Tokyo Chorus (1931)

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  • directed by Yasujirō Ozu
  • starring Tokihiko Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Hideo Sugawara, Hideko Takamine, Tatsuo Saitō
  • A married Tokyo man faces unemployment after standing up for an older colleague.

“A drowning man will clutch at straws.”

The great, influential Yasujirō Ozu was a man who grew up dazzled and obsessed with the films of Hollywood, but did not follow their language when it came time to make his own. I’m quite torn with using the word influential in Ozu’s case, though it’s a longstanding badge on his legacy, because that implies that his many tricks and trademarks may have been adopted and personalized by several that followed. For such a minutely cultivated style, that is unlikely or impossible. Instead he seems most influential in terms of his mission statement that a film need not conform to the longstanding structure that by 1931 had already been established.

Conventions are for the conventional.

It turns out, we all discovered from the films of Ozu, that action can indeed be shot literally from the ground up, dialogue remains strong and continuity intact even though characters sometimes appear to be not looking at each other, scenes can transition from one to the next in different ways than what audiences are accustomed to, a narrative does hold up even when a script’s “big” moments are not shown but referenced in the words or actions of a character, and, perhaps most revolutionary of all, a film’s tone and pace can be slowed down to contemplative, almost serene levels. These are all techniques that turn his traditionally small and insulated stories into something much larger.

The results, so frequently with Ozu, are complex and life-affirming scenes like the one in Tokyo Chorus, in which two parents playing a silly hand clapping game with their kids start out despondent over their marriage and impoverished and unlucky lot in life—two adults appearing playful and foolish yet emoting devastation—before succumbing to the bittersweet-for-them celebratory spirit in the air. Scenes like this, along with frequent cuts to scenery, props, or body parts, causes me to feel that Ozu always seems to be searching for the soul of each individual frame that only he knows is there.

We meet Shinji Okajima as a young man being disciplined during drills at his school, a scene which features the first of a few tracking shots captured of men lined up. There would be more down the road with men lining up at work  and lining up to find work, among others. Years later, Okajima leads a modest life, now married with two children, working at an insurance company, and awaiting a promised bonus needed to fund gifts for his children and a comfortable standard of living that somehow continues to be elusive. On bonus day when he learns that a senior coworker has been unfairly fired, Shinji takes up his cause with management, hence departing for the day fired himself. So begins the downward trajectory of a man who has lost his livelihood, the respect in his household, and any sense of purpose. He now must lower himself considerably to get it back.

In Tokyo Chorus, as elsewhere in Ozu’s filmography, character’s faces are sometimes cut in half or completely out of the frame during conversation. Legs, feet, and the lower halves of bodies are often given equal billing to the active elements in a scene. This was due to one of his many innovations, the famed tatami shot, named after the straw, composite, or wood mats traditional to Japanese culture. For centuries and still in many regions today sitting in the traditional seiza position on treated mats or floors was proper. There are no chairs in the film’s Okajima household so it is only natural that more often than not, Ozu would bring us right down with his characters, not even rising as the characters get up themselves.

Ozu had already made 20+ silent films by 1931 but barely any of it has survived. Tokyo Chorus, with its autobiographical flourishes and flashes of style, is for all intents and purposes the debut on record for the director and it’s a wonderful precursor to all that will follow as his career escalates in quality. The tiny family story with questions of honor and responsibility, along with almost-impossibly low camera angles, were two quintessential Ozu signatures that are on display here. But at the end of the day, it features a confident director in the early stages of developing his creative muscle, perhaps with a priority of mastering the format of silent film instead of the bold yet restrained works of art that would come as color and sound enter the fold.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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