By DIANA CHENG
CALGARY (Dec. 14, 2013) — December, 2013 marks the 50th Anniversary of the master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s passing (December 12, 1903 – 1963).
Growing up in Hong Kong during the 60’s, I had my share of Japanese literature and films, as well, the early version of anime. I read Japanese books in Chinese translations, watched Japanese films with Chinese subtitles, and had no language barrier with anime.
As a youngster I had my fix of Samurai action flicks by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, or the early sagas of The Blind Swordsman deftly performed by Shintarô Katsu. The fast, magical sword-fighting movements displayed in elegantly choreographed sequences defined what ‘cool’ was in the eyes of a very young film buff, decades before Jason Bourne emerged.
But I must admit, I had never heard of Yasujiro Ozu (Dec. 12, 1903-1963) until I read the novel The Elegance of The Hedgehog just a few years ago, and since have become a mesmerized Ozu fan.
In Muriel Barbery’s marvelous work of fiction The Elegance of The Hedgehog, there is a fascinating mention of Ozu. The narrator of the book, the concierge Renée, is a lover of Ozu’s films. Her favorite is The Munekata Sisters (1950), which she has watched many times. Here are her thoughts on a line in the film:
“‘True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time.’ — The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup — this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to, and something that, in our Western civilization, we do not know how to attain?”
The contemplation of eternity in the temporal gives rise to the quiet joy and beauty of life.
I could not find any copy of the film The Munekata Sisters, but I did manage to get hold of a few other Ozu works on DVD in The Criterion Collection. One particularly stands out, both the film and the special features. It is the most well-known of Ozu’s titles: Tokyo Story (1953).
Instead of the macho samurai films of his time, Ozu chose to explore the quiet subject of family relationships, parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and from them derived the topics of marriage, loyalty, aging, death, filial duties, parental expectations, and generational conflicts. Through his perceptive camera work, Ozu sensitively revealed the undercurrents beneath the seemingly calm surface of daily family interactions.
Tokyo Story is about an aging couple Shukichi (the Ozu actor Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) from small town Onomichi visiting their adult children in bustling Tokyo.
The time is postwar Japan. The nation is cranking up her economic engine, and urbanization is fast taking off. Shukichi and Tomi’s children are all preoccupied with their work and family, with no time or patience to entertain their visiting parents, albeit struggling with a thin sense of filial duty. They pass the old folks from home to home, and finally send them off to a spa resort on their own, in the guise of a well-meant package but in reality a substitute for their absentee hospitality.
With his subtle cinematic language, Ozu explored the issues facing the family caught in urbanization. I am surprised that in a time when the rebuilding of national pride was as much an essential as that of economic recovery, Ozu was brave enough to depict the collapse of the Japanese family, revealing the conflicts and tensions behind the amicable social façade.
It is interesting how contemporary and universal the issues are. Have we not heard of those ubiquitous ‘mother-in-law jokes’ in our modern Western society? Or, in real life, do we not struggle between taking care of our own family and career, and finding the time and energy to look after our aging parents?
But the contemplative cinematic offerings of Ozu’s draw us into deeper thoughts. Tokyo Story quietly depicts the truths of these issues: No matter how many siblings there are in a family, each person is responsible for his or her own decision and action. Even in a mass society like Japan, one can still make individual choices.
Despite the currents, one can stand alone against the tides, and act according to one’s heart and conviction. While the brothers and sister are evading the task of hospitality, the young widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (the Ozu actress Setsuko Hara), chooses to care for her deceased husband’s parents out of genuine love. She stands alone in her kindness and grace, a selfless heroine in a family hinged upon superficial ties.
Illness and death too have to be borne alone. Despite their being together all the years of their marriage, Shukichi and Tomi each has to face the ultimate departure all alone. After Tomi falls ill upon arriving home from Tokyo, the strong bond of togetherness in marriage quickly dissolves into helpless resignation of parting and letting go.
Shukichi soon realizes he has to face life by himself after his wife’s passing, even though he still has his youngest daughter living with him. The poignant scene though is that despite his loss, he looks out for his daughter-in-law Noriko, appreciating her loyalty, and relieving her of further obligations. Despite having no blood ties, the two of them have touched each other in a way that is beyond flesh and blood.
Noriko stays a few more days after the funeral while Shukichi’s own children return home to Tokyo right away. Noriko selflessly gives and Shukichi gratefully accepts. As she finally leaves to go back to Tokyo, he gives her Tomi’s watch, a sign of his love and deep appreciation for his daughter-in-law. They are both left to face life all alone and apart, yet are bound together in an unspoken bond that surpasses locale, a tie that is far stronger than filial duties, and an understanding that can well carry them through days of aloneness ahead.
Contact Diana Cheng on Twitter: @Arti_Ripples or through her blog Ripple Effects, rippleeffects.wordpress.com.