December 7th, 2013

Tokyo Story

It was this comment at my post about outstanding movies that made me decide it was high time I saw “Tokyo Story,” a postwar Japanese film by Yasujirō Ozu that’s considered one of the greatest cinema masterpieces of the 20th century.

I’m not a film buff. I’m not into technique; for example, “Citizen Kane,” that black-and-white achievement everyone always raves about, leaves me relatively cold. The same with “Tokyo Story” when I began watching it. It seemed old-fashioned and downright odd, obscure and slow as molasses.

But then—it started to grow on me. At two and a quarter hours of no action at all except for families sitting around (on the floor, mostly) or standing around and talking, it had better.

After a few minutes I thought “Hmm—Chekhov, Japanese style.” And then a bit later, “These people are very different from us, but also very much the same.” There was a lot of smiling and nodding, but the film manages to convey the conflicted and sometimes negative feelings veiled by all that pleasant and socially-prescribed assent.

If you’ve seen the movie (or Ozu’s other movies, which I haven’t) you’ll know that its technical aspects are so idiosyncratic that it’s nearly impossible to ignore them. The camera is static, set as though it were a person sitting on a tatami mat and looking out at eye-level from that vantage point as a sort of voyeur.

Not that anything risque ever goes on here. Not even close. It’s about how familial generations interact, disappoint each other, swallow their hurts, love each other, deal with the mundane frustrations of life as well as the large, absorb tragedy, and keep on going. About how we are all alone and separate and yet not alone at all, although we might feel lonely.

The movie, although intensely Japanese (and Japanese of the postwar era, at that), is also universal. We are all members of families. We are all subject to the passage of time as it takes us along and then ultimately away. Most of us are not as successful, as happy, as whatever it was we thought we’d be when looking at life and the world through the eyes of a child. And most of us go on and manage to extract quite a bit of joy from the whole thing.

Ozu was interested in families, but he never married. He lived with his elderly mother, who predeceased him by only two years, and is buried with her in a shared grave marked with only the character mu (“nothingness”).

Ozu’s leading lady, the luminously lovely Setsuko Hara, also never married. She retired abruptly from film at the age of 43 only a short time after Ozu’s death, to live the rest of her life in seclusion with her sister. Hara (not her real name) is still alive at 93, but has never given an interview or surfaced long enough for the press to get even a photo.

A scene with Hara, who was age 33 here:

25 Responses to “Tokyo Story”

  1. Ann Says:

    How bleak that epitaph of “mu/nothingness” seems, but in Zen Buddhism it also means to “unask the question”:

    Mu means “no thing.” Like “quality” it points outside the process of dualistic discrimination. Mu simply says, “no class: not one, not zero, not yes, not no.” It states that the context of the question is such that a yes and a no answer is in error and should not be given. “Unask the question” is what it says.

  2. Matthew M Says:

    Ozu is wonderful. I greatly appreciate his clear portrayal of Japanese architecture and design. His camera remains stationary for long periods, his low perspectives duplicate the Japanese domestic point of view. People who will never visit the place can experience Japan thanks to his artistry.

    His human dramas are slow-moving, simple—yet profound. I am male and American, yet I identify and empathize with Setsuko Hara, a Japanese woman who is half a globe and half a century away from me. Good art.

    By the way, the Japanese film that should not go without mention on December 7 is Japan’s Longest Day. Also apropos for August 6th.

  3. parker Says:

    Tokyo Story was filmed in the golden age of Japanese cinema during the 1950s. Japanese cinema, much like modern Japanese fiction is an acquired taste. Tagging onto Ann’s comment…. Mushin = no mind. Its an important concept/aspect to mastering a martial art. One must train for many years to before one is capable of experiencing mushin and be able to spontaneously to react to any attack without thought or plan or emotional involvement. Mushin is something I have experienced occasionally but its only after sparring against multiple attackers that you realize you entered mushin for a few minutes.

  4. vanderleun Says:

    I
    would
    rather
    watch

    the
    heat
    death

    of
    the
    Universe

    in
    slow
    motion.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    vanderleun:

    Actually, it may be the case that you are ALREADY watching the heat death of the universe in slow motion.

