Upon their release, the films of Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) were mostly ignored in the western world, a tragedy for several reasons. With restoration and reissue by the Criterion Collection, Ozu’s films are newly accessible internationally. Interpreted correctly, his films are tools of empathy. The initial misunderstanding of Ozu as “too Japanese” was a lost opportunity in the mid 20th century for western audiences to experience his unconventional way of filming, embracing the ethos of theater and traditional art more than the conventions of film. Ozu combined his idiosyncratic and traditional style with a fearlessness in presenting an unfiltered view of Japanese life in the decades before and after World War II. Though it was not their purpose, Ozu’s films also reveal the complex and often corrosive impact of American occupation and its merging of political goals and new lifestyles as forced upon Japanese society by both domestic and international authorities.
Prior to the mid 1930s, Ozu’s themes focus on the effects of societal outside forces that hold down the individual from progressing socially or economically. By the mid 1930s through the early 1960s, he had one main theme: the internal conflicts that broke down familial relationships. Yet, the deprivation suffered by most Japanese in the immediate postwar years and the facade of western culture imposed upon a Confucian society had a profound influence on internal family dynamics. The dichotomy between his two phases perhaps was not a large as some critics previously argued. Ozu was not so much commenting upon western influences but reflecting the truth of Japanese society in the years leading up to and the two decades after World War II, during and after American occupation when the Japanese sense of self was reconstructed under the magnifying gaze of American eyes.
Tokyo Twilight was restored and reissued by the Criterion Collection, found in boxed set Late Ozu which combines five films made in last decades of his career. It also streams in the United States via the Criterion Channel of the FilmStruck service. Unlike the more well known Tokyo Story and others released individually, the films in this boxset do not contain any bonus footage that lend insights into their making and interpretation. In the English language, the work of film critic Donald Richie is historically one of the few authoritative sources of analysis. Even Richie, who was a guest on Ozu’s sets, never counted Tokyo Twilight as a great film, thinking the melodrama as holding it back from being so. Yet, Richie admits such melodrama pales in comparison to the typical Hollywood style. (1) A reexamining of Tokyo Twilight film reveals what was initially overlooked in the previous century.
Tokyo Twilight (1957) is among Ozu’s most bleakest and cynical films, a noir-influenced family drama. However, the cynicism and nihilism of the typical western noir is replaced by a deep belief in the fragility of humanity and the structure of familial relationships needed to maintain our place in the world. In the words of one of his stock characters, the working class bar patron, “pearls need a place like that in order to grow naturally.” Ironically, at the same time Ozu was viewed as too traditionally Japanese for mass acceptance in the West, he revealed his progressiveness in Tokyo Twilight. Abortion and feminism are explored, without shame or imposition, in a matter of fact manner.
Ozu’s traditionalism is juxtaposed with presenting of modern Japanese society as it was, without editorial content. The way he framed his shots rejected the modern grammar of film and embraced the classic theater and Japanese traditional arts. Space and room for contemplation are part of the picture. Shots are framed in a theatrical manner, using the traditional home as a stage. The Japanese home and the embrace of wooden architecture of Japanese history and pre-history sits neatly next to a modern family environment. Characters gaze at the camera in straight-on shots that feel direct and intimate. When the camera is directed outward, the audience sees what his characters would have seen in their public and private lives. These gazes form their physical and social milieu and through them we can empathize with them and see their world. While Ozu’s films were never incomprehensible to western audience, what he does do is demand that the viewer infer the emotional state of his characters. The onus for empathy is on the viewer, and through this act of empathy comes an understanding.
The first five shots of Tokyo Twilight set up the impending narrative, taking the audience from the most general view of Tokyo on the cusp of the late 1950s to the personal environs and lives of the characters. In the film’s opening still shot we see commercial buildings, power lines, and one lonesome street light illuminating the dusky early evening, in the second, a freight train, symbolic of the transfer of goods and ideas from the outside. Trains are ubiquitous in Ozu’s pictures, as literal and metaphorical symbols of progress and transport, yet their meaning can fluctuate with the particular film and context. These two opening scenes are the wide view of Tokyo, over a decade since reconstruction began and something still in progress, a place and a people in flux, dislocated and often alone.
