Monday, October 1, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Tokyo Story" (1953)

"Isn't life disappointing?"
"Yes, it is."
So goes the most pivotal exchange in Yasujirō Ozu's masterpiece "Tokyo Story," and indeed the only real exchange of consequence. It's a morality tale, writ large ... or more specifically, writ long. And ... slowly.

Whatever else you want to say about the filmmaker many observers consider Japan's greatest ever, Ozu certainly... very....                           ...deliberate...                                       ...about his...                                                      ...pacing.

I sought out "Tokyo Story" because it's consistently been ranked on those surveys by movie critics of the best films of all time. In fact, recently there was much hubbub when Sight and Sound magazine came out with its new rankings and "Vertigo" had displayed "Citizen Kane" after its long run at the top of the perch.

Less ballyhooed was that "Tokyo Story" had moved into third place on the critcs' list. And indeed, in an accompanying survey of film directors, Ozu's film claimed the #1 spot.

The best movie ever made, according to a group of esteemed directors? This I had to see!

Now I'm left playing the heretic. I found this movie to be a tremendous letdown. It's less a story than a tone poem, a morality lesson brought to life -- and then smothered under the weight of 135 minutes of turgid storytelling.

Actually, I'm not sure if storytelling is even the right word to use in regard to "Tokyo Story." I don't think Ozu's trying to tell a story here so march as impart some wisdom through a rigid prism of his own creation. The characters, the dialogue, the cinematography are all geared toward broadcasting a message about life's bitter disappointments.

In some ways, it's like kabuki theater, without the makeup and dancing. The characters do a form of dance, but through their mannerisms and the veiled meanings of their seemingly benign words. They smile almost constantly and use polite language, even as they're using it to demonstrate how little regard they have for each other.

The plot is quite simple. A Japanese couple in their late 60s (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) journey from their remote, backward village to visit their adult children in the big city. Their eldest son (So Yamamura), a doctor, and daughter (Haruko Sugimura), who runs a beauty salon, are busy with their own lives and can barely afford to spend any time with them.

They shuttle their parents back and forth between their homes, until finally shipping them off to a seaside spa. Ostensibly this is for the parents' relaxation, but really it's to get the old couple out of their hair. The oldsters cut their visit short and return home, where the mother soon dies. The children, including their other son, a train worker, depart soon after the funeral -- though the daughter first demands some of her mother's things as keepsakes.

Throughout it all, the old couple demonstrate forbearance and acceptance of how shabbily they are being treated, though in quieter moments they acknowledge that few parents are ever completely satisfied with how their children turn out.

Ironically, the only person who shows them genuine kindness and affection is their widowed daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara). Since the death of her husband in the war, she lives in a poor apartment building mired in lonelinesss, but gladly takes her in-laws on a sightseeing tour around Tokyo, taking a day off work to do so. In the end, the daughter-in-law is proved to be more of a true child to the old couple than their harried natural offspring.

The film does boast a naturalistic sort of beauty. Ozu shoots in a very formal way, with nearly all the shots inside the tiny cramped interiors of the Japanese  homes. Lacking furniture in the Western sense, Ozu positions his camera low to the ground in the center of every room, and has his characters assemble themselves in front of it.

He mixes these static shots with straight-ahead closeups of the people speaking directly into the camera, as if addressing the person they're talking to.

It's a languid, languid affair. I found my mind wandering often while watching the film, and even letting my finger waver over the fast-forward button. (I resisted.)

I'm not going to spend the rest of this column berating "Tokyo Story" for being so dull, or defending why I veer so sharply away from the critics and filmmakers who so admire it. Rather, I'll talk about the nature of art.

Can good art be boring? I don't think so. Art can enrapture us, leave us bedazzled, shock us, disgust us, perplex us and challenge us. These are all legitimate functions of art. But the one thing that marks art as a failure is when it simply fails to engage us.

One of the smartest people I ever met on the subject of art is Maxwell Anderson, late the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He often spoke of patrons having "an encounter with art," and I think that best sums up the relationship between people and works of creation. We go into an encounter with art not knowing what we are going to get out of it -- but we hope it will be something notable.

I was completely disengaged in the watching of "Tokyo Story." Even as I recognized its unadorned cinematic beauty and the message Ozu was trying to convey, I felt like I was being lectured rather than spoken to. This film feels like it was made by the director for himself rather than any hypothetical audience. We are bystanders rather than participants in its craft.

Andy Warhol famously made a pair of films, "Sleep" and "Empire," that consisted entirely of static shots of a man sleeping and the Empire State Building, for six hours and eight hours, respectively. With these intentionally unwatchable films, Warhol was trying to make a statement about ... what? I think Warhol was engaging with his own sensibilities and playfulness rather than trying to enlighten or entertain an audience. Indeed, his epic snooze-fests only approach the audience with a notion to antagonize them.

I don't think Ozu was trying to punish his audience; I don't think he was thinking about them at all when he made his movie. He was trying to satisfy his own internal compass as an artist. That's commendable, but it doesn't necessarily mean the movies he makes are worthwhile.

I read some observer who wrote that those who find "Tokyo Story" dull simply aren't looking deeply enough to marvel at its internal working parts. I think I have glimpsed the interior of Ozu's supposed masterwork -- there just isn't much going on.

2 stars out of four

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