    Very slow motion.

    Although I continue to believe that there are so many things that we don’t know about the universe that the entropy/heatdeath theory is hardly worth the paper it’s printed on (if it indeed is printed on paper any more). Until I looked it up just this minute in Wiki, I hadn’t realized my point of view had some solid scientific adherents (although they’re not aware it’s my point of view):

    There is much reasonable doubt about even the definition of the entropy of the universe. One expert on the entropy of systems that are not in thermodynamic equilibrium writes: “It is rather presumptuous to speak of the entropy of a universe about which we still understand so little, and we wonder how one might define thermodynamic entropy for a universe and its major constituents that have never been in equilibrium in their entire existence.” Another expert on thermodynamics writes: “The third misconception is that thermodynamics, and in particular, the concept of entropy, can without further enquiry be applied to the whole universe. … These questions have a certain fascination, but the answers are speculations, and lie beyond the scope of this book.”

  6. vanderleun Says:

    Please
    pound
    every
    entropic
    grain
    of
    sand
    of
    the
    universe
    through
    a
    small
    hourglass
    and
    get
    back
    to
    me
    later….

  7. vanderleun Says:

    There
    are
    lebenty
    leben
    Tokyo
    stories
    and
    I don
    t
    want to
    know
    any
    of
    them
    .

  8. Charles Says:

    No doubt Ymarsakar will weigh on this; but, I suspect that the movie doesn’t show well to non-Japanese audiences because of the language. Japanese is a rather complex language and, so, a lot of it simply might not translate well at all.

    For Western readers here, think of the French (or any other similar Indo-European language for that matter) when the speaker switches from “vous” (formal for you) to the informal “tu.” It could mean that you are now closers friends or if of the opposite sex then he might be indicating that he would like to be more than friends. This is just one example of something that we cannot express well in English simply by changing the grammar.

    Japanese is even more complex with its various levels of speach. So, I suspect that of lot of that might be taking place in the movie, rather than just a bunch of people sitting around talking.

    I know that I have read many great Japanese novels in English tranlation and have found them to be quite boring – and the reason is for the lack of translation. The story line and settings translate well; but the dialog simply does not. With a movie I would suspect this to be even truer.

    Ymarsakar, can you explain better?

  9. Mac Says:

    I’ve seen Tokyo Story and Late Spring, also by Ozo, and liked the latter a little better, though I have the impression that critical opinion leans the other way. I do think that anyone who likes one will probably like the other.

    I usually feel that I’m not quite connecting with the characters in Japanese movies, that I can’t entirely get past a sense of foreignness that leaves me with a sense of something obscure in the interaction of the characters. It’s a problem I don’t have with European films, and I think it’s just because of that extra cultural and linguistic difference. What Charles says above tends to confirm this.

    But I can recognize, even though at a bit of a distance, that both these films are impressive achievements. I definitely plan to see Late Spring again. It’s basically about a father-daughter relationship, and has a somewhat more clearly defined narrative, though still very loose by normal standards.

  10. parker Says:

    Drunken Angel, Rashomon, and all of the Kurosawa films are wonderful excursions into the Japanese pysche. And for great enjoyment; see the series of Zatoichi films. Nothing like a blind sword master to wreck precise havoc on a grand scale.

  11. Beverly Says:

    A list of massacres and atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese. Aussie site.

    Should be on the Pearl Harbor thread, but I came too late.

    http://members.iinet.net.au/~gduncan/massacres_pacific.html

    Lest we forget.

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    vanderleun, since you are alive, you’re already watching the heat death of the universe in slow motion. That’s what it means to live.

    “The camera is static, set as though it were a person sitting on a tatami mat and looking out at eye-level from that vantage point as a sort of voyeur.”

    It’s considered “a” point of view in Japanese perspective making, used to draw the reader or viewer into the story as a silent participant. It’s similar to the effect of First Person Shooters in the US, although the US is more powerfully active in the media interaction sense.

