Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
Starting out as an assistant in the cinematography department of the Shochiku Film Company, young Yasujirō Ozu set his sights on becoming a filmmaker in 1923. A year of military service kept him away from Shochiku, but he returned as a third assistant director. Another year later, Ozu was promoted to the head of the jidaigeki (or period film) department at Shochiku and directed his first film, Sword of Penitence (now a “lost” film, no copies survived). In 1928, the studio changed focus to making short comedy films. Over the next decade Ozu excelled, making 32 films and receiving praise from critics.
In 1937, Ozu was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. He served for two years, but was then re-drafted and called back to the army in 1943 for three additional years. After 1947, Ozu made a string of postwar films. These movies served as social commentary on life in Japan after WWII. He released the first of many movies featuring actress Setsuko Hara, Late Spring, in 1949. Late Spring became the first of three movies known as the “Noriko trilogy.” In each film, Hara portrays a young woman named Noriko—although all three films feature a different, distinct Noriko. The films are linked together by the time they take place (postwar Japan) and Noriko’s status, she’s always portrayed as a single woman.
Hara went on to make six films total with Ozu. Critics and audiences alike refer to her as the director’s muse, a source of constant inspiration and ideas for his films. The pair collaborated up until Ozu’s death in the early 1960s. Hara went on to make 101 films and then announced her retirement from Japanese cinema in 1962 at just 42 years old. However, Hara and Ozu will forever be remembered for what many consider their masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made, 1953’s Tokyo Story.
Although it was made over 60 years ago, Tokyo Story remains a movie that still resonates strongly with audiences. The plot revolves around an older couple, Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama, and their five children who are all grown up and living on their own. The couple travels to Tokyo for a visit with their son and daughter along with their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko, whose husband died in the war. Shūkichi and Tomi’s children struggle to fit into their grown-up children’s busy lives, often being ignored or set aside. The only one who has time to show them around is poor Noriko, who is now all alone. The plot may seem deceptively simple, but Ozu and his co-writer Kogo Noda take an incredibly complex idea and turn it into something everyone can relate to. All children must grow up, and the the separation between children and their parents as they get older seems unavoidable.
Besides the story, Tokyo Story is well-known for Ozu’s distinct visual style. The director was known for placing his cameras at low angles, almost never moving them. In his films, we look up at the characters like a child would. These low camera positions also let us see entire rooms, ceilings, corners and more. He forces us to pay attention to the details often overlooked in Hollywood movies. Additionally, Ozu never cared about the “180 degree” rule in cinema. Instead of filming dialogue with two actors and matching their sight lines, Ozu often filmed the speakers head-on instead. He wasn’t concerned with making it look like the characters were talking to each other, the director wanted audiences to focus on the individual themselves.
Tokyo Story was released in Japan in 1953, but did not receive a theatrical run in the United States until 1972. Americans may have been introduced to Ozu late, but they quickly recognized his important contributions to the world of cinema. The director is frequently cited as one of the best of all time by critics and filmmakers alike. In particular, Tokyo Story continues to be showered with love and critical praise. The movie has appeared several times on the British Film Institute’s poll of “the greatest films” published every 10 years in Sight & Sound. In the magazine’s most recent 2012 poll, Tokyo Story was named the #3 greatest film overall and named #1 in the poll of directors. Ozu’s film endures, letting a whole new generation know that time marches on, change is inevitable.
Directors Richard Ayoade (Submarine, The Double), Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky), and Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) cite Tokyo Story as one of their top 10 favorite films.
The original negative of Tokyo Story was lost shortly after the movie was completed, due to a fire at the vault of the film lab where it was being stored. The film had to be released using prints made from a dupe protective negative.
Ozu spent 103 days with his co-writer Kogo Noda at a country inn in Chigasaki, Japan writing the script. Location scouting, shooting, and editing the film happened speedily—Tokyo Story was only in production for four months total.
What’s your favorite Japanese film? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.