Tokyo Story: Bringing the Message Through Cinematography

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Tokyo Story is a 1953 Japanese film directed by Yasujiro Ozu, telling the story of an elderly couple named Shukichi and Tomi who travel from their small hometown to visit their children in Tokyo,  who are too busy to spend time with them. Some of the film’s explicit themes include the inevitability of change and the small disappointments of life, while it’s implicit themes relate the breakdown of traditional Japanese family structures to the Westernization of the country in the period following World War II. The film, typical of Ozu, is presented in an objective, minimalist style, using a visual palette characterized by stationary, wide camera angles, and a de-emphasised plot in order to focus on the normal, quotidien nature of the character’s lives.

One scene in particular which demonstrates the film’s style takes place at a hot spring resort in Atami, where the couple has been sent to stay for a few days by their eldest son and daughter. Their sleep was disrupted the previous night due to the noise caused by a group of young businessmen on vacation at their hotel. The scene begins following a shot of the couple’s slippers sitting outside their room’s door, as the diegetic music from a band performing for the revellers slowly fades away. This cuts directly to a wide still life shot looking towards the daylit bay from inside of the hotel. The town can be seen on the other side of the water, and a boat moves slowly from right to left.

This shot has two primary purposes: to establish the passage of time, and to reinforce one of the film’s overall themes: the transient nature of the world. By seeing that it is now daylight outside, the audience can infer that some time has passed since the previous scene, although exactly how much time has yet to be seen. Boats moving over water is a motif that recurs throughout the film, used to create the impression that the characters are part of a larger world, relating to the overall message of the film: that life is fleeting, and all things must pass. In spite of Shukichi and Tomi’s disappointment due to last night’s revelries, the sun has still risen, and boats are still puttering along gently through the waters, just as they have been doing and will continue to do. This method of transitioning between scenes is one that is used often not only in Tokyo Story, but in many of Ozu’s films, where still life shots which are not directly related to the overall plot are used to lend the film a leisurely pace (referred to by many critics as “pillow shots”).

The film cuts from this to a shot of a corridor inside the hotel, showing the aftermath of last night’s revelry. Corridor shots are used frequently throughout Tokyo Story, typically in order to give scenes an air of domesticity, and to allow characters to move in and out of the frame from all points of depth in the frame. The hallway is messy, with beer bottles and scattered items of clothing populating the frame. This indicates to the audience that this scene does in fact take place the morning after the previous scene, with shadows being cast over the walls to give the impression that the sun is rising. Because the last shot had part of the building’s architecture contained within it’s frame, it can be inferred that this shot is taken from roughly the same physical position, but at a different angle. The layout of the physical space of the couple’s room in the previous few scenes pays off in this shot, as the audience is able to understand that the camera is right outside their room, thus reinforcing how disruptive the party goers must have been to Shukichi and Tomi.

Almost immediately, a maid enters from a doorway at the far end of the corridor. It is here that the shot’s somewhat odd camera angle becomes somewhat more apparent: the camera is positioned at an extremely low angle. This type of shot is the most common one used throughout Ozu’s films, said by many film critics to represent the point-of-view of somebody sitting on a tatami mat, which would be approximately three feet off the ground (although in reality these shots are positioned slightly lower than that). The purpose of this type of shot is to flatten out the appearance of the scenes and to allow for characters’ entire bodies to appear in frame, so that the image’s full composition may be admired without the need for cutting. The maid hangs up a pair of robes on the railing as a second maid enters from another doorway. They sing a song together as they idly go about their business, giving the impression that this is part of their daily routine, and again reinforcing the film’s celebration of everyday life. The second maid leaves, then the first. The first re-enters briefly, then leaves again, and there is a short pause in their song, allowing this twenty second shot of action which is seemingly unrelated to the story to come to an end.

Ozu then cuts to an extreme long shot of the couple sitting on a wall overlooking the ocean. The maids’ song continues to be heard in the background, linking the two shots together spatially. The size of the husband and wife is dwarfed by the immensity of the background, further emphasized by the huge plateau seen off in the distance. The angle of this shot relative to the two previous ones also implies that this is being photographed from roughly the same location, this time allowing the audience to view what lay off in the distance opposite the village. The shot’s visual poetry is immediately apparent: the permanence of the natural world is being contrasted with the changes that the couple is experiencing in their lives, most notably in their relationships with their children.

The camera then moves to a medium shot of the couple (once again using Ozu’s signature “tatami” angle), and the audience is able to fully appreciate their mundane contentedness in their being together in this setting. The day’s weather (a nice and hot summer’s day, the same kind of day as every other in the film) is indicated via Shukichi’s idle waving of his fan. Their costumes are also relevant: they wear kimonos, a traditional Japanese attire, a motif which is used throughout the film to highlight the generational gap between them and the more westernized costumes of the other, younger characters. As the maids’ song slowly fades out, Tomi turns towards her husband, indicating to the audience that dialogue is about to commence.

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“What’s the matter?” she asks. “You didn’t sleep well last night, did you?”. The scene begins to employ shot-reverse-shot of medium-close angles of the couple, and the audience is allowed to witness the depth of their relationship. “You did. You snored.” replies Shukichi. This short exchange of words both reinforces the couple’s restlessness of the previous night, as well as implies a degree of comfortableness between the two characters. “This place is for the younger generation.” concludes Shukichi. Their dissatisfaction with their trip is shown in a most polite and typically Japanese manner via this single line, which implies a huge amount of depth without drawing attention to itself or arousing any unnecessary tension. Whereas a more traditional director would most likely make a larger point of this, Ozu allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. It would be pointless to place any more emphasis on this, as the audience has already witnessed the couple’s annoyance at the previous night’s events, making this line all the more poignant and heartbreaking.

