Daniel Witkin on Tokyo Twilight
In a paradox of film discourse, Yasujiro Ozu has been discussed as being among the most universal of directors and the most inscrutably Japanese. He’s certainly not the first Eastern artist to be described in the grand terminology of Western humanist art, but perhaps the only one to be simultaneously cast as so many different oriental stock characters—as a Zen master, artisanal sensei, or cutting-edge purveyor of interior design, take your pick. The man even compared himself to a tofu maker. Behind both of these descriptive tendencies lies a certain awed reverence, a genuine respect for the craftsman and his worldview, but also an unease as to how to engage with his formidable body of work.
More helpfully, Ozu is also widely discussed in terms of his unique treatment of space. Perhaps no other director is so strongly identified with space—or, more precisely, with a single point in space, hovering statically at about waist height, often in a tidy room in a comfortable, middle-class home located some forty minutes by train from downtown Tokyo. This camera position, as distinct a directorial trademark as there ever was, is the keystone of a self-imposed formal system that eschews continuity editing for graphically motivated cuts. The camera remains largely still, and flashy transitional devices are replaced by meticulously composed “pillow shots.” Yet if the rules of Ozu’s game are too easily known, this obscures the deftness with which he plays it and the magnitude of its stakes. Beginning from his films’ transparent technique and quotidian subject matter, it can be difficult to ascertain the source—outside of some mystic charisma—of their lasting power, especially if we allow that formal rigor alone does not great art make.
When Ozu directed Tokyo Twilight in 1957, the Japanese film industry was entering another in a series of dramatic transformations as studios competed against new forms of entertainment, television among them, for the exploding youth market. By the end of the decade, Shochiku—the studio where Ozu spent his career—would initiate Japan’s New Wave by producing Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, a Cinemascope provocation in vivid color, flavored with copious helpings of youth and cruelty alike, that would set the course for so much Japanese cinema to come. Shochiku attempted to push Ozu in the same direction, pressuring the director to abandon the squareish, black-and-white compositions that had characterized his work since the silent era in favor of new color and widescreen technologies better suited to the struggle against TV. Ozu eventually accepted color, which would leave him rejuvenated, the perfect new toy for an aging genius with a fondness for visual patterning; but, tellingly, he never made the transition to ’scope.
Tokyo Twilight reflects this moment in the director’s career, on the precipice of his iridescent late works, both in its still-reluctant introduction of sensationalistic plot elements and youth themes, and in the way that Ozu’s recalcitrant devotion to his restrained style smothers any lurid excitement. The plot concerns two adult sisters abandoned by their mother in childhood. The elder, Takako (Setsuko Hara), moves back in with the pair’s father (Chishu Ryu) after taking leave of her gloomy husband. Akiko (Ineko Arima), the younger sister, wanders bars and mahjong parlors in search of the evasive lad who got her pregnant. Finding no support, she gets an abortion, and her ensuing self-loathing and isolation, along with the moral shock of the mother’s return, lead her to suicide. Though the focus is initially spread more evenly between the sisters and their father, Akiko’s story assumes preeminence for the bulk of the film, leaving the viewer by her side as her isolation grows more severe. It’s admittedly dismal stuff, but Ozu treats it with special sensitivity, carefully doling out the narrative over a spacious 140-minute runtime, the longest of his career. The result obstinately bypasses the theatrics and emotive force of melodrama to arrive at something more like tragedy.
Watching Tokyo Twilight, it doesn’t take long to figure out why Ozu so adamantly refused to part with his tried-and-true 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Though willfully tethered to his signature low camera position, Ozu exploits the material elements of Japanese domestic life to subtly explode the squareish frame into an astounding variety of geometric forms. Sliding doors prove especially useful, manipulated so as to alternately restrict and segment the frame; occasionally in the form of a standard “frame-within-the-frame,” but more often than not as a series of panels against which characters can be juxtaposed and arranged—and sometimes all at once. Introducing the family’s home, Ozu navigates Hara and Ryu around a fairly sparse room before depositing them on either side of an open door, neatly framed by rectangular panels. The pregnant space between them is filled by Akiko, set apart against the uncovered threshold, appearing before us for the first time with downcast eyes, worn-out, gorgeous, somewhat bashfully dominating the space with statuesque dolor. From first sight she appears somewhat out of place, as if belonging to a slightly larger world.
Another advantage of the boxy frame is that it allows its director to play with depth of field. Widescreen formats necessarily privilege the first dimension, to the point where even overt displays of depth take on a distinctly horizontal character (as in the opening shots of Star Wars, for example). In contrast, Ozu is remarkably skilled at filling out domestic space, staggering screen doors and carefully arranging actors and objects to give a richer sense of depth. His predilection for appliances and knick-knacks certainly reflects a genuine affection for the paraphernalia of everyday life, but the studied placement of these objects also helps give his films a remarkably immersive, expansive sense of interiority. A hallway in an Ozu film may feel more spacious than a streetscape in someone else’s. This can be used to quietly devastating effect: as Akiko is unfairly admonished by her well-meaning but mistaken father, Ozu crams her into the far right corner. Objectively, it’s not a particularly large space, but Ozu shoots the scene from the next room, placing a small lamp somewhat incongruously right in front of the camera. As the lamp, a sliding door, her father, and her sister separate her from the camera within this miniature landscape, Akiko appears to recede into the distance. Many directors can convey spectacular expanse or perilous claustrophobia, or project psychological states onto the set, but how many have had the skill—or interest, for that matter—to give such a rich sense of the ambience and proportions of a room?
