The opening scene in Yazujiro Ozu’s 1953 film “Tokyo Story” takes place not in the nation’s capital but at the Inland Sea port of Onomichi. Some 90 years ago, “Murray’s Guide” described the location as a place of “fine, though decaying temples.”
Weathered and timeworn to this day, Onomichi, a place of antique odors — incense, drains, mildew, green mosquito coils, sawed timber, cat’s fur — remains a town that, much as it must have done half a century ago, extends an unaffected welcome to visitors. People’s smiles are unforced, greetings are a daily commonality, and eye contact elicits a nod or a polite bow. Inbred courtesy has not yet been leached out by modern habits of introspection. Ozu would have appreciated this stubborn decency and good manners, qualities that are often called into question in the director’s films about Japanese family life.
Considering the place this film has long occupied on critics’ lists of the world’s best cinematic works, an English translation is long overdue. Doing justice to Ozu’s script, written in collaboration with Kogo Noda, is no easy task. Besides a re-visualization of the film, translation demands a sense of how best to deal with the richly eloquent ellipses and inferences. The toughest challenge perhaps is catching the all-important tone of Ozu’s dialogue, avoiding sentimentality where the true tone, something of a higher order, is pathos. In Ozu scripts, the effects are accumulative, their impact predetermined by the director. The translators in this instance have placed the depth charges in just the right spots.
One hesitates — if such a thing were even possible — to call Ozu a Buddhist director, but there is a strong sense in these films of the nonmaterial, the essential immateriality of things, a conviction that nothing is ever really owned: Things are temporary and will, by immutable laws, be returned, lost, destroyed or bequeathed. Sooner or later, everything we hold dear is carried off, sucked into an eternal maw. The only tenable stand against the decimation we must all experience is dignified resignation.
The parents in this film are nothing if not resigned. Visiting their children in Tokyo, they are welcomed but only on polite sufferance; everyone is relieved when they are gone. Disappointment, the weariness that comes from performing one’s duties, are all starkly laid out here. The relatives in Tokyo do not acquit themselves well. A feeling of imminent dissolution is sensed. The times are out of joint, and the malady starts at the marrow with the family.
Although Ozu’s works are almost exclusively studies in the carbonization of the Japanese family, his characters for all their shortcomings, are somehow endearing. The viewer, as Richie puts it in his introduction, “will never want the film to end, since it means leaving these wonderful people.”
One of these wonderful people is Noriko, widow of the parents’ deceased son. The parents get offloaded on her but she does rather better with them. If the family here represents the erosion of decent, tested values, Noriko stands for hope. Renewal is suggested after both parents separately express their hope that she will remarry and lead a fuller, less haunted life.
At the very end, a bond of affection is formed between Noriko and the parents’ younger daughter Kyoko. They will, we are given to understand, develop this friendship.
Ozu’s sparely constructed work is well matched, in economy of means, to its time and setting — the resource-pressed, commodity-short postwar years. Noriko says: “The days pass and nothing happens. I feel a kind of impatience. My heart seems to be waiting — for something.” It is a yearning for change, for a new orientation, shared in those bleak postwar years, by the majority of Japanese.