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A Time of Transition: Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight

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By Jeremy Carr.

There are, in Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo Boshoku), many of the familiar refrains common to Yasujirô Ozu’s conspicuously singular filmmaking. There are the generational disparities, the struggles pertaining to familial strife, the social and sexual stigmas and their related expectations, and the ever-present suggestion of life slowly slipping away and out of one’s hands. Yet there is something else that sets this 1957 feature apart from much of Ozu’s output, something exceptionally somber, something unsettling, something – certainly by the standards of 1950s Japanese cinema – even scandalous. Encased by his trademark “pillow shots,” those scenic frames of everyday reality that bookend scenes of equally customary human interaction, the ensuing drama here concerns pointed issues such as abortion, infidelity, and suicide. Moving through a foggy cityscape in the dead of winter, Tokyo Twilight’s discreet, chilly exteriors yield to interior conversations regarding employment, family, food and drink, former associates, and different regions of prior inhabitance (topics apt to arise in any Ozu film), but as these characters exchange pleasantries, dress down for an evening at home, or sit in silence, far deeper anxieties emerge, still with the filmmaker’s trademark grace and perceptive empathy.

Written by Ozu and regular collaborator Kôgo Noda, Tokyo Twilight centers on banker Shûkichi Sugiyama, played with remarkably revealing understatement by Chishû Ryû, and his two daughters, Akiko (Ineko Arima), a college student, and her older sister, Takako (Setsuko Hara). The former daughter is burdened by an unexpected pregnancy and the distress of a child out of wedlock; the latter has temporarily left an unhappy marriage with her toddler in tow. Shûkichi is just trying to make sense of it all. As cash-strapped Akiko desperately searches the city over for the father of her child, Kenji (Masami Taura), looking for an answer or, at the very least, assurance, Takako takes her domestic discord in resigned stride, as Ozu characters often do, evasively alluding to her husband’s drinking and despair – “It can’t be helped … that’s just how he is.” Compounding the disharmony is the chance reappearance of Shûkichi’s ex-wife, the girls’ mother, Kisako (Isuzu Yamada), now remarried and running a mahjong parlor.

The confluence of incidents resurrects painful memories (there was also a brother, who died while mountain climbing a few years before), causes for regret (Takako was likely married off to the wrong man), and perceived reasons for shame and disappointment (“You’re no child of mine,” admonishes Shûkichi, deriding the rebellious Akiko). So, what, in any of this, would truly make these three happy? Whose wants should one value over another? And what should ultimately be sacrificed? Mostly, everyone just wants to be wanted. Although decisions are finally made – Takako returns home, wanting to set a good example for Akiko and recognizing parallels in her own flight and the abandonment of their mother – Ozu offers up no firm impression of contentment. Withstanding the strained, conflicting emotions of each respective situation, the characters look ahead to find a solution, a path to happiness, while simultaneously diagnosing the resurgence of what came before, reflecting on actions taken and those passed upon. In Ozu’s world, certainly in Tokyo Twilight, it seems the past and future are in a constant state of uneasy flux, while the present, with all of its hesitation, appears severely stationary.

Tokyo 02Due to the controversy of its aforementioned subject matter, especially abortion, this some sixteen years before the procedure’s legalization in America, Robin Wood called Tokyo Twilight the film “nobody wants to talk about.” Beyond that, though, the film is, in an unmistakably Ozu way, complete with the implicit modern consequences of Westernization, industrialization, and household modification, principally in terms of female empowerment. Among the solemnest of his seasonally themed films (the only with winter as its illustrative backdrop), Tokyo Twilight was also the final black and white Ozu feature, and its suitably muted photography by Yûharu Atsuta captures to an almost tangible degree the low-key luminosity of its namesake hour, with a soft-focus transition from day to night, the donning of coats and blankets to fight the pervasive cold, and the deceptive tranquility of time spent at home. Ryû, who appeared in nearly all of Ozu’s 50-plus features, embodies the generally stoic Ozu patriarch, wracked with fermenting confusion and guilt, while Hara’s delicate, dignified expressiveness offers the same outward veneer of persistence seen in her prior work with the director, revealing in Tokyo Twilight a subtle complexity born from the maturing acuity of she and Ozu in unison. Arima’s articulation of uncertainty and desolation lends her Akiko a wayward vulnerability, supplying, in the process, the impetus for the film’s notable presence of peripheral characters providing broad social commentary. Rather atypical for Ozu is Tokyo Twilight’s inclusion of these individuals who, while having no direct bearing on the film’s central trio, nevertheless reappear to ponder the state of contemporary youth culture, gossiping, judging, lamenting the way young people are led astray, stressing the importance of a “good home,” and debating the virtue of bad girls versus good girls and which are more fun, exposing an age-old sexual hypocrisy. Others are more naturally honorable, like the noodle shop owner who cares for Akiko when she is hit by train, plainly stating he had no choice – she’s a customer.

Adopting his favored “tatami shot” camera positioning, Ozu’s largely static compositions observe with restrained refinement the intimate goings-on of routine life, meticulously blocking out entrances and exits and feeling no need to rush the ostensible drama of any given sequence (the film runs nearly two and a half hours). A character may be asked a question and leave the room before answering, but Ozu’s camera remains, waiting for his or her return, and Tokyo Twilight is full of such moments, with characters endlessly waiting: Takako waiting up until Akiko gets home, Akiko waiting for Kenji to finally show, Akiko waiting at the police station when she is picked up for her apparently errant delinquency (that is, merely being out alone at night), and Shûkichi waiting the day out playing pachinko. Perhaps most rare is the stated acknowledgment of characters thinking, from Akiko thinking about her pregnancy and Takako taking time to think over her marriage, to Shûkichi thinking on the train home about his paternal influence. Although this much is seldom seen, the mere mention of earnest contemplation gives the picture a measured thoughtfulness. There may be moments of surprisingly violent outburst (surprising for Ozu), erupting primarily from Akiko’s pent-up passions, but Tokyo Twilight is essentially focused on melancholy stillness and private solitude. Spending a fair amount of time surveying characters simply being (see the prolonged shots of watering hole customers nodding off at the bar or fully asleep in a booth), Ozu masterfully conveys the concept of mono no aware, evincing here as in most of his work a sensitivity and appreciation for the passage of time, for the small, nearly imperceptible yet profoundly vital details of ordinary human existence. A film like Tokyo Twilight, with its keen evocation of nostalgia, its indiscretions and imperfections, and its complex emotional register, demonstrate why Ozu – markedly Japanese yet penetratingly universal – is also responsible for a distinct, infinitely gratifying cinema, one of enduring humility and potency.

Tokyo Twilight will run at NYC’s Film Forum in a new 4K restoration from Friday, November 8 to Thursday, November 14.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.

Read also:

Constancy and Variation: An Autumn Afternoon as Ozu’s Final Testament

Lars-Martin Sorenson’s Censorship of Japanese Films during the U.S. Occupation of Japan: The Cases of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa

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