Monday, March 22, 2010

Tokyo Chorus

Tokyo Chorus is an early pre-war silent film from Yasujiro Ozu, whose silent work generally reveals quite a different director from the later static, patient sensibility of his mature oeuvre. Of course, there is still a continuity in terms of themes and subjects connecting these earlier silents to the sound films. Tokyo Chorus is, like almost all of Ozu's films, concerned with domesticity and family relationships, and with the changes wrought on the family by outside pressures and developments. In Ozu's post-war films, these pressures take the form of encroaching Westernization, of the old traditional ways transitioning into a new modern sensibility. Obviously, there are some slightly different concerns at the core of this pre-war film, made in 1931 with the Great Depression affecting Japan as much as any other country — as one character jokes early on, "Hoover's policies haven't helped us yet," a wry punchline made even more bitterly ironic by the retrospective knowledge that Hoover's policies didn't help anyone very much.

The film centers on one family struggling to make ends meet during this difficult economic time. Shinji (Tokihiko Okada) is introduced as a rebellious, goofy schoolboy, but a few years later he has a family: a wife (Emiko Yagumo), a son (Hideo Sugawara), a daughter (Hideko Takamine) and a baby. Ozu introduces Shinji in a lengthy and near-slapstick sequence as a stern school teacher (Tatsuo Saito) tries to maintain control over a rowdy line of students (though, admittedly, the fact that all these schoolboys look like grown men initially makes it hard for an outsider to figure out the context of this scene). Ozu pans across the line of students, his camera moving across a diagonal composition that is repeated several times throughout the film. Such motion would later become rare and uncharacteristic in Ozu's post-war work, but here his aesthetic is not pinned down to the static, low-height observation that would come to be his most salient visual characteristic. Instead, Ozu's camera tracks along with the characters as they walk, or passes along rows of people lining a street.

During the opening scene, Shinji and the other students goof around and play, as the instructor makes disapproving notes in a little book, calling them out to examine their outfits and their posture. Shinji gets in trouble for not having a shirt on under his jacket, and is left sitting alone, picking at something (bugs? stray threads?) on his pants as the rest of the students are led away. This introduction establishes the film's broad sense of humor, telegraphed through the loping gait of the students as they act surly towards the teacher, or the instructor's head-bobbing bounce as he surveys them. From this opening, Ozu cuts away to a few years later, when Shinji is working at an insurance company. It is not stated directly, but the gap is meant to represent the onset of maturity, the rowdy schoolboy gaining responsibility as he settles into life with a family and a respectable office job.

This stability is disrupted when Shinji loses his job after defending an older employee who he felt had been unfairly fired: his earlier insouciance towards authority manifesting itself again in an act of benevolent defiance. The scene is nearly played for comedy — Shinji and his boss get into a slowly escalating shoving match by tapping each other on the shoulder with fans — but there's no mistake that the consequences of this lost job are truly dire for a man with a wife and three children in the middle of a terrible depression, with no jobs available. The central theme of the film is this man's struggle to maintain his family's honor and his own self-respect when faced with the loss of his profession and, with it, his claim to respectability. Honor is central to the film, especially as expressed in the way that Shinji's wife looks at him; Ozu captures the impact of a look, the humiliation of seeing her husband in a menial job that is beneath his station, a job he only got because of a chance encounter with his sympathetic former teacher.

What's interesting, though, is that Ozu ultimately critiques, in his own indirect way, the concepts of honor expressed here. Shinji's wife at first resists her husband "stooping" to a job carrying banners to advertise his former teacher's new restaurant; when she sees him doing this, she is humiliated. In fact, it's a rare moment when Ozu reinforces her feelings with an intertitle that outright says she's humiliated; Ozu generally uses such titles sparingly, preferring to capture such emotional nuances in the actors' performances, using the editing to emphasize certain glances and expressions. This, apparently, was a beat that Ozu felt the need to hammer home more forcefully, however, hitting his audience over the head rather than risk anyone missing the wife's sense of disgrace. She tells Shinji that he should remain proud and not do anything so obviously beneath his status. But Shinji resists, insisting that he is doing the right thing, that all a man in his situation can do is take whatever opportunities come to him. His wife soon gives way as well, agreeing to help him in his new job and supporting him until, at the end, his former teacher comes through with an offer of a better job in education. The lesson seems to be that abstract concepts like honor and pride are not nearly as important as putting food on the table for one's family, just as keeping up appearances must be secondary to providing the necessities of life for one's loved ones.

