Tokyo Biyori

Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow onogerow
Sat Nov 1 20:40:10 EST 1997

Nice to see a debate on _Tokyo biyori_, though it's too bad only two 
people have seen the film and that the debate has gotten a bit personal.  
(Again folks, keep to the points of the argument and to the film!)

While I understand that those who want to participate but who have not 
seen the film can only do so through the reference point of Araki, I 
think Mark is right that the film is more about "Shimazu" than Araki 
(Takenaka actually made an amicable agreement with Araki halfway through 
script production where he gave up trying to adopt Araki to the screen 
and decided to do his own story).  Araki is a valid intertext, but 
Markus's citation of _Private Parts_, while amusing, doesn't do much to 
help understand the film.

So, as the third person who has seen the movie, I thought I would pipe 
in.  I do so both to try to resolve some of the issues raised and to try 
to tone down the tone of the conversation a bit.

Basically, while I can sympathize with Mark's efforts to correct what he 
sees as misperceptions on Frances's part (I can agree with him on many of 
his points), I do think Frances is noticing something about the film that 
is a legitimate object of concern.  Jean might not be wrong in claiming 
that the difference between the two may relate to gender, but I think you 
can defend some of Frances's points from even a more conventional, 
auteurist perspective.

For those who have not seen Takenaka's works (and they are worth seeing), 
one can say they have a particular concern with the emotional valence of 
objects.  There are the rocks in _Muno no hito_ ("Nowhere Man"), the fire 
engines in _119_ ("Quiet Days of Firemen"), the stone piano and other 
objects in _Tokyo biyori_.  To put it a bit extremely, you could say that 
Takenaka is somewhat of a fetishist.  Not in the Freudian sense, but 
closer to the Marxist or even ritual sense.  Objects take on values that 
transcend their materiality or use value.  Since these objects can also 
be natural ones (here the Marxist definition doesn't work), what is 
crucial is how the world of objects is transformed into an emotional 
world of nostalgia through human interaction.

I wrote once that watching a Takenaka film is like visiting an antique 
store.  The pleasure often involves finding delicate, precious, and 
nostalgic objects that bring forth gentle waves of emotion.  These can 
not only be physical objects, but also people, places, situations, and 
especially old films.  Cameo appearances by notable people are de rigeur 
in his films: in _Tokyo_, there's _Tetsuo's_ Tsukamoto Shinya (as the 
indie theater actor), Suo Masayuki (as a postman), Riju Go (the friend 
Hirata), Nakajima Miyuki (the bar madam), Morita Yoshimitsu (the magazine 
editor), Araki himself (the train conductor at the end), and of course a 
bunch of actors from the good ol' days like Fujimura Shiho, Kuga Yoshiko, 
Murakami Fuyuki, etc.  Mark mentioned the use of out of the way places, 
but note also the rare use of the Tokyo Station Hotel, itself charged 
with a lot of urban emotional valences.  Most important, one could argue, 
are the references to old films: not only Takenaka's debt to Ozu (always 
acknowledged), but also to 1930s Shochiku in general.  The Shimazu 
character's full name is, according to the press sheet, "Shimazu Mikio," 
a clear reference to *Shimazu* Yasujiro and Naruse *Mikio* (especially 
given that the kanji match those for Naruse's name).  If our experience 
in watching Takenaka's films is similar to a nostalgia trip, to him, it 
is like rummaging through one's grandparents attic and finding things 
that, over time, have come to mean much more than they are.

_Tokyo Biyori_ differers from the previous films in that, not simply 
accepting the valences of these objects as given, it explores the ways 
these valences are created.  It does that through three strategic 
registers: temporality, psychology, and cinema/representation.  First, 
unlike the other films, which only take up objects in the present after 
they have achieved some significance (or, as in _Muno_, when their 
significance is still under debate), _Tokyo's_ temporal structure 
reenacts the processes by which objects like the patio table or places 
like the patio itself change and accumulate meaning over time.  The 
discovery of significance can be sudden, such as in finding the name of 
the inspector on the sticker at the end, but it is the accumulation of 
memory before that which makes that "object" transcend its very mundane 

Second, the film quite delicately at times explores the boundary between 
ascribing meaning to objects through perception and the psychotic 
transformation of objects into what they are not.  Attaching emotional 
importance to objects is a psychological issue, but Takanaka quite 
rightly recognizes that this is not far from mental instability.  The 
crucial object here is, of course, the stone piano, which is a source of 
fond memory for Shimazu and Yoko at first, but then becomes something 
more excessive in Yoko's mind later on.  I would argue that it the 
refusal to draw a strict line between these two mental processes that 
gives _Tokyo_ much of its power.  The normal is abnormal and the abnormal 
is normal.  (Or is this just a justification of Araki?)

