#255. Tokyo Story (1953)

I’m a little too sensitive about my intelligence and I’m always feeling too dumb to understand something (not sure exactly where this comes from) and, because of this hangup, I’ll often get not just impatient but outright angry with something if I can’t understand it, like, right away. If a movie is too slow for my liking, fine, I’ll watch it over the course of a couple nights. If it’s hard to follow but also very clearly a mess, and the opacity of the story is a result of shoddy filmmaking–that’s fine, too. I’ll grit my teeth and get through it and complain later.

On the basis of his reputation alone, and the kind of black tie austerity accorded his legacy, I was intimidated by Yasujiro Ozu before even watching one of his movies. Same goes for Kurosawa, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Jean Luc Godard, Renoir. (I’m noticing now that they all have foreign-sounding names, which is probably a factor in my thinking their work’s gonna go clear over my head.) Tokyo Story is Ozu’s first movie on the List and I was on guard before it even started.

Director Yasujiro Ozu

In short: my hot take is that I kinda hated it, that it’s stupid and boring, that it shouldn’t be on the List and that anybody who claims to love it is posturing (and secretly tryna make me feel stupid).

But my opinion is changing.

In fact, it started changing at around the halfway point of the movie; huffing and scoffing and rolling my eyes in defense of my delicate ego, I decided to watch the movie with a scholar’s commentary before I was even done. It’s so fucking quiet, after all, and the sparse dialogue is subtitled anyway.

I’ve seen only a handful of movies with a commentary track (Little Caesar, Night at the Opera, and Bride of Frankenstein are some notables) but never on my first viewing. With Ozu, though, I’m gonna go ahead and recommend this approach. Because I’m stupidly hostile about tedious movies and I’d have been likely to dismiss this movie as pretentious bullshit just on the basis of my not understanding it.

Ozu’s small-seeming story here about an elderly couple (played by Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) who sit fanning themselves all day in restive silence, smiling ina vacant way, while their adult children, in Tokyo, neglect them is, though fairly universal (and a premise I enjoyed in Make Way for Tomorrow), frustrating, if you’re a 21st century dopamine glutton like myself, because, for one thing, the camera moves once in the whole movie. Which is apparently, for Ozu, a borderline-epileptic breach of character. So his shots are often pretty flat, if kinda geometrically gratifying in their composition, and the scenes go on for…a while. His characters are found seated more often than standing. Movement isn’t common.

It does virtually nothing to reel your eye.

But what feels at first like entropy started to reveal itself, with the patient, accessible, conversational and astute commentary by David Desser, to be a manifestation of restraint. Of subtlety.

Which I’d normally suspect to be a hack’s way of capitalizing on a critic’s intelligence by forcing them to project a depth that isn’t there. But once I had it explained to me, I started to see the real deliberation here. The movie has a subtle rhythm. It makes you wait for things. And, from what I gathered of the subject matter and commentary track (and probably the above-mentioned cinematic xenophobia), it’s explroring the restrained, dignified, quiet manner of Japanese culture. The things that boil below the surface.

What also really helped me to get a grasp of it is Roger Ebert’s review, where he alludes to how much the story moves him int he third act and then demonstrates his love for the film by kinda counseling us on how to watch it.

For instance: when the grandfather nods in response to something, as he does with the same gentle smile at least a dozen times, the nod almost always means something different. Which also sounds kinda questionable, since it’s another of these suggestions that the filmmaker is putting the ball in the viewer’s court and calling upon her to do the work.

But, in retrospect, I’m feeling something.

But that Something I’m feeling is also kind of untrustrowrthy because at the moment I’ve got some shaky shit going on in the romance department, the money department, the work department. So I don’t know if I’m coming to the movie, retroactively, with some hyper-aroused emotional baggage and am therefore way more emotionally accessible, easier to hook, and Ozu’s style is just ringing the bell of the moment for me; OR, the scary alternative, is this just what adult life is like? That you’re packed to the gills, year-to-year, with a broadening collection of disappointments and defeats?

Makes sense. Look at all the adults around you who are being courteous to each other, walking at a brisk pace from one task to another–surely they’ve all got lots of upsetting shit in their life, past or present, that they could sit and dwell and cry about. But they’ve beaten it down into some nook somewhere.

In other words: is the movie emotionally effective, or am I just hyper-emotional?–and not just hyper emotional, but the angry, reactionary, tooth-baring emotional person who tries to hide everything and then only lets it out through saccharine writing and furiously indignant rants to colleagues about some or other perceived injustice?

Or maybe this is the algebra of cinema: matching the type of emotional viewer with the type of emotional filmmaker at the right time, in the right setting.

I’m exhausted even thinking about it.

I did feel something outright toward the end of the movie, when the remaining cast is all convened on a mournful occasion, but that feeling, and the stuff listed above, is the only stuff I feel equipped to talk about. The story, as I’ve mentioned, is simple, and ostensibly straightforward, but I’ve got this ghostly sense that there was a lot going on that I missed. So I can’t wax too knowingly on that. As for the filmmaking technique: the stuff that stands out is the stuff I’ve already pointed out. The ostensible monotony. But there, too, it seems there’s a degree of artistry that’s just going over my head.

What’s been fun about the Project up to now is that, with the overwhelming majority of these movies, I feel like I’m well-enough versed in the craft that I can engage with it. Point out what I liked and what I didn’t, voice a gripe or a compliment with some degree of authority.

Here, with Ozu, I’m having one of those purely educational experiences. I had to find the way to appreciate this movie, rather than just dismiss it because it wasn’t ringing my bell. Maybe my bell just isn’t broad enough.

Anyway. The movie itself, and the confrontation of my reaction to it, has been an education on different levels. Good stuff.


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