The Problem of Ozu's "Tokyo Twilight"

Michael E Kerpan Jr kerpan
Sun Jan 27 16:49:58 EST 2002

"Tokyo boshoku" ("Tokyo Twilight") (1957) was one of Ozu's
worst commercial and critical "flops". Bordwell quotes Ozu's belief
that the problem with the film was working in the "wrong octave" --
and seems to agree with this assessment. Bordwell notes the
"melodramatic" content (which he likens to that in "Munekata Shimai"),
but sees Ozu as as making a film otherwise rather like his other films
from this period. (Certainly, "Tokyo boshoku" was filmed more
effectively and has a far more intelligible structure than "Munekata
shimai", which DOES strike me as a thoroughgoing artistic fiasco).

I think that Bordwell has missed some important features of "Tokyo
boshoku".While there are undoubtedly many strictly formal
similarities between "Tokyo boshoku" and other post-war Ozu films,
there is also one enormous difference -- the very nature of the roles
played by Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu. Richie does not provide a very
extensive discussion of this film in his Ozu book, but does point out
the stupefying lack of comprehension Ryu's character has towards his
younger daughter. What Richie does NOT note is that Hara's
character (the elder sister) is likewise uncharacteristically
unappealing -- she is rigid in her thinking, and apparently has little
capacity (or, pehaps, desire) to try to understand her sister's

What is fairly clear is that "Ryu" was an utter failure first as a
husband and then as a father. "Hara", due to her anomalous situation
growing up as a young child needing to act as primary authority
figure for her little sister, never is able to develop a mature
ability to comprehend other people's problems. The younger daughter
(Ineko Arima) has no one to turn to when she gets into difficulty --
she knows it is pointless to turn to her family and is betrayed by her
boyfriend, as well. The belated "reappearance" of the mother (who she
had been told was dead) is too late, despite the fact that this woman
is the one person who might actually have had the capacity to listen
to the girl.

Bordwell sees "Ryu" as being portrayed as a typical good wise
Ozu father at the end of the film, reassuring "Hara" in her plan to
return to an abusive husband and uttering prayers before the shrine of
the now-dead younger daughter."After a film full of ineffectual, cruel
and hapless men, the figure of the stoic, solitary figure is brought
back". But this is precisely wrong. "Ryu" only goes through the
motions of being a good father -- after it is too late to make any
real difference. His devoted attention to his daughter's shrine
contrasts strikingly with his almost complete indifference to her when
she was still among the living.

After having made "icons" of Ryu and Hara as "kind, wise father" and
"dutiful daughter, benevolent sister" respectively in previous films,
Ozu completely undermined those images in "Tokyo boshoku".  Audiences
saw the two in their accustomed roles, doing their "ordinary"
activities, but coming across as clueless and basically unlikeable.
Ozu had pushed his permutation of roles more than a step too far --
and no one was prepared for this.

Ozu never made this mistake again.  In "Higanbana" ("Equinox
Flower") (1958), the role of totally clueless father was given not to
Chishu Ryu but to Shin Saburi (and the undermining of his role was
accompanied by plenty of humor). While, in "Samma no aji" ("Autumn
Afternoon", so miscalled in the US), Ryu does play a somewhat
oblivious father, it is in the context of a generally extremely funny
film.  Hara, in her two remaining roles, was never again shown in a
bad light, but rather needed only to shine forth kindly understanding.

I would suggest that, properly viewed, "Tokyo boshoku" was not
unsuccessful, but rather too successful.  It may not be flawless, but
it realigns the pieces of the "typical Ozu film" in a genuinely
creative and effective (but completely unexpected and unwelcome)
fashion. Richie says of of "Kohayagawa-ke no aki" ("End of Summer",
also so miscalled) that "it is perhaps the only Ozu film in which
there is no spiritual survivor". I would disagree, in that film, Hara
and her younger sister-in-law surely are able to move into the future
on their own terms -- and I don't see the rest of the clan being
utterly bereft either. "Tokyo boshoku", on the other hand, gives no
quarter.  Ryu's selfishness has destroyed the lives of all around him.

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