Tokyo Chorus is a fine film if not a particularly distinguished one. It reveals Ozu's nascent sensibility in its earliest state, as he deals with his usual themes — family dramas, the conflict between traditional values and changing conditions, the rhythms of domestic life — in a less formally rigorous way than he would in later years. The film is unfailingly direct and straightforward in its approach, telling a simple story simply. It is thus not quite a peak Ozu film, but perhaps an important work in his development, a step towards the greater depth and aesthetic richness of his later films. It is, regardless, an affecting film, particularly in two scenes between Shinji and his teacher. In the first, when the teacher offers Shinji a job, the latter offers some token resistance based on honor, saying that if the teacher merely feels pity for him, then he can't accept, but that if it's a gesture of friendship instead, he can. Shinji is essentially constructing a way for him to take the job and still feel like he's not sacrificing his honor; Ozu captures the desperate yearning on Shinji's face as he fears that perhaps his teacher will withdraw the offer, and the knowing nod from the teacher as he accepts this face-saving gesture. Later, in the final scene, Shinji's former classmates have gathered together for a reunion, and are singing a song together. Shinji and the teacher both join in, but as Ozu cuts between closeups of the two of them, isolating them within the crowd, their faces are troubled briefly by sadness and introspection before they regain their composure and join the celebration. Even in a relatively straightforward and conventional film like this, Ozu asserts his mastery with shots like these, shots where complicated emotions arise from his probing of the faces of his actors, and the juxtapositions between uplift and loss that flow through this film.


DavidEhrenstein said...

An excellent early Ozu that clearly indicates he was a deeply socially-conscious filmmaker. His love for ordinary people -- especially children -- shines through in a remarkably unforced, casually insightful way.

Ed Howard said...

Very true, David. What you identify as the socially conscious tendencies here would perhaps be more submerged in later films, less on-the-surface, but no less present or important to him.

mystery meat said...

Excellent review. I actually recently finished the three films in the Silent Ozu Eclipse set. Tokyo Chorus, while great, is probably my least favorite film in the set. The other two depend less on overt slapstick and create a more generally comedic atmosphere, which in turn allows the more contemplative hallmarks of Ozu's later cinema to shine.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Not so much submerged as idfferently stated. Early in hsi career Ozu traced the emergence of japan's white collar middle-class. At the close of his career that class ad a place of relative power in Japanese social life -- as clearly reflected in his films. He remained critical but in a somewhat muted vein -- as befit the situation.

I think Ozu is very much misunderstood to the degree that he's commonly seen as supportig the traditional and "conservative" (in the classical sense), whereas at heart his films are all about transitions. He knows perfectly well that nothing lasts -- especially the kinds of families he portrayed. Therefore films like Late Spring and The Taste of Autumn Mackrel shwo us something vanishing before our eyes.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Stuart. I've watched I Was Born But... as well, and agree that that's a far better film, and a better indicator of Ozu's future cinema; I'll have a review up of that one sometime within the next couple of weeks.

David, I totally agree that Ozu's appreciation for tradition is commonly misunderstand, and I think you do a good job of parsing what he's really about: transition. One of the things I love about his cinema is how fairly he treats both "sides" in these conflicts between tradition and encroaching modernity. He clearly has sympathy for those left behind when these changes come, and he mourns what's lost, but at the same time there's an understanding that new generations have to do things differently, that people have to live their own lives and make their own choices, and that traditions can limit that. His films are much more complex than a simple "conservative" label can account for.

Sam Juliano said...

"It is thus not quite a peak Ozu film, but perhaps an important work in his development, a step towards the greater depth and aesthetic richness of his later films.:

I do agree with this estimation, though I also have a fondness for this early work of humanism. Stylistically this is one of the first examples of the 'circular' story- where the films end where it basically began, in this case in the schoolyard where the school song is heard, and in both instances the same student arrives late; at the end of course he's grown older.

It's an affecting film, and a harbinger of greatest to come.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam, I obviously like it, too. Even in his earlier days, before his signature style had completely developed, Ozu was a great filmmaker.