In the third shot we meet one of the three most central characters of the film, Shukichi Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu). The version of Tokyo in Tokyo Twilight is not the anonymous mega-city of today, but rather a collection of intimate neighborhoods of interconnected lives and stories. Yet, the larger city of Tokyo and its recent history forms a backdrop and set of assumption that were obvious to his domestic audience in 1957. Shukichi sits down in a bar in the Ginza neighborhood, clean, neat, upscale, modernized. It is operated by a middle aged woman who also had a young adult daughter. The theme of dislocation is established through their conversation when she states, “As soon as I get to know you people, the head office calls you back.” Nostalgically, she serves her two customers a light meal of salted sea cucumber obtained from her home provincial town. Shukichi learns from the proprietor that his son-in-law, Professor Numata, was recently a drunk patron, foreshadowing the conflict between his elder daughter and her husband and symbolized by a shot of the Professor’s hat left behind and unceremoniously abandoned.
The motif of bleak darkness is introduced as Shukichi walks up the hill to his home later in the evening and returns home. He greets his elder daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) and her sleeping toddler daughter, the everyday rituals of life as a stabilizing factor, in contrast to other characters lack of manner introduced later. To the Japanese, the dialogue of the scripts, written by Ozu, and often with his collaborator Kogo Noda, are the equivalent of literature and revered as such. While Ozu was in no sense providing his own commentary but merely presenting the fact of Japanese life and all of its diversity, as it was.
In this scene, Shukichi tells Takako that he read her husband’s article entitled “Resistance to Freedom.” Tokyo in 1957 was several years removed from the initial shock of reconstruction and deep in the synthesis of Americanized values as a modern way of life, a deliberate campaign and mission of American occupation. The title of Numata’s article is a clever criticism of the failure of his country to question the joint mission of American and Japanese authorities to reframe progress as acceptance of the American values of commercialism. American occupation forms an unstated backdrop to the milieu of Tokyo Twilight and all of Ozu’s postwar films. Japan was refashioned to American standards of how a state should act, the process assisted by the dissemination of American consumer goods, lifestyles, and popular culture, synthesized into Japanese culture. Ozu’s Tokyo reveals the cost and consequences of such dislocation. Arguable, Ozu was courageous for his realist version of Tokyo and daring to question the outcome.
In actual history, from 1945 to 1948 Douglas MacArthur was Supreme Allied Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) in Japan. In essence, MacArthur was acting head of state and head of government of Japan during his reign, rebranding and reframing Emperor Hirohito, literally in the case of the infamous image below, as a subordinate. In the words of one member of MacArthur’s staff, “yes it (MacArthur’s agenda) was disseminated through the radio and newspapers. We controlled everything, so we could force the Japanese to do almost anything we wished.” (2) It is no surprise that film was the most powerful force in the effort of the media to enact such an agenda. In this context, the purity of Ozu’s creations and his ability to function under the auspices of one of Japan’s largest studios, Shochiku, is something of an antidote to the official records.
Little of this change in the mass culture would be have been possible without a method for wider transmission. Like the Baby Boomers of the West, the young people of Japan in the middle of the twentieth century were the first generation to come of age at a time that saw the rise of a mass commercialized media, complicated and amplified by the presence of American military bases in their midst and influence of occupation on institutions public and private. This is the context of Ozu’s world, Tokyo Twilight, and postwar Japan as a whole. Some of the coarsest dialogue between characters is exhibited in the scenes portraying the most westernized atmosphere, the bars in the upscale neighborhoods, rebuild to reflect Western values and modernity. The young adults of the film make up the apres-guerre generation, the first to be consumers of mass media.