The scene then cuts back to a shot inside a different part of the hotel, showing the maids continuing to clean. Once again viewed from a low angle, this shot demonstrates another of the film’s recurring visual motifs: frames within frames. Ozu uses sets of Japanese sliding doors to frame the two characters, using gradually more high-key lighting on each set in order to draw the audience’s attention towards them. Despite the film’s decidedly anti-theatrical style, the doors are shown to resemble a type of proscenium, raising the idea that the audience is in fact viewing a type of theatre: a theatre of everyday life. Throughout his filmography, Ozu shows an affinity for demonstrating the beauty of the mundane; the drama in universal situations which every audience member would be able to relate to. By framing this short, seemingly unrelated cutaway in this style, he is inviting the audience to view it as an emulation of real life, as if eavesdropping on a private conversation.

As the maids clean, they talk about a pair of newlyweds who had stayed at the hotel the previous night. The couple is never shown in the film, and their exclusion is not atypical of the film’s style. Just as ellipsis was used to bridge the time between the couple’s sleepless night and the morning, it is used again here because Ozu understands that the maids’ conversation is enough for the audience to comprehend the events being discussed, a choice which is perfectly in tune with the film’s minimalist style (the relegating of seemingly important scenes to off-screen action occurs several times throughout the film). While their discussion is at face value completely unrelated to the film’s plot, this is once again an example of the film’s exploration of the mundane aspects of the world. Sex is a universal component of life, as universal as children growing distant from their parents, or as the sun rising every morning.

The focus then returns to the couple as suddenly as it shifted away from them moments ago. The framing of the couple is the same as before: a medium-wide two shot from a low angle. The non-diegetic score appears at this point, playing a variation of the film’s main musical theme. Throughout Tokyo Story, the score is used most prominently to indicate that a scene transition is about to occur, and yet here we remain with Shukichi and Tomi. This adds some poignancy to the scene, allowing for a subtle underscoring of the emotions being felt by the two characters. Tomi wonders about their daughter, Kyoko, who lives with them back in their village of Onomichi. The camera returns to the same shot-reverse-shot pattern as before, and Shukichi takes Tomi’s comment as an indication of homesickness. There is a tragic undercurrent to their reasonings which eventually persuade them to return home; the audience has seen firsthand the cruelty of the children towards their parents, and is therefore privy to the couple’s unspoken disappointment.

A cut is then made to a similar angle from which the couple was displayed before, but this time from a longer distance and looking at them from the right instead of the left. Shikuchi rises to his feet, and because of the framing, the audience’s expectation would be for Tomi to do the same and for them to walk off the left side of the frame. However, as Shikuchi walks away, he notices that Tomi is having trouble standing. “What’s the matter?” he asks her. “I just felt slightly dizzy. I’m fine now.” replies Tomi, as the music shifts to a minor tone. This is foreshadowing for an event which will occur later on in the film. There is significant dramatic irony in this scene, because just as Tomi and Shikuchi discuss returning home, she experiences the first sign of a stroke which will occur on that very journey. Later on, she will become mortally ill and die in their home in Onomichi. Notably, the audience does not get to witness either her stroke or the onset of her illness, and so this is the only point in the story where any of her health symptoms are shown on-screen (save for two brief moments later where she becomes forgetful). This is easily one of the most dramatic events of the film thus far, and yet it is still displayed in a calm, humble manner, true to Ozu’s tone.

Before the scene ends, there are three more “pillow shots” which (like the beginning of the scene) are used to smoothly transition between the different locations at a leisurely pace, and to reinforce the film’s themes. The first is a return to the extreme long shot of the couple on the wall, showing them walking off towards the left side of the frame. The second is a return to the composition showing the hotel’s corridor, now cleaned. Finally, the last shot of this scene shows the plateau off in the distance, viewed from inside of the hotel. These shots provide a thematic link to the scene’s first three shots, but this time played in reverse order, giving it a circular nature. There was the boat sailing across the bay; now there is the immovable plateau on the other side. There was the messy hallway outside of the couple’s room; now it has been cleaned and the maids’ job is done. There was the couple sitting on the wall admiring the ocean; now their stay in Atami is over, and they must return home. There is a simply beauty in the ordering of these, as if to emphasise the cyclical nature of the world. Time has passed, the audience has seen everything that has needed to be seen here, and now it is time to move on, just as Shukichi and Tomi must move on. Change is a part of life, and very soon, though they do not know it yet, they will have to undergo major changes of their own.

Yasujiro Ozu has been quoted as saying that Tokyo Story is his “most melodramatic” film, a statement which would not be true if this film belonged to the oeuvre of any other director. Yet Tokyo Story is in fact, in all senses of the word, a melodrama. It shows universal conflicts in life, both small and large, in an understated style which few other films are able to match effectively. Tokyo Story is effective as a piece of art because it follows the most basic rule of storytelling to a tee: “show, don’t tell”. Ozu knew that good stories told on film do not happen on screen, but rather in the minds of the viewers.

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