Small Gestures. Notes on a clip from 'Tokyo Story' for a pre-recorded video address on the occasion of 'The Anatomy of Ozu', BFI, Southbank, London.
“Isn’t Tokyo vast?” he says. “If we get lost here, we might never find each other again” she replies.
She is Tomi and he, Shukichi, the humble, elderly parents who have made the long train journey to the distant capital to visit their grown-up children. But their son and daughter have grown selfish and uncaring in the modern metropolis and barely have time to devote to them, treating them as a burden, before packing them off to a noisy inn at a nearby hot-springs where the couple cannot sleep amidst the uproar of mah-jong games and music. “They are just some friends from the country” their callous daughter Shige explains to a customer in her beauty parlour when her exhausted mother and father walk through the room on their return, before informing her parents that she will be hosting a meeting for beauticians in her home that evening, and that their presence is inconvenient.
Not wanting to trouble their children any longer, Shukichi shyly jokes to Tomi that they are now homeless – but it’s only half a joke. They decide that Tomi should try to sleep at the home of Noriko, their kind and gracious daughter in law, the young widow of their son, killed eight years ago in the war. Noriko still loves them and has carved out time to be with them during their trip, rushing back and forth from her job at a tire company. But there won’t be enough room for both of them in her small flat so they set about neatly dividing up their possessions, packing a bag for Tomi, and a bundle for Shukichi, who will try to visit an old acquaintance from back home in Onomichi.
The tracking shot that follows is a surprise after the resolutely still camera. Was Ozu alerting us to a more profound shift in the story? It carries us slowly towards the poignant sight of the old couple perched on a grass verge with their bag and bundle, eating and killing time, until Noriko will get home from work. Shukichi pulls out his pocket watch and announces that it might be time now, even if a bit early. When they get up off the ground, Tomi forgets to pick up her umbrella. “You are always forgetting things” gently chides her husband.
But in Ozu’s world, objects are charged with weight – and like the intricate, shifting lines, and colours, and shapes and gently changing landscapes of his films – with their hidden patterns, they reveal truth and tell their own story, sometimes ahead of time – like signposts dotted along a trail.
As the couple diffidently make their way across the road to a low wall above the railway tracks, five young school boys purposefully file past, in front of them, two by two. ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ I thought. Stopping at the low wall, the old couple gaze out at the city. That’s when Tomi mentions that if they get lost, they will never find each other again. We follow them as they slowly wander along the side of the wall, continuing to gaze out at the metropolis.
Tomi and Shukichi, one of the most beautiful and tenderly portrayed couples in the history of cinema belong to a smaller city and to a different time. And time, inescapable, is marching on in Ozu’s films, leaving its damage on the hearts of people who suddenly find themselves alone, as families and traditions dissolve.
I remember the first time that I watched these two scenes framed by two tracking shots, like an envelope into which they had been placed, it slowly dawning on me, as my mind pieced together a few scattered images: the forgotten umbrella, Tomi’s dizzy spell, that morning, on a low sea wall; the words she’d uttered to an indifferent grand-child on a grass bank – that Tomi was about to die.
To watch a film by Ozu, is to remember small gestures and details for years. You remember that outside the house of the doctor and his family in the Tokyo suburbs, white t-shirts were hanging on poles, passing trains and the ridges of the roofs of the houses in the port of Onomichi; steam, school boys with satchels on their backs.
Sometimes, a detail returns at a pivotal moment and Ozu’s portrayal of it produces a kind of epiphany, whereby the character’s hidden or unaddressed feelings suddenly emerge, revealing a truth, at the same time particular and universal: a father’s hand peeling an apple, the long peel falling to the floor in Late Spring, or the crimson cushion on a wooden stool, moved across a room and now abandoned in An Autumn Afternoon: symbol of a daughter’s departure.
Ozu described himself as a tofu maker but I think of him as a master watchmaker, because of the finely tuned components moving around beneath the apparently simple surface of his films.
Make Way for Tomorrow is the title of the 1937 film by Leo McCarey, on which the narrative of Tokyo Story is based. But the final part of Ozu’s film, in which Tomi has died, after falling ill on the train back from Tokyo, bears no resemblance to the American film and is a departure.
In these final minutes of Tokyo Story, Noriko, has stayed on in Onomichi after Tomi’s funeral to help Shukichi and his youngest daughter Kyoko and this afternoon she must leave on the train to Tokyo. Following, a heartfelt conversation between the two young women about the selfishness of the siblings in Tokyo and the disappointing way that life changes people, Kyoko sets out for her job as a teacher at a local school, and Shukichi sat on the floor opposite Noriko, rises to gives her an heirloom: Tomi’s watch.
“It’s old fashioned, I believe” he says “but she used it since she was your age.”
(It’s at the end of this powerful scene that the short clip that you will watch will begin.)
Were these scenes in Onomichi, Ozu’s way of making a borrowed American narrative more his own, portraying something essential that he felt was missing? I have long thought of the ending of Tokyo Story as a sort of key to Ozu’s work.
Like in many of his other films, I read these passages as him telling us that although the passing of time is cruel, pain and loneliness inevitable, reality and people disappoint and families fracture, along the way, there are currents of air, moments of respite, and the job of a life is to learn to recognise them when they cross your path, and to give them time: tenderness, grace, beauty, kindness… alternative affinities, like the thread of love still passing back and forth between Tomi, Shukichi, Kyoko and Noriko.
With the watch, Noriko carries Tomi’s old-fashioned time back to the city.
When Noriko opens it on the train and holds it in her hands, something happens that echoes what I mean about Ozu charging objects with a kind of weight or even a sort of mystery.
It is as if, for a moment, a door opens onto something vaster and out of reach of words, before quickly closing again and we find ourselves transported to a part of the character’s mind, the world and ourselves, that we hadn’t entirely realised existed.
Perhaps that’s why Ozu’s films are full of sliding walls and doors.
Thank you for this chance to say something about Ozu’s films and please play the clip now.
(Followed by a 3 minute clip from Tokyo Story)
Notes on a clip from ‘Tokyo Story’ for a pre-recorded video address on the occasion of ‘The Anatomy of Ozu’, part of the celebrations for Yasujiro Ozu’s 120th birthday, and the re-release of ‘Tokyo Story’, at the BFI, Southbank, London
Saturday September 16th 2023, BFI Southbank London