of Sight and Sound, the lead actor Chishu Ryu recalled: "By the time he had finished writing a script, after about four months' effort, he had made up every image in every shot, so that he never changed the scenario after we went on the set. And the words were so polished up that he would not allow us even a single mistake."
Ryu also emphasized Ozu's close control over the performance of actors in general: "[He] had made up the complete picture in his head before he went on the set, so that all we actors had to do was to follow his directions, from the way we lifted and dropped our arms to the way we blinked our eyes. [...] Even if I did not know what I was doing and how those shots would be connected in the end, when I looked at the first screening I was often surprised to find my performance far better than I had expected."
Ozu's favorite actor, Chishu Ryu (1904-1993), had worked with the director since the late Twenties, at first mainly in bit parts. While his best-known roles in the West were with Ozu, Japanese viewers also recognized him for his role as the Priest in the phenomenally popular and long-running Tora-San series, from 1969-1992.
Setsuko Hara (b. 1920), who played the role of Noriko, the sympathetic daughter-in-law, was one of Japan's most beloved actresses at that time. Often referred to as the "eternal virgin" in Japan, she specialized in domestic roles, though she in fact played a wide range within that limited framework, as film scholar Donald Richie has pointed out. For example, in Late Spring she played an unmarried daughter, while in Late Autumn (1960) she played a widowed mother. To the shock of both her studio and her audience, she announced her retirement from the screen at a press conference in 1963 and subsequently became a recluse, refusing all interviews, photographs and invitations to return to acting.
The first public screening of Tokyo Story in the United States took place in 1964, in the Museum of Modern Art, as part of a package of six Ozu films that MoMA offered for circulation to educational institutions. However, the film didn't receive a proper commercial release until 1972, when it was distributed by New Yorker Films. To celebrate Ozu's centennial, in 2003 and 2004 new 35mm prints of the director's surviving films were circulated in various countries, including in the U.S. through Janus Films. Unfortunately, the original negative of Tokyo Story was destroyed in a fire, as is true of many older Japanese films. The recently released DVD of Tokyo Story and the current broadcast version are based on a new high definition transfer of the best surviving elements.
Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Script: Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu
Photography: Yuharu Atsuta
Art Direction: Tatsuo Hamada
Costume Design: Taizo Saito
Editing: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Music: Kojun Saito
Cast: Chishu Ryu (Shukishi), Chieko Higashiyama (Tomi), Setsuko Hara (Noriko), Haruko Sugimura (Shige), Nobuo Nakamura (Kurazo), So Yamamura (Koichi), Kuniko Miyake (Ayako), Kyoko Kagawa (Kyoko), Eijiro Tono (Sanpei), Shiro Osaka (Keizo), Zen Murase (Minoru), Mitsuhiro Mori (Isamu).
by James Steffen