It’s interesting when one thing unexpectedly becomes an inroad to something completely different. So it is that David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return and The Straight Story became a sort of key to Yasujiro Ozu. The last time I saw his movie, Tokyo Story, about a decade ago, it was something to be admired; now I find it’s something to be loved.
Ozu’s style was, to my younger self, a little too spare and undramatic. It took Lynch’s willingness to spend minutes focusing on, say, someone sweeping a floor or painting shovels, or to even build an entire episode/movie as a distended collection of moments that don’t seem to have any particular dramatic stakes, to make it click with me just how far afield you can go from what movies/TV consider drama and still have a completely absorbing story in the medium.
Ozu’s movies (or at least his later, more famous ones) tend to be family dramas that eschew typical narrative structure and plot devices in favor of using the characters as they would be in their everyday lives. But rather than the loose approach that “just hanging out with normal people” movies often have, his movies are formally constructed to the point of obsession, even if the principles behind their construction famously exist at a peculiar distance from how movies are conventionally shot and edited. Actors tend to look directly into the camera when speaking; the editing outright ignores the so-called “action line”; the camera itself is often kept stationary at roughly the height of someone kneeling, which has the side effect of flattening out the composition, as if you were looking at the scene with one eye closed.
All this is disarming and even unnerving at first. It promises that the movie isn’t going to inhabit the same space as other dramas of its ilk. Unlike when Lynch starts breaking rules, the feeling is natural rather than a deliberate subversion, but there’s a similar effect in pushing the audience outside of their comfort zone by stripping the typical grammar that allows for movies to come in a predigested state. Certainly Tokyo Story feels like a more participatory affair, with the characters seemingly speaking their lines to the audience itself.
Anyway, set in postwar Japan, the story centres around an elderly couple Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who decide to visit their children in Toyko. It turns out that their children view their visit as a burden, being too caught up with work to spend time with them (only a widowed daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara) lavishes any real attention upon them, and even then perhaps only due to how lonely she is). It’s a story about intergenerational disconnect that is about as low-stakes as you can get. Except that it isn’t really low-stakes: one of its purposes is to show that, underneath all the pleasantries and small-talk of everyday life, people still have strong desires, loves and sorrows, and we can only be attuned to that in a story which eschews conventional melodrama and easy sentimentality.
That’s the gist of it – rather than taking human emotions and making them larger than life, Tokyo Story is centred around us seeing entire worlds in the mundane. It’s such a well-regarded and analyzed movie that I’m not sure how much I can bring to the table here.
I followed this up with Late Spring, which I hadn’t seen before. It revolves around a woman (Setsuko Hara again) who looks after her widower father (Chishu Ryu again), and who is under a lot of pressure to get married. There’s more immediate urgency to this plot than to the one in Tokyo Story, but only relatively so; and indeed the movie elliptically glides through most of the dramatic stuff that a conventional movie would focus on. Instead the experience is centred upon a sense of the melancholy passage of time, and also a rather literal domestic portrait: through a very schematic use of shots, we quickly come to understand the characters’ household as a real space that we inhabit along with them.
Actually, when I put it that way, more of the narrative structure seems to be clear: although a lot of scenes take place elsewhere, the story feels a lot as though it were told from the perspective of someone else who happens to be living with them, where we’re privy to what’s going on, but not involved in the drama.
There’s a lot going on here with regard to marriage, tradition and modernity that I still feel I’m unpacking, and a quick glance at the critics shows them running in rather different directions of interpretation.
At any rate,it’s exciting to find all this finally gelling with me – a late spring, if you will.