Acclaimed Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu would have been 100 years old this
year (he passed away from cancer in 1963), and in celebration of this event a
traveling retrospective of Ozu's work is circling the globe. If you have the
opportunity, make every conceivable effort to catch this exhibition, as you will
be richly rewarded with some of the finest pieces of world cinema ever created.
I was able to experience the show last summer in the Czech Republic, as the
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival hosted the Ozu retrospective. Although
I wasn't able to procure tickets to all of the Ozu films available, I was able
to view screenings of I Was Born, But... (Umarete Wa mita
keredo...), Record Of A Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya Shinshi Roku),
Late Spring (Banshun), Tokyo Story
(Tokyo Monogatari), and An Autumn Afternoon (Samma
Before Late Spring began, I had struck up a conversation with a
rather congenial Russian fellow named Lev, and I had remarked about how much I
was absolutely overdosing with delight experiencing so many Ozu classics. There
was nothing like enjoying great films projected on a screen in a darkened
theater. He turned to me and agreed, saying something along the lines of "Yes,
Ozu made such a great film."
Film? As in, singular?
"Yes. He made one great film over and over again and gave them different
Lev might have had a point, albeit a limited one. From his first film,
The Sword of Penitence in 1927, to his final work, 1963's An Autumn
Afternoon, Ozu directed fifty-four movies in total. Eighteen of them were
lost to antiquity, but the thirty-six that remain exhibit such similar
recurrences of plot, themes, and characters that it might seem as if Ozu's
entire oeuvre was a riff on little more than a handful of elements: the
stillness of his camera, tatami-leveled camera placement, thoughtfully
composed cinematography, constant crossing and expansion of the "180-degree
axis", his predilection for contemplative and often meditative tones, and so
Ozu's work focused primarily on the inner dynamics of the Japanese family,
how this foundational unit weathered social pressure, internal strife, external
interference, loneliness, suffering, dissolution, and triumph. He re-used
characters and situations often: the daughter who doesn't want to marry and the
widowed father who must find her a husband, ultimately transferring her
impending loneliness onto himself, or the two young brothers who fail to grasp
the implications of a world larger, more illogical, and scarier than the
one they live in (you could interchange the young boys from I Was Born,
But..., Tokyo Story, and Good Morning
without missing a beat.) Ozu's later films seemed especially similar to
each other: the comical, light-hearted elements and more active cinematography
and camera-work found in his earlier movies evolved into a more somber, quiet,
and contemplative tone.
I prefer to think of Ozu as a filmmaker by way of a jazz musician. He would
take a theme and re-examine it from multiple angles. He would reproduce similar
characters and situations, and use the camera eye to reposition them throughout
his movies as a stark examination of the natural world. Ozu was especially fond
of using an image of movement through stillness in order to evoke an atmosphere
of evolution cutting through complacency. He would shoot a simple clothesline
swaying in the gentle wind while a lone cyclist rode his way through the
background, or a wide static shot of a mountainside as a locomotive made its way
across the bottom of a screen. It is as if Ozu was showing us that time and tide
would pass and inevitably change that which we viewed as stoic and immutable.
Parents grow old and die. Children grow older and gain their own
responsibilities. Expectations aren't met. Dreams to which we fervently cling
never get fulfilled. Loved ones move out. Ozu demonstrated how life is filled
with inherent sadness and tragedy, but that our realization and acceptance of
this basic, inevitable reality can become a joyous triumph in and of itself.
Tokyo Story is considered by many to be Ozu's masterpiece.
In the esteemed 2002 Sight and Sound poll, film critics ranked
Tokyo Story as the fifth greatest film ever made. This intrepid
reviewer can't even begin to debate the merits of that particular
rating, but there can be no doubt that Tokyo Story is nothing
less than a phenomenal film in pretty much every conceivable capacity.
The film's story is fairly straightforward and rather simple to describe. Two
elderley parents make a trek to Tokyo to visit the city and spend time with
their children and grandchildren. As the story progresses, their adult children
find themselves bothered by their parents' arrival, viewing them as a general
annoyance and passing the responsibility of spending time with them among each
other with an aire of arrogance and ungrateful, indignant self-importance. They
are simply "too busy" to look after them. The only one who shows the couple a
modicum of kindness and respect is their daughter-in-law, widowed to a son who
was killed in World War 2, who has very little to offer them but yet she offers
them everything she has.
