Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tokyo Story

(Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Finally got around to viewing a film regarded by many as utterly essential, coming in as it does, consistently, as the #2 greatest ever made.  While I can't profess to being totally bowled over by the experience of watching it, there is an undeniable power to the film.   The circularity of it, the sensitivity to change, the seismic upheavals of history rendered intimately through their effect on a family; it's all there, done with meticulousness and a craftsman's control (and love.)

As far as first viewings go, I was more impressed by The End of SummerTokyo Story contains some great moments of grace and beauty, but overall seems less mysterious, more emotionally and philosophically resigned, and more narratively demonstrative than his later work (Ozu, correctly it seems to my still largely untutored eyes, called it his "most melodramatic film.") There are still elements of Japanese social decorum that seem alienating and odd; I can't help but wonder how much is a stylistic inflection, how much is documentary-like in its specificity, and how much is lost in translation/historical time.

In the same vein, it's hard to come to a workable understanding of the characters, who are alternately opaque and obvious.  The standard solution is to view the story as being fundamentally less individual-based than most Western cinema; characters are, for Ozu, like colors for a painter.   The overall depth emerges from the contrapuntal interplay of the characters, each in their own right providing some dimension or detail that only makes sense when viewed as a whole.   This works, sort of, but I'm not sure that it completely makes up for the strange lack of affect that his characters sometimes evince.  Again - how much of this is accurate of 1950s Japanese social mores?  How much is 1950s Japanese cinematic convention?  And how much is just stylistic shading on the part of Ozu?

And yet, as a master of space and atmosphere, Ozu is truly and obviously seminal.  The slow, subtly rhythmic pace, the emphasis on the quotidian, the endless framings and re-framingings of the image; it's practically ubiquitous now, at least in a certain kind of Art cinema.   It seems to me, though, that Ozu as an articulator or space is more idiosyncratic that I had previously imagined; his spaces, through framing techniques and front-on compositions, are generally flattened and positionally obscure.  His stubbornly immobile camera, lack of transitions other than hard cuts, and consistently low framing lend a kind of modular aura to the space, as if each room were its own miniature universe; it is painterly, static, compressed, even reticent.

Devil's Advocate:  For all of his Chekhovian gracefulness and subtle yet emphatic humanism, Ozu is something of a withholder who overestimates the value of "less is more" as a guiding principle.  There is an un-reckoned despair in his films, a dark side to his gentleness, an antiseptic aversion to messiness in his painstaking framing and episodic plotting.  Where is whatever lies beneath, or beyond?  Where is the ecstasy of vision, of form, of emotion?  Where is the funk?

And yet, for such singularity of vision, for such patient, insistent clarity and purpose, I find much to appreciate...more study is surely required.  Really, I've only scratched the surface of Ozu.  Hence my disclaimer...

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