    They have various other things like light novels or visual novels that use passive first person perspectives to portray a lot of events and characters. Unlike American first perspective narration, it isn’t a narration and it isn’t giving you the first person perspective of a character or persona in the story. The silent passive view is the person outside the story itself, implying elements of divinity, higher dimensional status, or ghostly observation. In Relativity, it may be a subjective point of view outside the universe’s boundaries, looking in, which makes it an objective view within certain contexts.

    What this tends to mean is that even in modern mainstream Japanese entertainment mediums, what we might consider movies, games, audiobooks, or novels, they have little difficulty breaking many conventional Western concepts of writing such as the “4th” wall (don’t break it). I consider this breaking of various conventions as a reaction to the sheer monolithic hierarchy, authority, and normality of Japanese culture. People who don’t like it, put on a mask to tolerate it, and devote their energies to creative or productive pursuits. Rather than going around and shooting up a school or taking up politics (similar thing). The culture is so rigid in its hierarchies and normative behavior, that Japanese entertainment has become an optimal outlet for things that would normally become “grievances” otherwise. Since Japanese culture likes to hammer down the nail that sticks out, their artistic creations are rather different from their corporate or political culture. In some ways, it is similar to the divide between lawyer cultures allied with unions and politicians, vs the average middle class American with a home and family that they have to feed without doing a criminal wave against neighboring cities. They are similar, yet there is a fundamental disconnect.

    No doubt Ymarsakar will weigh on this

    Certainly, Charles.

    Japanese is a rather complex language and, so, a lot of it simply might not translate well at all.

    I’ve heard at least once that people gave up studying Japanese due to the use of keigo, or the combination of honorifics and polite/casual/rude/superior/inferior language prefixes/suffixes. I didn’t learn Japanese formal speech from a textbook, but from watching anime and reading visual novels. So it was a sort of full immersion. I like the use of things such as “arigato gozaimasu” vs “arigato”. The keigo form just sounds better to me, although for longer words the sound is so complicated I cannot reproduce them. The formal speech thus always sounds “prettier” and more refined to me, like a British upper class accent often sounds to English speakers.

    When learning German from a textbook, the words were easier to sound out and spell. But Japanese words I can only approximately spell out, which makes looking up the definitions, especially if you can’t copy/paste kanji or katakana or hiragana, really difficult. While I can understand 40% of general Japanese conversation and near to 90% of often spoken family life phrases, in situations where the word definition or verb tense eludes me I have to rely on context alone.

    As for the difference between why someone would rephrase a term like “thank you” from a informal to a formal context, it’s very similar to our use of nicknames, especially in military teams or small teams. If someone were to suddenly call you by a nickname or shorten your name to 2 or 3 letters, that might seem overly familiar (naranarashi) and rude even. So things people do who are especially close, in jokes and insults, are often indications that they have a special relationship that isn’t the same as their relationship to the rest of the family or society. Japanese speech codes provide a uniformed way to identify such things.

    From the other side of things, if a person who thinks they are higher status than you (like your boss, or the President) tells you to always call him with the prefix “Mister” or the suffix “sir”, that is a form of hierarchical speech: words that denote or connote ranks in a hierarchy. Thus informality would be treating your boss or the boss of your boss, on a first name basis in front of everyone. The Japanese merely have codified this from their centuries of feudalism. They have informal and formal states. They have suffixes and prefixes designed to let people know whether you are a subordinate or a leader. Thus the word “kisama” can be used by your peer to insult your status, implying your are lower than him or not worthy of formality. But if your military superior refers to you as “kisama”, that’s not rudeness but merely the proper distance. That’s 30% of the meaning, the other 70% is the context and tone used to emphasize the wording.

    The Japanese sometimes mention that “service” industries and employees in other countries are inferior, that Japanese service and customs are better. And I would generally agree with that. Even their fast food restaurants are trained using “etiquette” techniques that would seem out of place in an American McDonalds. Americans that go from New York to Japan and back again after a few months, suffer from reverse culture shock where everyone is rude and impolite and various other gratingly annoying things that happens in cities.

    It’s kind of funny to hear about on youtube actually. The Japanese even borrowed the foreign word “shock” and integrated it into Japanese. When the Japanese use an English word, I know exactly what they mean now.

