Half Empty, Since 1998

Summary of, and comments on the 1953 film by Japanese director Ozu about the relationship between parents and children.

Marty's Notes On "Tokyo Story"

Marty Spellerberg. February 2nd, 2000

Tokyo Story follows a Japanese mother and father as they travel to visit their children, finding mixed reactions. The mother takes ill and dies when they return home. Ozu did not enjoy much western attention during his lifetime for he was considered “too Japanese” for western tastes and his refusal to produce “costume dramas” and period pieces did not fit into the usual market for Japanese films in the west. Critics were excited by this film, especially in its relationship to the French New Wave and portrayal of a uniquely Japanese popular culture.

For Ozu, there was nothing special about the planning and production of Tokyo Story that would have indicated it would become his masterpiece, and it is quite similar to the bulk of his post-war work in that it deal with the life of a middle class family in contemporary Japan. It put a smile on my face to read that he objected to having his films “read” in the way that film critics, theorists, and students do.

Ozu was not at all concerned with the western tradition of the 180-degree line, instead developing what can only be described as a 360-degree portrayal of real space on film. He has no desire to hide his cuts with “invisible” editing techniques and frames shots to reflect non-confrontational attitudes the same way it is reflected in their architecture.

The use of “emptiness” is reflective of Ozu’s strong Buddhist faith and could be inspired by the images of Zen painting. Use of shots of an empty city convey the feeling of Tomi’s death and the empty train tracks after Noriko’s train has left signify the father’s aloneness. This is also brought into play in the narrative as it is distinctly lacking in “plot elements” and the audience has to constantly reevaluate and reposition itself in order to keep up with what has been left out and where the story has moved to. There are many “empty” shots and scenes that a left without establishment as to their place and time. However, he also makes use of the Buddhist concept of bridging the voids by having set elements common to adjoining shots, leading us from on to the other.

A circle is formed between the town of Onomichi and Buddhism and death. The presence of the traditional shrine commemorating dead loved ones and the Buddhist music playing during Tomi’s funeral connects it with the worship of ancestors and puts the town in the position of having both history and family. While it may be considered a small, “backwater” town, it comes to stand for all that is stable and therefor, in “Japanese” thinking, good. This is contrasted by the portrayal of Tokyo where western industrialism and pollution dominate the atmosphere. Their children in Toyo are “too busy” to install the traditional shrine in their home and neglect them. This could be read as a political commentary against the US occupation and the mainstream acceptance of western ideals.


Marty’s Japanese Film Notes

These notes were compiled in the winter of 1999 as part of Marty’s studies at the Ontario College of Art & Design. They may contain references to ideas in texts and credit is given to the authors.