In this context, the younger daughter of the Sugiyama family, Akiko (Ineko Arima), is the most vulnerable. The selling of western-style democracy was married to capitalist salesmanship and consumption, and her dehumanization by others and their gaze contributes to her suicide. Ozu’s subtlety about the political scene is delicate and shaped by the diplomacy of the Japanese character, the sense of helplessness expressed in the common idiom, “it can’t be helped.” Typically, Ozu’s polite characters embrace the everyday niceties expected of them, a main theme of Good Morning (1959). In Tokyo Twilight, the younger generation are mostly stripped bare of these social rituals, exposing the coarse and raw breakdown of lost kinships between classmates and supposed friends. Under all these weights, Akiko cannot bear the weight of the anomie around her.
Understanding this context opens up the film to full comprehension by Western viewers. Looking at Ozu’s style of shooting also adds meaning for international audiences. Over the course of his career, Ozu created and mastered his own idiosyncratic film grammar. Ozu’s classic perspective was the intimate “tatami shot.” The eyes of the camera approximate the point of view of kneeling on a tatami mat, the traditional way that Japanese interact at home. Static shots without people, life, or obvious connection to the narrative, called “pillow shots” by some critics (3), provide space for audience contemplation and with analysis are often symbolic. Mostly, they allow the audience to see the physical environment of his characters, opening up an important element of empathy based on the assumption that physical environment informs and shapes character. The still shots are like a deep breath, contemplative and reflective, sometimes pretty, and other times starkly realist and industrial.
Akiko’s pregnancy out of wedlock is an issue to which Ozu brings progressive sensitivity. She personifies the motif of suffering and loneliness in an atmosphere of dislocation, victimized by the cynicism of her peers and the indifference of the state. The omnipresence of the hurtful gazes of her peers are symbolized in a recurring scene, a billboard advertising eyeglasses, peering eyes magnified and reminiscent similar symbolism in The Great Gatsby’s eyes of T.J. Eckleburg. Akiko is stereotyped as simply another loose young woman. The coarsest character of the film, Noboru, part of a flock of Akiko’s feckless acquaintances, makes reference to Akiko as a mere panpan girl, a real life phenomena; they were prostitutes who considered themselves liberated and gathered near American military bases. (4) Subtitles leaves out such verbal details. (Yes, something is lost in translation and further study of postwar Japan fills in comprehension.) Ozu leaves the audience no doubt that Akiko is not a panpan girl and Noboru’s characterization is slander. In one scene an anonymous character reads a newspaper with the headline, “Anti-prostitution Laws Enacted,” further revealing Ozu’s realism on this topic.
The synthesis in Japanese society of an American way of life with modernism and capitalism is most starkly represented in the bar scenes. In a telling scene, Kenji, the schoolmate who impregnated her, and Akiko meet at a typical Western-style establishment, Étoile (star), where a movie poster for the Hollywood noir Foreign Intrigue, starring Robert Mitchum, hangs on the wall in the background. Shots of the anonymous characters, expressionless, cynical, lonely, are telling connections between the anomie of Japanese society and the effects of westernization. The name of the bar in itself is ironic for the false facade of these individuals. As a realist, Ozu did not create worlds or ecosystems. Real life was his inspiration, and the real life of 1950s Tokyo was characterized by massive upheaval, social, cultural, and physical.