    “It’s a problem I don’t have with European films, and I think it’s just because of that extra cultural and linguistic difference. ”

    The subtitles are generally “localized” in English. Meaning translated into English as if the people speaking were Americans or British. But they aren’t.

    Literal translations are usually seen from fan translations or native American/Japanese speakers. The literal translation subtitles are better, because they let you do the interpretation instead of interpreting for you, as “localization” does. Also, sub par subtitles are mistimed and often times what the characters are saying or doing, is further ahead or behind the subtitles. This is important when trying to catch clues based on human body language and reactions. Even a .5 second delay or shift in reaction time, will cause the human “sensors” to get a different meaning from body language.

  13. Ymarsakar Says:

    Context clues for those that want to understand what the Japanese rationalizations and pressure to obey were about.

    The Japanese commoners were told that the war was to free the Asian realm from tyranny. The Japanese started Westernizing in both economy and culture for quite a bit of time and felt China’s anti Western attitudes were weakening the Asian people. In the process though, this Westernization and industrial revolution required energy and resources, eventually pitting the Japanese Empire against America due to oil embargos. They were also told that war had been honorably declared, the name of the challenger communicated to the challenged as per samurai custom.

    Japan, like Germans in Neo’s previous post, believed in the wave of the future and obeyed their Authority. If their Authority is good and true, then they are good and true. If their Authority is not…

    A lot of Germans and Japanese often said they had no idea what their country was doing, they had no idea, they didn’t know anything, they merely did as they were told to survive.

    This is the product of a culture based on Authority, Order, and Public Safety. On the one hand, it means public order in peace is very good and civic duty and mindfulness (anti corruption) can be high. On the other hand… authorities that command you to do evil, will be obeyed by citizens in a culture and nation based on Authority.

    America was supposed to be based on freedom. Shared sacrifice and willingness to volunteer were virtues present in WWII before and after. But as socialism and the Left’s totalitarian evil ideology came into power, you now have the Authorities in America Ordering park rangers to put the hammer on the peasants, to cause pain, and They Are Obeyed. Think about that for a moment.

  14. Artfldgr Says:

    never cared for this kind of film…

    though one that is similar, and i cant remember the title, is about a older man with cancer who wishes to make a park… its similar to the above but its interesting as its a last act of defiance in a well ordered world whose mind is made up….

    i find myself in similar conditions waiting for the tape to run out…

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    Grandmother: Because you are still young. (interesting suffix shi used at the end)

    Daughter: I’m no longer young anymore.

    Grandmother: Nope, you still truly are.

    Grandmother: Watashi anta sugoi omote. (Unclear) (I am feeling really concerned about this.)

    Grandmother: I’ve often talked to Father (a title, probably means husband) about this.

    If you meet a good person, you can always decide to become a bride again. Please consider. Truly, this has been weighing heavily on us/me.

    Daughter: Okay, then if there is a good man (for me that I’ll meet)…

    Grandmother: There is, there has to be. For you, there has to be one.

    Daughter: I see.

    This is my version/interpretation of how the subtitles should go in Neo’s video clip there. The translator made a subtle shift by changing the topic of finding a “good man” to marry into a “chance to marry” connected to the issue of “still being young”, implying that as one grows older the chance will fade away. But what they were actually talking about isn’t the Western concept of an old maid, which does exist in Japan too, but about romance-virtue and meeting a “good man”. “Good” with several definitions still present from the ancient times.

    The rest of the way the subtitles are presented for the Grandmother puts her in a more authoritative, nosy, or outspoken fashion. When the reverse is actually true. The use of various forms of keigo and speech patterns implies to me that the Grandmother is broaching a topic she doesn’t feel close enough to “Noriko-san” for it to seem natural. The san is used for those familiar with a person, but not the closest to them. Since it is used for the first name (I think), this implies a familiarity. Whereas using a person’s family name with -san suffix would imply you were strangers or peers or on a professional basis.

    Otou-san is the title name given to a Father as well as being a description, but wives also call their husbands by that title sometimes (sort of like man of the house, or head of the family as we might say it). That kind of thing is hard to translate, because the literal translation is more accurate but makes little sense when used in that context. Whereas the localization would be slightly inaccurate (Father in law, husband), but make a lot more sense.

