Growing up in Hong Kong during the 60’s, I had my share of Japanese literature and films, as well, the early version of anime. Books were in Chinese translations, films with Chinese subtitles, and anime needed no language. As a youngster I had my fix of Samurai action flicks by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, or the early sagas of The Blind Swordsman deftly performed by Shintarô Katsu. The fast, magical sword-fighting movements displayed in elegantly choreographed sequences defined what ‘cool’ was in the eyes of a very young film lover, decades before Jason Bourne emerged.
But I admit, I had never heard of Yasujiro Ozu (小津 安二郎, 1903-1963) before reading the book The Elegance of The Hedgehog, and since, have become a mesmerized Ozu fan.
In Muriel Barbery’s marvellous work of fiction The Elegance of The Hedgehog, I was fascinated by the following excerpt that led me to explore the world of Ozu. Barbery mentioned some dialogues in the Ozu film ‘The Munekata Sisters’ (1950). Here, after quoting elder sister Setsuko, Barbery wraps up the chapter from the point of view of the concierge Renée, narrator of the book:
True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time.
The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup — this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to? And something that, in our Western civilization, we do not know how to attain?
The contemplation of eternity within the very movement of life.
I could not find any copy of ‘The Munekata Sisters’, but I did manage to find a few other Ozu films on DVD in The Criterion Collection at an independent video store. One particularly stands out, both the film and the special features. And that’s Tokyo Story (1953), the best known and most acclaimed Ozu work.
TOKYO STORY (with spoiler)
Instead of the macho samurai films of his time, Ozu chose to explore the quiet subject of family relationships, parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and from them come the topics of marriage, loyalty, aging, death, filial duties, parental expectations, and generational conflicts. Through his perceptive camera work, Ozu sensitively revealed the undercurrents beneath the seemingly calm surface of daily family interactions.
‘Tokyo Story’ is about an aging couple Shukichi (the Ozu actor Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) from small town Onomichi going on a trip to visit their adult children in bustling Tokyo. At that time, postwar Japan was cranking up her economic engine, and urbanization was taking off. Shukichi and Tomi’s children were all busily engaged in their work and family, with no time or patience to entertain their visiting parents, albeit struggling with a thin sense of obligation. They passed the two old folks from home to home, and finally sent them off to a spa resort on their own, a supposedly well-meant package substituting for their absentee hospitality.
With his subtle cinematic language, Ozu explored the issues facing the family in urban, postwar Japan. I’m surprised that in a time when the rebuilding of national pride was as much an essential as that of the economy, Ozu was brave enough to depict the collapse of the family, revealing the conflicts and tensions behind the amicable social façade. It’s interesting how contemporary and universal they are. Have we not heard of those ubiquitous ‘mother-in-law jokes’ in our modern Western society? Or, in real life, do we not struggle between taking care of our own family and career, and finding the time and energy to look after our aging parents?
But the contemplative cinematic offerings of Ozu draw us into deeper thoughts. ‘Tokyo Story’ quietly depicts the truth of these issues: No matter how many siblings there are in a family, each person is responsible for his or her own decision and action. Even in a mass society like Japan, one can still make individual choices. Despite the currents, one can stand alone against the tides, and act according to one’s heart and conviction. While the brothers and sister are evading the task of hospitality, the young widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (the Ozu actress Setsuko Hara) chooses to care for her deceased husband’s parents out of genuine love. She stands alone in her kindness and grace, a selfless heroine in a family hinged upon superficial ties.
Illness and death too have to be borne alone. Despite their being together all the years of their marriage, Shukichi and Tomi each has to face the imminent all alone. After Tomi falls ill upon arriving home from Tokyo, the strong bond of togetherness in marriage quickly dissolves into helpless resignation of parting and letting go. Shukichi soon realizes he has to face life all alone. The poignant scene though is that despite his loss, he looks out for his daughter-in-law Noriko, appreciating her loyalty, and relieving her of further obligations. Despite having no blood ties, the two of them have touched each other in a way that’s beyond flesh and blood. Noriko selflessly gives while Shukichi accepts and appreciates in the midst of aloneness. The tables are turned, while they are left to face life alone, they are yet bound together in an unspoken bond, one that’s far stronger than filial ties.
The Criterion Collection carries several sets of Ozu titles. ‘Tokyo Story’ is one in a trilogy of Noriko’s stories. Disc Two features ‘I Lived, But…’, a two-hour documentary on the life of Ozu, and ‘Talking with Ozu': a 40-minute tribute to the great director featuring reflections from international auteurs Stanley Kwan, Aki Kaurismaki, Claire Denis, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. It also features audio commentary by Ozu film scholar David Desser.