Third, and last, there is the question of representation.  The film 
begins with photographs: on the patio table, the book of photographs 
"Tokyo biyori," and even the dissolve to a monochrome view of the patio 
(as if a photograph).  The film then takes two roads from there: it 
explores the origins of these representational objects to delineate the 
process by which they have assumed an emotional charge in the diegesis 
(again, by shifting into the past).  But it also explores the act of 
representation itself.  Shimazu at the beginning takes a photo of his 
photo collection as if signalling this film is also to be a 
representation of representation, an investigation of how signs refer to 
signs, about how significance is not simply the relation of sign (photo) 
and referent (the real event in the past), but also also of sign to sign 
in a set of comfortable, nostaligic codes.  The world view here is less 
realistic than conventional, allegorical or even metaphorical.

This latter sense of signification is what always made Takenaka's films 
interesting: the recognition that this cinematic world is only a set of 
signs/objects, rearranged in a rhythmic and humorous manner.  And, I 
would argue, this is also what made his depiction of women acceptable.  
The Suzuki Kyoka character in _119_ is hard to relate to as a realistic 
portrayal of a woman, but then so are many of the other characters, many 
of whom are "types."  Her character has a personal problem that can't be 
spoken, and that only makes her into that much more of an elusive image.  
She becomes as hard to grasp as the figure she was was meant to signify: 
(the now reclusive) Hara Setsuko.  She is just another "find," another 
object (like the antique fire engine toy) in a world that is full of 

Such a vision of woman, though not un-problematic in itself (it is always 
male-centered), is, I repeat, more tolerable because it is operating in a 
world where everything is only a set of signs without real referents.  
_Tokyo biyori_, however, is slightly different and it is that which I 
believe causes the unease Frances senses.  The film is not content to 
operate with Yoko only as a set of signs; through discourses both in the 
text (Araki's presence, references to his actual photos of Yoko, etc.) 
and outside it, connects her to a real-life figure with real sufferings.  
Takenaka may be moving away from "pawky" humor, but he is doing so by 
injecting a referent to his world of signs and curios which it cannot 
support.  No longer existing merely as a sign among other signs, Yoko's 
existence as an object becomes more painful.  Takenaka's fetishism shifts 
from the playfully innocent to the disturbing.

I found _Tokyo biyori_ to be a grand experiment that failed.  Takenaka's 
effort to explore the valences behind objects/signs is ambitious and the 
resulting structure to the film quite remarkable, so I can sympathize 
with Mark's respect for the film.  But this was a work that should not 
have been based on real life (I wonder if Takenaka, when he decided to 
make a break from Araki halfway through, did not realize this).  
Takenaka's style does not fit with that.

The film still could have been rescued, perhaps, if the actress who 
played Yoko could have resisted the power of the gaze upon her, tying her 
psychological problem to the status of being an object.  But I'm afraid 
Nakayama Miho has no where near the depth needed to do that (her scenes 
of psychological torment are rather weak, to say the least).  Frankly 
(and maybe this is just my personal bias), she is not a very good actress 
and tends to act in films just as she does on TV (which is damning in 
itself).  Especially in the last scenes on the boat, she only acts like a 
pretty face that has no depth whatsoever.  (I wonder if this is the Fuji 
TV effect.  Fuji does tend to put vaccuous TV actors in its productions 
and _Tokyo biyori_ was not able to escape this.)

Forgive this rather long, rambling text.  I originally decided not to 
write about the film for the Yomiuri because, as a failure, it did not 
interest me.  But this debate has helped me think about this film and 
about Takenaka's work a little more.  I wonder if anyone can comment 
further about the film?

Aaron Gerow
Yokohama National University
KineJapan list owner
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