    So just in that small clip, I’ve seen the subtitle maker do a literal translation where a localized version might be better (Father), and also where they made a subtle change in the translation instead of using the literal one when it was unnecessary. I’m sure things like this will add up over time. There was also a semi joke I laughed at.

    Daughter: I won’t get that old, so don’t worry.

    Rather than being a statement of negation and a prediction of the future, I took this as a subtle joke actually. Because I interpreted it as

    Daughter: It’s fine, I have not yet decided to grow old.

    The idea that someone has a choice about growing old or not is what’s funny to me. She said it in the way of a reassurance, but also an optimistic determination. It reminded me of the Japanese sayings where men are told not to ask for a woman’s age. Stuff like that was once true of America as well, still is perhaps, but I see it a lot more used with the age of men now actually…

    Stuff like the funny stuff is automatically funny to me. It takes some time to decipher the mechanics.

    So when the Grandmother replied “you’re a good person”, I took that as a response to the daughter’s optimism and slightly joking nature. It feels natural to me, but for another person that response may seem out of the blue.

    Instapundit ran a link a few days ago concerning how people who think and use a foreign language, are less emotional. From personal experience, I think that’s true since our first language is bundled up in our upbringing, society, and our relationship with our parents. Whenever we use that language and think in those words, we are always reminded, if only on a subconscious level, of a time when we were children, powerless to do much of anything and with no real responsibilities.

    By consciously choosing to immerse in and learn a different culture and way of thinking, one can reverse the abilities gained and use it against one’s native language, raising one’s resistance to mind control and external influences.

    In some ways, it was a good thing for me that neither English nor Japanese are my native language.

  16. OlderandWheezier Says:

    Artfldgr Says:
    December 8th, 2013 at 9:43 am
    never cared for this kind of film…

    though one that is similar, and i cant remember the title, is about a older man with cancer who wishes to make a park…

    ——

    Kurosawa’s Ikiru (“To Live”).

  17. NeoConScum Says:

    N-Neocon: You might enjoy taking a look at Kurosawa’s Kabuki film masterpiece,”Throne of Blood”. Macbeth done as Samauri. Lady MacB and the woods outside are worth it all.

  18. Gary Says:

    Re bad subtitles

    I speak Spanish and have noticed that some of the English subtitles in Spanish movies are IMHO a poor or weird rendering of the dialogue. In part, this is simply bad translation, but some of this, I believe, is because the filmmaker is striving for the most terse, easiest-to-read translation–which is not unreasonable. If you try to capture every nuance in the translation, you’ll probably wind up with long-winded subtitles that won’t be readable.

  19. Beverly Says:

    OT but definitely noteworthy.

    If you all haven’t seen this, this will make your day. Ukrainians hold huge protest, topple, behead, and bash 1946 granite statue of mass-murderer Lenin:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2013/12/08/in-ukraine-anti-russia-protesters-smash-lenin-statue/

    Protesting the Ukrainian prez’s too-cozy relationship with the Russian Bear, author of their decades-long enslavement, starvation.

  20. Ymarsakar Says:

    The IRS and US Drones may have to take those people out, Beverly. Obama may consider them a security threat.

  21. M of Hollywood Says:

    What an interesting post and comment. Neo you have emboldened me! I too watch Cit Kane and go . . . – yeah? really? So this is it? The best?
    Ymarsakar my goodness. Thank you. Is there a word in Japanese, please, that refers to the “meaning” or the particular “life” or the unique “experience” of an object? One would use it when referring to, say, an old robe or an old fork – and how one wants the old one because it has “wabi” and a new one would have no “wabi?” I think the word is something like wabi, but I concocted that as well as the spelling of the translation of it as I once heard it. Can you fill me in? It is a useful zone for a word, and I think Japanese has one for it.

    This whole thread reminds me of how, during the heady days of 2007 or 08 or so, I stopped reading so many books and started digesting insight from the internet, often here at Neo’s place. Now, alas, it seems that most have retreated to their corners to cry either “racist” or “long live capitalism” or “crony” or “compassion” – just cheerleading from a “side” rather than really getting into it with the subtlety of analysis of, say, Ymarsakar’s translation of the dialog there vs. the printed subtitles on the screen. “Reality” is not a theory. One of the posts up there made me see that relativity theory requires a privileged, non-relative audience seat with a peep hole through “the fourth wall” – yes? no?