As a victim, Akiko personifies the consequences of loneliness and progress without continuity of values. In a scene near Tokyo harbor, Ozu lets the audience see what Akiko sees: smokestacks, industry, the high cost of modernity. This scene is reminiscent of a documentary film that would be made six years later by experimental director Naoya Yoshida simply entitled Tokyo. Like Ozu’s portrayal of Akiko, Yoshida’s film shows a young woman trying to survive in postwar Tokyo. Both films share the motif of smokestacks, ubiquitous and suffocating, a symbol of the city as both a challenge to humanity’s existence and its measure of supposed progress. Yoshida’s young female character narrates: “Tokyo, unplanned and full of construction sites, is no place for a human being to live. Only a robot with no sense could live in this rough, coarse, harsh, and dustry city that doesn’t have any blue skies.” (5)
In contrast, Takako, the elder daughter of the Sugiyama family, perserverses. In the absence of her and Akiko’s mother, she takes on the role of maternal diplomat. Both sisters are forced to live in the two worlds, the expected conformity to the traditions of their parents and the commercial westernized reality of the peers. Takako retains more perspective on life than her sister and hence more grounding, refusing to play the role of victim of her absent mother, nor to her alcoholic academic husband. Her strength amidst great decay is heroic. Through her, Ozu is communicating his faith in the postwar generation to restore Japanese society to some kind of semblance. The story of their mother’s return to Tokyo was criticized by Richie as too unlikely and contrived but compelling in the choices made by Takako and distinct from Hollywood cliches. In the end, Takako returns to her husband. The circular nature of Ozu’s narratives plays out in her story. The narrative also spirals as the audience can imagine that Takako ensures her daughter will not suffer as her sister did, and Akiko’s death was not in vain.
The character of the delinquent mother, Kikuko Soma (Isuzu Yamada), also represents a backstory that is often not seen in Ozu’s works. If she were more dynamic the narrative would have forced Shukichi to also tell his side of their separation. Ozu never used flashback scenes. Rather, his characters always live in the present and the narratives are linear, sometimes skipping the shooting of events important to the story or merely using still shots to represent them. While it is proper and expected that one sympathizes with Kikuko’s desire for a relationship with her children, the unresolved tension and disappointment is another facet of life that is to be accepted with resignation. This tension is further enforced by the sense of physical dislocation that Takako feels in the neighborhood of her mother, Gotando, with its unpaved roads and seedy bars. Ozu reveals through dialogue between Kikuko and Akiko that the Sugiyama home is in the Zoshigaya district of Tokyo. In contrast to Gotanda, Zoshigaya stands for the values of traditional aesthetics and wooden structures. While not in the film, a shrine in this neighborhood stands dedicated to the Kishimojin, a demon who before conversion to Buddhism abducted children and after enlightenment became a deity who kept mothers and their children safe. Knowing Ozu’s love of irony, such an allusion is sensical and amusing.
Like many Ozu patriarchs, Shukichi is observant of older traditions but unaware of the realities of making them work for his daughters under the new dynamics of society. The family patriarch of Ozu’s films is often the personification of irony, as in Equinox Flower (1958) as well as Tokyo Twilight. In a long scene at the Sugiyama home after he visits his wayward son-in-law, Shukichi contemplates in silence. As the audience, we must infer his unspoken thoughts, and Ozu set the atmosphere for the audience to empathize with him. Ozu’s aesthetics embrace a traditional reverence for the seasons. It is natural that Tokyo Twilight is set in the deepest cold of the winter season. In this home scene it is past sunset and snowing heavily. The lack of ambient room noise is an audio illustration of what the Japanese call “mu,” a nothingness or void. This relative silence, a realistic recreation of the dampening effect of heavy snowfall, heightens the diegetic sound of Takako preparing her father’s bath. The tension in the room in palpable. We sense what the characters sense, hearing what they hear, seeing what they see, even feeling the textures of the home and its environment. To add drama, a traditional Hollywood director would add effects. Ozu takes away, like the way an audio engineer uses subtractive equalization to enhance a musical track. In the end, Shukichi’s contemplations emphasizes his centrality to Ozu, reveals the dynamic nature of his character as he comes to understand the reality of Takako’s conflict with her husband.
Professor Numata is a rare type in Ozu’s postwar films, a Japanese dissenter. While dysfunctional, his character is not inserted to function as just a disappointment to his family. Takako calls him “neurotic.” But Numata is also someone who is iconic of an element of protest in Japanese society. This aspect of Japanese culture and history, that in recent decades is often represented in anime and video games, was little known or taught in the West in Ozu’s time. In the conversation with Shukichi, Numata laments the rush among his intellectual colleagues to translate books into Japanese, a subtle reminder of the primacy of non-Japanese sources. It would have made the film even more interesting if Ozu had developed Numata as much as other characters in the family.