Ozu’s 1.33:1 frame is scalable, able to expand or contract to fit the emotional needs of a given moment. Obstructing, obscuring, and dividing portions of the frame, often with a bit of help from Japanese architecture, Ozu actively manages the parameters of the frame alongside the scale of the shot. The small moments are the most instructive. After Akiko first encounters her mother, Ozu sneaks away for a quick shot of the older woman nervously fiddling with her hands, the frame redrawn as a vertically oriented rectangle by a sliding door. The constricted frame amplifies the gesture, while the camera’s remove allows us to observe her full posture in a way that would be impossible had the director chosen to employ a more standard medium shot. These flourishes saturate Ozu’s work, intimate moments seemingly caught offhand, but in reality framed through a series of ingeniously conceived contrivances. Ozu may keep his camera relatively low, but within this altitude a surprising range of frankly extraneous maneuvers are fair game: continuity can be broken, objects and lighting can be subtly rearranged, the frame can be made more vertical or horizontal, 360º space is to be atomized and reconstructed, shot by shot, moment by moment. And the accumulation of these moments is where Ozu really goes to work.
The space of Ozu’s films is defined not only visually but also socially and culturally. The living rooms, offices, and neighborhood bars that make up his personal directorial universe also constitute the recognizable social space of late twentieth-century Japan, a nation balancing tradition and modernity, great economic resurgence and shell-shocked introspection. If we seem unable to decide whether Ozu belongs primarily to his nation or the world, I think it has something to do with the domestic milieu in which his cinema is so firmly rooted, defined biologically as well as culturally, straddling temporalities both natural (the seasons, gently passing) and social (when will she get married?).
Perhaps it has to do with the uneasy moment of the film’s production, but Tokyo Twilight shows a new side of Ozu’s established environs, due more than anything to the strong perspective of his disreputable female protagonist. The only Ozu film set in midwinter, Akiko’s environs seem unusually harsh, their austerity untempered by foliage. Even the director’s famous “pillow shots” take on hard edges. The film’s title is warranted: the sun seems to set early on the characters, and even daytime hours offer only a wan, chilly light.
Akiko spends much of the film in sordid public spaces chasing around her erstwhile boyfriend, the vainly oblivious Kenji. Noticeably out-of-place as an attractive young woman, she’s constantly harassed and overtly judged. “I know all about it,” a mutual acquaintance lasciviously remarks on her failing relationship. After Kenji leaves her stranded in a trendy bar, she’s menaced by a coolly threatening policeman in a surgical mask. After he takes her in, he paternalistically tells her sister, “Young people these days go astray for the slightest reason.” At first, Akiko moves through these spaces with an unhurried grace, maintaining her dignity with a somewhat regal bearing; but as the movie progresses, her movements become sparser and more laborious. It’s as if the winter chill has settled in her joints. Home offers little respite. “No one in this family,” intones Akiko’s father after her run-in with the cop, “should be taken into police custody.”
Over time, the dominant impression becomes one of deprivation and absence. Over the course of Akiko’s search, her environs are dissected, and analyzed, but never reveal the person she’s looking for or the support she needs. This dynamic reverberates after Akiko’s death, as the mother hopefully waits in a train for a potentially cathartic farewell from Takako. As the moments die away, Ozu shows us the same space from a number of distinct angles, repetitively opening up and then closing spaces in which Takako just might appear. In the end, some nineteen shots are devoted to the act of someone not appearing at a train station.
At times, the film’s cold urban setting and denial of solace uncannily recall Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim, which also depicts an alienated woman suicided by society. But a better analogue for Tokyo Twilight might be Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, another late work from an aging director courageously looking at the world through the eyes of the younger generation and finding it bluntly unlivable. But while Bresson’s film seems to take place in an ever-so-slightly different dimension—as if the director had to make himself a blank slate in order to attempt the project from zero—Ozu seems remarkably at home with the material. Then again, Akiko’s world folds remarkably easily into his own. Tokyo Twilight might not radically upset what we know about Ozu’s world, but it does add some necessary shading, allowing a director often associated with quiescence and adaptability to acknowledge that these postures might not suffice if the temperature gets too low. Many of Ozu’s films center on misunderstandings, from the comic deceptions of Late Spring to the poignant generational drift of Tokyo Story; Tokyo Twilight reveals the lethal peril of failed communication. It shows that the edges of Ozu’s fastidiously manicured frames are sharp enough to draw blood.
Ozu’s boxy frame may be still and unflashy, but it’s not ascetic; rather, it allows for an array of purely aesthetic flourishes—offering delight in the visual infrastructure of modern life—as well as the careful modulation of gesture and tone. Its position is never one of mere repose, but always rapt, formally enhanced attention. It’s this energy that allows him to achieve the real, hard to reach empathy that drives his humanism: not the voyeuristic attempt to get into someone’s head, but the altogether trickier business of being with them in the space of a single room.