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An exploration of foreign films: Unique cinematography and minimalist themes distinguish ‘Tokyo Story’

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‘An exploration of foreign films’ is a series of movie reviews focusing on films by international directors.

Directed by the famed Yasujiro Ozu, “Tokyo Story” is a moving two-hour film with the simple plot of an old couple travelling to Tokyo to visit their grown up children. 

The movie opens with an elderly couple, Shukichi (patriarch) and Tomi (matriarch) Hirayama, packing their bags for a highly anticipated trip to Tokyo to visit their grown children. In Tokyo, they are picked up from the train station by their son Koichi and daughter Shige and taken to Koichi’s house, where they plan to spend a few days. Latecomer Noriko, the presumably widowed wife of their late son Shoji (who has been in the military for eight years), joins the joyous family reunion. 

However, that joy doesn’t last long: Koichi and Shige abandon their parents because of their job obligations. Shige asks Noriko to take her parents sightseeing around Tokyo, which she excitedly agrees to. Meanwhile, Koichi and Shige devise a plan to send their parents to a hotel in Atami for a couple days, claiming that they are both too busy to look after their parents. The hotel, however, is filled with boisterous youngsters so the parents are unable to enjoy their stay. Upon returning early to Shige’s house, they discover that their daughter is hosting a large gathering, necessitating yet another move. The parents decide to split up, with the father visiting old friends and the mother returning to Noriko’s house, who is the only one to welcome her with open arms. However, trouble occurs on Shukichi and Tomi’s journey home, illustrating that only one character is truly loyal to the Hirayama family.

The characters in the movie are refreshingly simple and easy to follow. While the appreciation for characters with complex stories and emotions is understandable, as we see in many present-day movies, Ozu uses “Tokyo Story” to show that simple characters are just as appealing. Their simplicity is evidenced by the straightforward descriptors for each character: Shukichi is content, Tomi is peaceful, Noriko is helpful, Shige is selfish and Keizo is naive. The simplicity also allows the viewers to easily connect with the characters from the beginning, captivating the viewer and allowing him or her to feel more empathy towards the characters.  

The strong emphasis on the limited dialogues between characters allows for more of their personalities to be revealed through non-verbal communication. To understand the true message from the limited dialogue, it is important to read between the lines. A beautiful example is the scenes where the parents are alone. Ozu conveys their serenity through the slow speed at which they carry out their dialogue and actions, which is juxtaposed with scenes of hustling children. Their loneliness is exuded in the scenes where they are both silent and isolated: sitting in front of the vast ocean, or sitting on the side of an empty road. Again, the starkness of this loneliness is shown by contrasting the parents with their children, who are always shown in the company of others. 

Although ‘Tokyo Story’ is a black and white film in a color-filled cinematic world, the lighting and color gradient in every scene are still aesthetically pleasing. The subjects of the scenes are also cohesively structured with beautiful composition. Each shot looks like a beautifully taken still-photograph, making parts of the movie feel like a slideshow of images. 

The reason for this lies in a unique aspect of Ozu’s directing: the camera almost never moves. Throughout the entirety of the film, the camera moved a mere two times, following the parents as they are walking alone while viewing the vast city of Tokyo before going their separate ways. Even during that scene, the camera moves at the exact same pace as the parents, making it feel like the camera is not moving. The camera also makes abrupt cuts between scenes, making no effort to follow the characters or their movements. 

A notable aspect of the cinematography is the location of the camera in each scene, leading to each scene being shot at a unique angle. It feels as though the viewer is watching the scene from some inconspicuous place nearby. Subtle aspects of Japanese culture are present in the cinematography as well: the low camera angles reflect how the Japanese people typically sit on the ground. 

Another exceptional aspect of the cinematography is defined through conversations between characters. The camera tends to record conversations from behind a character’s back, providing a more natural feeling during the dialogue scenes. Instead of giving the viewer a feeling that the camera is imposing upon and forcing a conversation, recording from behind makes the viewer feel like he or she sees an unscripted, unedited version of each character. 

There are also many scenes throughout the movie in which the characters are talking directly to the camera, giving the viewer a more intimate view into each character. The scenes typically first show all who are involved in the conversation, followed by close-ups of only the character speaking as the scene progresses. The camera angle also tends to be at a character’s eye level, as though it was taken straight from the eyes of the characters in the scene.

Another idiosyncratic feature of the film is minimalism. From dialogue to scenery, Ozu makes a conscious effort to show only what is necessary in order to understand the context. This is especially apparent in the dialogue, as the characters typically only speak in simple, short sentences. The setting and background of each scene also tend to be barren with minimal extra decorations or superfluous aspects. 

Ozu makes use of the minimalist technique in the film’s music as well: in fact, many of his scenes lack any background music at all. When used, the quiet background music effectively complements and reflects the mood of each scene. However, the silence in many scenes is equally as successful and productive. It provides, yet again, a strong sense of naturalness while also allowing viewers to feel their own emotions. 

Minimalism is also used to depict actions of the characters: many scenes show characters going about their daily lives normally. The use of minimalism to portray actions also adds to the natural feel of the film. Even through times of tension between characters, Ozu does not overly illustrate emotions, expressions or actions. Everything is simple and directly to the point, which creates a larger focus on the silent and normal aspects of daily life.

“Tokyo Story” is a heartwarming, yet heartbreaking, easy-to-follow movie, perfectly capturing the unique directing of Yasujiro Ozu. The film enthralls viewers in its tranquil development and unique cinematography while leaving one to ponder the true meaning of family loyalty.

Contact Sania Choudhary at choudharysania123 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Sania Choudhary is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.