It’s dangerous to start watching Japanese cinema, because the world is so extensive and dazzling you may quickly develop a taste for nothing but Japanese films. Is there a romance more mysterious than Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari? Is there action to surpass Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai? And, in terms of family drama, has any film been more moving than Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story?
Time and again, Ozu has made films about family, and the shifting structure we refer to as “time and again”. Family is less a fixed entity than a kind of weather system that keeps coming back. So children need parents, and need to outlive them. But while the weather will go on, and your children will become parents, so your life will close, and you will not be there to see the way your own children look back as if to say they understand you, too late.
Is this tragedy or comedy? Ozu is never quite sure. He seems to wonder whether any progression can amount to tragedy, or whether it is not simply as inevitable as passing time and changing light.
This may not sound “entertaining” or active or even interesting, which only means the viewer needs to undergo the gentle process of being helped to see through Ozu’s withdrawn but compassionate style. So he watches from the corner of a room at a low level (for Japanese domestic life is often conducted from a sitting position) and he declines to rush in with forgiving, approving, loving close-ups – because he believes people are beyond forgiveness or individual glamour.
Family is a group in which everyone has his or her reason. In Tokyo Story, Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) visit their grown children, full of hope and the wish to be recognised, but they find the children too busy, too preoccupied. This is not depicted as bad behaviour, or a sign of cultural breakdown; it is the way of the world. The acting is intimate, humane and reserved yet there are no stars, let alone heroes or heroines. There are no “happy endings” in the terms western culture requires. Instead, the riddle of happiness or its opposite runs through “time and again” like light on moving water. Does it sound dull, or too simple? Be warned – it can make other films seem unbearably crass.