To say more is probably to say too much, although Tokyo Story
is one of the most heart-rending and deeply affecting films I have ever
experienced. The film isn't inherently "plot heavy". Events occur and the story
progresses to its shattering conclusion, but the film is more about emotions
evoked out of the film's simplicity. By modern standards, the film is certainly
slow, but it is never "boring" or "pointless." The joys of Tokyo
Story, the foundation of its cinematic
brilliance are to be found not in its plot, but in its ability to derive truth
and heartfelt emotion out of the still, natural moments of real
Tokyo Story comes in an elegant two-disc keepcase package
from the Criterion Collection.
Tokyo Story is presented in its original full-frame
theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Criterion spent time creating a
high-definition digital transfer from a new 35mm print, removing evidence of
dirt, debris, and scratches, and restoring the film to a much more impressive
state. Unfortunately the original negative was destroyed in a fire, so
Criterion's restoration efforts are as close as we're going to get to a
pristine, first-generation presentation.
The result is a generally pleasing transfer which, while not without its
flaws, looks as good as one could imagine. Indeed, this transfer looks worlds
more impressive than any other home video release of Tokyo Story
thus far. Due to the film's age and limited source elements,
Tokyo Story has its share of film wear, jump cuts, and other
print flaws. Contrast and brightness levels are brilliantly rendered, while
overall image detail is mixed. I noticed no compression noise, pixelation, or
transfer artifacts throughout the film. Given the deterioration of the film's
original elements, Tokyo Story certainly looks more than
respectable. I found the quality of the video presentation to be inherently
flawed but nonetheless impressive to the hilt.
Criterion also digitally restored the film's mono soundtrack. The remastered
soundtrack was enhanced and restored to reduce hiss, pops, and crackling. The
result is pleasing, but like the video it is also problematic. There remains
some underlying hiss that permeates the entire presentation. The hiss is never
overbearing to the audio presentation. Dialog comes across fairly well if
slightly boxy at times. Concessions can be made, as this is fifty-year-old audio
that has been digitally improved across the board. The overall presentation is
serviceable and generally pleasant, if again limited by flawed source material.
This two-disc special edition comes loaded with supplemental material of
extremely impressive quality.
Ozu-film scholar David Desser has recorded a brand-new, feature-length
Audio Commentary that examines Tokyo Story from pretty
much every angle. His scholarly and exhaustive comments take a film school
approach to the movie, analyzing everything from camera angles, recurring
themes, actors, the film's placement within Ozu's entire body of work, plot
analysis, and more. Desser is fairly lively and enthusiastic throughout, and the
depth of his analysis of the film is very impressive. Also included on this disc
is the film's four-minute Original Theatrical Trailer, which I wouldn't
review until after you've seen the film for the first time.
Ozu fans will be thrilled to see the inclusion of I Lived, But...
(1983), a two-hour documentary that delves into the life and work of the
acclaimed Japanese director. The documentary isn't in pristine
condition -- Criterion admitted that they spent more of their efforts in
restoring Tokyo Story than worrying about how good the
documentary looks -- but the presentation, while a little worn, still looks
extremely acceptable. But forget about how it looks... I Lived, But...
is an amazing journey into Ozu's life and career. There are numerous clips
from his various films interspersed with interviews featuring actors, critics,
former assistants, and more. This is a fascinating and enjoyable documentary,
and it provides a thorough look at the man behind some of the greatest classics
of world cinema.
Criterion keeps the documentaries flowin with Talking With Ozu, a
forty-minute documentary from 1993 that showcases retrospections on Ozu's work
from a cadre of acclaimed international directors, including Stanley Kwan, Aki
Kaurismaki, Claire Denis, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, and Hou
Hsiao-Hsien. Ozu's works left a lasting impact on these filmmakers, and they
eagerly share their thoughts and feelings on Ozu throughout the documentary.
While not as totally compelling as the previous documentary, Talking With
Ozu is nonetheless an extremely worthwhile and refreshingly candid addition
to this DVD. Ozu left a marked imprint on a generation of filmmakers from around
the world, and the documentary reverentially reflects his cinematic legacy.
Tokyo Story is a magnificent film in and of itself, and to
have it restored and released on DVD is simply a joy on its own. Criterion's
insistence on going the extra mile with the finest possible presentation of the
film, as well as delivering a set of supplemental material that enhances one's
appreciation of Ozu and his masterpiece, makes Tokyo Story one
of the most impressive DVD releases of the year. Tokyo Story is
the type of film that lingers and resonates long after its final frame
disappears. It doesn't aim to teach, moralize, deconstruct societal norms, or
offer any kind of engaging polemic. Instead, Ozu simply pointed his camera and
let his story unfold organically and without adornment, creating an astonishing
tale of simple beauty, silent truths, and natural brilliance. Without the
slightest scintilla of doubt or hesitation, place Criterion's Tokyo
Story DVD at the top of your must-have list.