  22. Ymarsakar Says:

    I’ve heard of the philosophical term of aesthetics called wabi-sabi, which might be what you are looking for, M.

    As early as the Sengoku era (Warring States, Oda Nobunaga), Japanese samurai were slowly developing a refinement of their culture and learning things like Tea Ceremony. This was also when arrows and muskets would do more of the killing than swords and spears on the battlefield, so the age of the matchless samurai warrior doing the heavy lifting is fading. Before, martial valor and skill were pre-eminent, now you can get shot by a gun and die, no matter how good you are with a sword. Reference Seven Samurai.

    So wabi sabi, at least during that time, came about vis a vis tea ceremonies and various “Mei” masterpiece tea cups and vessels. So their concept of beauty often had something to do with suffering and experience, not merely something brand new. In a sense, it’s like the Russian concept of surviving winter in Siberia. Toughness and lasting a long time is considered superior than some winkless, brand new spanking tea cup. Age before beauty is probably the Western localization. Although, I can’t actually remember where that phrase came from. I just know I heard it in English.

    “One of the posts up there made me see that relativity theory requires a privileged, non-relative audience seat with a peep hole through “the fourth wall” – yes? no?”

    That sounds right. Although a discussion about metaphysics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as it applies to writing conventions about breaking the 4th wall between the reader’s universe and the writer’s universe is a subject worth more attention than can be given here. Something writing shops like Brandon Sanderson’s http://www.writingexcuses.com/ would be better able to deal with. I just introduced the concept by brushing with it. It would take a lot more time and paragraph length to do a proper intro on it. It’s not something I did much research about it, I just knew about it in passing because I digest a lot of entertainment where people prefer to break the 4th wall as opposed to not break it. I can see the difference it makes.

    A lot of writing conventions in the West are old or ancient, and dictates a lot of what gets published. But if you want to see an example of writing that is not as refined, but has more original ideas, kindle books by independent authors are where the action is at now in the West. This kind of publishing route “breaks past” various publishing house conventions that has historically “filtered” this kind of stuff out of the common mainstream zeitgeist.

  23. Ymarsakar Says:

    Now, alas, it seems that most have retreated to their corners to cry either “racist” or “long live capitalism” or “crony” or “compassion” – just cheerleading from a “side” rather than really getting into it with the subtlety of analysis

    There are still many people on the net who do original research and work on various topics. Just have to learn how to find them.

    As someone who studies the martial arts (emphasis on Mars), there have been several individuals and sources which I have found to be authentic and useful.

    http://benotdefeatedbytherain.blogspot.com/

    youtube.com/watch?v=outSxWcsmdU&noredirect=1 Shows the application of internal power.

    The internet has given people the freedom to find their own sources and to validate/cross reference their own experience with other people who they may have never met or seen in a life in the 20th century. But freedom was never something people had because they were safe under an authority that tells them what to do and how to do it. So I encourage people to find their own road, do their own research, and make their own harvest of knowledge. That is the Art side of things.

    While studying art to learn what Americans think and feel is probably dangerous and misguided due to Leftist influence, Japanese art is much different than what people may expect from a Western pov. It’s about individuals finding their own way, instead of a Hollywood authority commanding obedience in all things.

  24. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    I once had the weird experience of watching the 1970s movie “Harold and Maude” in a theater in Paris. The audio was in English, and the French subtitles weren’t good enough to capture the gallows humor in the script. The mostly-French audience stared aghast at me and the few Americans I had come to the movie with as we laughed at the film’s black-comedy fake suicides and funerals. In translation, nuance is all!

  25. Ymarsakar Says:

    One person that reviewed the Japanese visual novel http://vndb.org/v131, said that she really liked the voice acting and could feel the emotions, even though she didn’t know a single word of Japanese.

    The Voice Actors for the Japanese are very professional, down to Earth, and are very good at what they do. To the extent that I almost always prefer Japanese audio to the English, if at all feasible.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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