Ketchup and Smokestacks

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Review of "Tokyo Story", director Yasujiro Ozu

The establishment of the DVD format as a replacement for video means we are gradually seeing more classic films released, and not just the usual Hollywood blockbusters. To celebrate the centenary of the birth of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Tartan has released his most famous film, Tokyo Story, coinciding with its theatrical re-release.

Made in 1953, it is a very subtle, gentle film about family relations in postwar Americanised Japan. The plot is simple. An elderly couple set off from their village to visit their grown up children in Tokyo. Their arrival is greeted with formality and politeness, but there is also tension. The son is a busy doctor, the daughter married to a businessman. They have little time to pay attention to their parents. The houses they live in are small and cramped, and the visitors are under everyone's feet. They plan to take them to visit the city, but work gets in the way. The parents are left to hang around the son's home, almost an embarrassment. The children then treat them to a holiday in a nearby resort. Yet this is a thoughtless present, for it is merely to get rid of them. The hotel the parents stay at is for young people who party all night. After several sleepless nights the old couple decide to return to their village, accepting that their children have no time for them.

Yet, far from being sentimental, this is a film that is almost cold hearted as it deals with the new relations between old and young. The backdrop is the city of Tokyo. This is shown in the film not as postcard pretty, but as a place busy with industry, sprawling, run down suburbs, and tiny cramped homes set amid vast railway yards. Made a year after the end of the Allied occupation of Japan, it captures the reconstruction of a country devastated by the war. It is not just the physical rebuilding we see, but the change that takes place in the hearts of the people themselves. They have no time for visiting parents - the grandchildren are rude and distant to the old couple. The family is no longer the centre of things - it is replaced by a ruthless work ethic that turns the parents into nothing more than a nuisance.

Yasujiro Ozu is seen as one of the great film directors, and Tokyo Story as one of the greatest of Japanese films. Yet upon its release the film mirrored the fate of the parents. Distributors decided not to give it an international cinema release because Ozu made films in the genre of shomen-geki, or the domestic drama. At the time Japanese cinema was dominated internationally by the samurai epics of director Akira Kurosawa. These portray the changes in postwar Japan, from a militaristic society to a modern liberal democracy, in a way perhaps more understandable to an international audience. In Ozu's films action is replaced by subtlety and detail: the grandchildren are worried about their English exams; the kitchen now contains bottles of ketchup from the US; cherry tree blossoms make way for smokestacks. It is a new Japan that buries prewar cultural values.

Though very quiet and simple, this film is a brilliant look at the real changes that affected ordinary Japanese lives after the war. It is relevant today to all of us as we are force fed the neoliberal diet of Blair and Bush's capitalism. This film is a study in detail of how human relationships melt into dust before the onslaught of the market.