Yasujiro Ozu John Gillett - Essay

John Gillett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ozu's understanding and compassion for [his characters] is evident in every scene of [The Tokyo Story]. The relationship between the old and the young is not only explored with considerable psychological insight, but cuts deeply into the heart of human experience. There are no strictly good or bad people here; much of the characterisation possesses an oblique ambiguous quality akin to certain 19th century novelists (the beautiful daughter-in-law, for example, has a kind of enigmatic personality rarely encountered in the Western cinema). Although the tone of the piece is undeniably sad, there are moments when a gentle, resigned humour makes itself felt…. Elsewhere, the intensity of its emotion echoes the famous concept of de Sica and Zavattini: "Our puspose is to make people see and feel." And for pure eloquence of feeling I think it would be hard to find a recent European parallel to the film's final passages depicting the funeral ceremony, the alternately helpful, tactless and bitter reactions of the relatives, and the inner grief of the old man, symbolised in one marvellous shot of his tottering figure returning to the house and the mourners. (pp. 20-1)

With the exception of three brief tracking shots, the film is made up of several scores of completely static set-ups. The lack of camera movement (there is, of course, action within the frame) has the effect of concentrating attention entirely upon the people and their backgrounds—the sets, incidentally, are always apt and meticulously designed. This self-imposed restriction on the cinema's freedom of movement occasionally appears forced and unnatural, but such is the strength of the total conception that one is soon absorbed into the texture of the story itself.

It is easy, however, to understand how the film's slowly paced cutting and unfamiliar idiom could quickly alienate an unresponsive audience. Not unnaturally, its approach is totally different from that of the West, although if one looks beneath the surface (where nothing apparently happens) there is plenty to see and learn. What Ozu is saying is important to all of us, and here he speaks in a voice free from vulgarity or compromise. (p. 21)

John Gillett, "Reviews: 'The Tokyo Story'," in Film (reprinted by permission of British Federation of Film Societies), No. 13, September-October, 1957, pp. 20-1.