After seeing Tokyo Story (東京物語, 1953) at the UW-Madison campus film society’s Ozu retrospective, the Bookish Gardener asked (rhetorically): “Is it the greatest Japanese film ever made? Is it the greatest film ever made?”
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is often cited as “the greatest film ever made”, although it’s not a film that I particularly admire. Even though Tokyo Story is generally acknowledged as Ozu’s masterpiece, it’s never been my favorite. I’ve always liked Late Spring (晩春, 1949) best of all and I have a soft spot for The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬の味,1951) even though, as Ozu himself admitted, “this film wasn’t very well made.”
But I saw Tokyo Story again at the Chauvel Cinema on Monday night—on a double bill with Passing Fancy ( 出来ごごろ, 1933)—and was overwhelmed. This was perhaps the seventh or eighth time I’d seen Tokyo Story—I watched it on DVD earlier this year—and yet, for reasons I don’t understand, I felt as though I was seeing the film for the first time.
One thing, in particular, astonished me: a tracking shot along a wall that reveals the elderly couple, Tomi and Shukichi, sitting on the grass eating their lunch. They’d come to Tokyo to visit their son and daughter, Shige and Koichi, who are not only too busy with their own lives to spend time with their parents but are finally reluctant to provide them with a place to sleep.
In the scene preceding the tracking shot, the mother, Tomi, decides to stay with Noriko, the widow of their son who was killed in the war, while Shukichi elects to visit an old army friend, saying with a wry smile: “I’ll go see the Hattoris. And I’ll stay there if I can. Let’s go out, anyway. We’re really homeless now.”
“Why had I never noticed that tracking shot?” I asked myself. Or why didn’t I remember it from earlier viewings?
The following morning, on my way out, I plucked David Desser’s Ozu’s Tokyo Story off the bookshelf. Two of the reviews reprinted in the book mention this tracking shot: one obliquely, the other directly. The British director, Lindsay Anderson, notes:
In Tokyo Story, the camera moves only three times from the beginning to the end of the picture, and then with the most gentle discretion; an in this film particularly, the whole concept of “pace” (with which, significantly, Western film-makers are so apt to be obsessed) is ont so much different from ours as irrelevant.
Stanley Kauffmann writes about:
the camera moving slowly past a pavilion in a Tokyo park until, around the corner, we see, again from behind, the old couple seated, eating their lunch—a moment of inexplicable, deep poignancy.
One of the book’s five essays, Ozu’s Mother by Darrell William Davis, discusses the tracking shot in detail:
In a new location, a rare, exterior tracking shot shows the old couple resting on a curb at a temple and reflecting on “how vast Tokyo is” and “we would never meet again if we got lost.” Here the two old people go their separate ways. In a subsequent scene Tomi recalls this was Ueno Park, the site of Kan’eiji, the family temple of the Tokugawa. The Tokugawa name is synonymous with the shogunate, its two-and-a-half-century feudal reign, and Edo (the pre-Meiji name for Tokyo), which owes its existence to the Tokugawa. Formerly “the abode of foxes,” then coming to mark the graveyard of the Tokugawa hegemons, Ueno in the twentieth century served as habitat for the postwar homeless, particularly for migrant laborers from the North (and more recently from Iran) who arrived in Ueno station with no place to go…
The metonymic and retrospective use of Ueno Park is an in-joke based on a simple attribution. We accept it as Ueno Park because it has been so designated by Tomi after the fact, not because it has been specially announced. Instead, it is obliquely hinted at by the reference to homelessness and by the almost surreptitious tracking shot.
Much of this strikes me critical oneupmanship, a desire to discover formal or stylistic meanings in the film that have gone unrecognized by other critics. I don’t recall seeing Tomi refer to Ueno Park in “a subsequent scene”; nor could I find that piece of dialog in either the English version of the screenplay translated by Donald Richie and Eric Klestadt—I’ve yet to check the Japanese version in the second volume of Ozu’s Complete Works (小津安二郎全集). Perhaps Ozu associated Ueno Park with homelessness but it’s equally probable that he recalled a beautiful stone wall topped with funerary markers, realizing that he could use it to reveal his elderly couple (and perhaps prefigure Tomi’s death).
What is significant (and miraculous) about this tracking shot is its emotional power, its ability to evoke (in Kauffman’s words) “a moment of inexplicable, deep poignancy”, a purely cinematic moment that immediately had my face glistening with tears.
I’ll be curious, when I watch Tokyo Story again on DVD, to see whether the film (and that particular shot) has the same effect. For all the wonders of DVD—and these days I spend a lot of my spare time watching Japanese movies on DVD—seeing Tokyo Story at the cinema, as part of an audience in a huge darkened space (as Ozu intended), has made me wonder about the extent to which watching movies on a television screen negates the intent of the director, crew, and cast (at least for films which were made in the years before television became popular).