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Tokyo Story (Criterion Collection) back to product details

Unlearning What I've Learned
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written by itchy008 September 1, 2004 - 11:24 PM PDT
16 out of 16 members found this review helpful
A good part of my first month as a member of Green Cine has been spent watching films by Yasujiro Ozu. The most surprising aspect of it has been how difficult it has been for me.

I have to tell myself to be patient when I watch FLOATING WEEDS or TOKYO STORY. I'm not used to his pace or the way he approaches his subject. Ozu tells a story very differently from Scorsese or Hitchcock or John Ford or Howard Hawks. There are never any big flourishes in an Ozu film. There are moments of comedy but they won't make you cough out your popcorn. There are moments of great sadness but they don't have the overpowering tragedy that Spielberg or Oliver Stone would aim for.

A big reason for this difference is that Ozu told stories about families and only families. To do this time and time again, Ozu invested his interest in his characters, not the plot. What happened was never as important as how Ozu's people dealt with what happened and how we could identify with his people because of what they chose to do. There's very little reliance on melodrama.

With this in mind, Ozu scholar David Desser, in his commentary on TOKYO STORY, tells us that Ozu considered this film to be his most melodramatic. Could this be why it is considered Ozu's masterpiece in the West?

Desser talks almost continuously in his commentary. He spends a lot of time explaining Ozu's great central theme: the transient nature of life and our ambivalent feelings toward this. What we see and hear in an Ozu film accents this: a train passes, a boat whistle sounds, smoke rises, children walk by. Things change and they bring happiness sometimes, but often, we are disappointed and saddened.

Desser instructs us to pay attention because Ozu often delays identifying characters and skips scenes that one would expect to see in most dramas. For example, in TOKYO STORY, the most dramatic event of the film (an illness) occurs off-camera and is revealed in letters and telegraphs. This style is so different from the films we watch today.

Another aspect that Desser concentrates on is how Ozu is unique in his technical style. Ozu almost never moved his camera. He never used dissolves or fades. And he used a 360-degree perspective. Ozu would shoot a couple talking with the husband on the left and the wife on the right. Then on the next shot, hed move the camera to the other end of the room so the husband would be on the right. Desser talks about this for an inordinate amount of time, implying that for audiences not used to Ozu's style, this type of composition would be confusing. But it isn't for me because of the careful planning of each frame. Ozu filled backgrounds with bottles and plants, windows and posters. When we see the husband on the left, he might be sitting in front of a screen door with a teapot next to him. When the perspective is switched, the husband would be sitting in front of a window with laundry hanging outside. It's easy to deduce that we are looking at him from the opposite angle. And it gives us a sense of the whole room.

The commentaries have been very informative and useful for me. I've listened to Donald Richie talk about A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS and Roger Ebert talk about the remake, FLOATING WEEDS. (Ebert quotes Richie often and to good effect.) These appreciations have helped me to understand why Ozu's style is so effective for what he wants to do and how foreign this style is for someone who grew up watching THE GODFATHER and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS.

A bit wiser now, I look forward to my next Ozu.

12345678910

(Average 8.20)
197 Votes
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