Film critic Robin Wood looks towards the “delinquent mother” and “the delinquent younger daughter” as characters who demand most of the sympathy of the audience. (6) However, prior to the Criterion Collection’s release of Ozu’s films, audiences and critics were limited in access and couldn’t observe the arc of Ozu’s career in focus and totality. In this more macro perspective, the views of Donald Richie are lent more credence. Ozu does seek the audience to empathize with the female characters, but it is with Shukichi and other patriarchs played by Ryu that present the closest picture on film to the real life Ozu. While Wood sees Takako as an unsympathetic character, the central decision in her life is whether or not to go back to her husband. In traditional plot-heavy films, character is determined by response to actions. In Ozu’s film, character is defined by their choices. Ozu did not believe in plot twists or surprises, devices that lead to character development on the fly. In a Hollywood picture, a character in Takako’s position would have left her husband. The morality of Takako is her development as well, thinking of her daughter foremost. While she is dying, Akiko states, “I want to start my life over again from the beginning.” Takako’s daughter Michiko is the beginning of the cycle of life and the cycle of Ozu’s story.
Tokyo Twilight can be embraced across time and culture. It embodies the universal hope of moving forward from tragedy. In a sense, Ozu represents a grand compromise, and even a synthesis, between the ideas of preserving our most valued traditions and the natural urges of the young to be catalysts of change. In the end, the audience of Tokyo Twilight is left unsure of Takako’s fate. However, after being an honored guest inside her character as an audience member, it is possible to infer that she cannot repeat the same mistakes, the same dysfunction, that led to the suicide of her sister. Equinox Flower was the film that followed Tokyo Twilight. In the role, it is something of an answer to the open questions in Tokyo Twilight. While there is no proverbial “happily ever after” in Ozu’s world, there is the satisfaction of the portrayal of daughters of Equinox Flower living full lives and choosing their own husbands.
The universality of post-modern malaise and the ripple effects of the horrors of rebuilding the psyches of those traumatized by war were never really “too Japanese” for western audiences. Ozu’s characters are universal, accessible to those willing to put effort into understanding. If Ozu’s films were viewed in their time by a western audience, they held the potential of breaking down pernicious stereotypes that were all too typical in Hollywood films and pop culture, stereotypes that portraying Asians as superstitious, uncultured, and in need of saving by a Christian god. Ozu’s realism was not too Japanese but only too honest for western audiences. Ozu reveals the truly human state of being inconsistent and honest at the same time. He was both a traditionalist and a revolutionary, and there is not contradiction in those two traits. From audiences, “Ozu asks an amount of trust and goodwill uncommon among directors,” that the viewer will put themselves into the emotional context of his characters and understand their trials and feelings.” (7) For those in the West to watch his films and identify with his characters is to confront our own legacy, the mistakes of our collective past, and recognize the universality of the trauma of living with war and its ripple effects that smash the innocent with all the force of The Great Wave. It can’t be helped.
- Donald Richie. Ozu, (University of California Press, 1974), p. 241.
- “Douglas Arthur, America’s Emperor in Japan.” Moments in US Diplomatic History. Accessed 26 Jan. 2018. (http://adst.org/2015/07/douglas-macarthur-americas-emperor-of-japan/#.Richie)
- Leigh Singer. “The enigmatic ‘pillow shots’ of Yasujiro Ozu,” British Film Institute. (www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/enigmatic-pillow-shots-yasujiro-ozu)
- John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).
- Tokyo is available in educational settings, but its commercial state is unknown by this author. I am indebted to Professor Shunya Yoshimi of the University of Tokyo for teaching it in his course, “Visualizing Postwar Tokyo.”
- Robin Wood. “Notes Toward A Reading Of Tokyo Twilight,” CineAction, Issue 63, 2004.
- Ibid. Richie, p. 24