Ozu Yasujiro was one of the most consistent directors one could think of when it comes to the principles he applies to his framing, his cutting, and his circle of cast and crew. Between his 1949 feature Late Spring and his final film in 1962 An Autumn Afternoon, the only notable amendment to his comfortable aesthetic was the inclusion of colour in the late 1950s. This does not restrict any of those films from feeling less than perfect masterworks of a confident filmmaker or from feeling indistinct from one another. Because it may have been obvious that the man was using the same formal tools over and over again (and even the same themes), but different combinations of them were constantly applied to different moods, simply by perhaps a shift in the duration of certain shots or an uncharacteristic change in blocking or a drop of a smile establishing the difference between the tragedy of Floating Weeds and the comedy of Ohayo.
In the 13 movies ‘round that mature phase of his prosperous career, Tokyo Story is perhaps the most effective utilization of these features and most illustrative of his interests in deepening the stories he and frequent co-writer Noda Kogo would draft. In this particular instance, inspired by Leo McCarey’s 1937 elderly classic Make Way for Tomorrow, Tokyo Story gives us a picture of Japan just at the cusp of blowing off all of the ashes left from World War II as elders Hirayama Shikuchi (Ryu Chishu) and his wife Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) prepare for a trip from their hometown Onomochi to visit the titular city and see the nuclear families of their son Koichi (Yamamura So), daughter Shige (Sugimura Haruko), as well as seeing daughter-in-law Noriko (Hara Setsuko), who remains a reminder of the son they lost in the war. This trip leaves behind their youngest child Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko) in the Onomochi home they reside in and hopes to pass by their second-youngest child Keizo (Osaka Shiro) who resides in Osaka.
Tokyo Story of course has a premise that notoriously lends itself to much sadness in the form of Shikuchi and Tomi observing the sort of distance that has grown from the children that have left to their own lives (little distance at all with Noriko however, as the loss between the three of them appears to have amplified their need to remember their late son and husband Shoji together). And being a movie with very little incident in itself, it’s through the reliability of Ozu’s regular troupe and the script’s chilly pleasantries that they must enact that the movie can communicate the sort of annoyance and guilt that the characters hold as Koichi and Shige try to impatiently figure ways to fill the parents’ time after coming all this way.
But what about the places where they don’t speak and just sit? Because Tokyo Story is a movie filled with those types of scenes, recognizable from our own life of moments where we just don’t know what to say, where our body language betrays our intentions, where our smiles might What does Ozu do to actively involve in the stillest and most muted moments of this domestic drama?
One of the two signature characteristics of Ozu’s filmmaking – collaborating here with Atsuta Yuharu as he occasionally did – would be the elevation of the camera at the eye level of the characters if they were to sit down on tatami mat that made up the flooring for most traditional Japanese households, as though to establish the camera as an inhabitant of these domestic spaces joining in on the interactions that make up the film and often at an angle that takes note of the empty spaces surrounding these characters, especially if it’s only one of them in the room at the time. This decision would be quite complementary to the other signature characteristic in which Ozu often framed shot-reverse shot sequences of dialogue with the camera specifically placed in the middle of the people involved in those conversations with each of the conversants centered in their own shot.
The style specifically rejects arguably the most fundamental of Western cinematic staging and cutting, the 180° rule that stresses a clear definition of every character’s geographical relation in scenes. But by breaking that rule, Ozu uses direct address to force us to see every nuance in the performers’ faces, stresses the shallow smalltalk and the shallow reactions to that catching up, and specifically places us in the middle of that intangible empty space between these characters growing more and more distant to each other, taking one box of them all sitting together and dividing them artificially. Editor Hamamura Yoshiyasu does just as well to arrange these shots in a manner that provides this function and yet allows the conversation to smoothly run as though the breaking of that line is unnoticed, while also taking great patience in drawing out the sort of gaps between each character’s statements before moving on to the next close-up with a response to give, betraying the conversation as dull and betraying the characters as having to take time to construct banter under which they hide their true thoughts.
Ozu’s Tokyo Story is precise filmmaking without the slightest bit of conspicuousness to itself, in spite of its rule-breaking, and effectively delivers on devastating domestic tragedy that way enhancing the already brilliant work of its cast. The notoriety with which Tokyo Story effortlessly perfects all the aspects of film possible for little more than honest character drama and makes it count is undeniably the reason why that movie ended up voted by the Sight & Sound Directors’ Poll in 2012 to be the Best Film of All Time (and Third Best in the film critics’ poll). And yet it’s also easy to imagine that it may not be the actual strategy through which its constructed but the bullseye way that Tokyo Story KNOWS how families talk (or don’t talk) and the simple pain that is left from those talks that just hits its viewers on a gut level and brings it to those accolades. Who knows? Maybe it’s just left unsaid.