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Ozu in San Francisco

Kaori Miyashita Takatsuji
Translated by Yoriko Yamamoto

Twenty-one years ago, I traveled to San Francisco to attend a retrospective of Yasujiro Ozu’s films commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. At that time, I was living alone in Tokyo while working at the art museum of my alma mater, Tama Art University, where I studied film under Sakumi Hagiwara.1

I was nineteen when I watched Tokyo Story for the first time, on a videotape with my friends who were seniors at the university and owned a VHS player (I bought the tape at WAVE in Roppongi2). I had moved from the southern part of Japan, the city of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture. In the beginning I chose to live right by the university, which, even in Tokyo, is far from a metropolitan area and feels like the countryside. There was nothing in my neighborhood. I missed my family, especially my parents, and my hometown. That is probably one of the reasons I liked Tokyo Story.

All images are film stills from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, courtesy of Janus Films and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which just hosted its own Ozu retrospective, Yasujiro Ozu: The Elegance of Simplicity.

I’d loved movies since I was young, so I knew Ozu’s name. But I was shocked by the vivid story that revealed the raw feelings of a family against the backdrop of a changing post-war Japanese society — this was hardly a heartwarming story, despite the packaging of the videotape: a lovely image of Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara standing by the stone lantern, a very famous photo for this movie. The seniors were shocked that I cried at the end of the movie! I was so moved.

Since then, I have been intrigued by Ozu’s films and the ways in which they document the shifts in family values and the collapse of the patriarchy in post-war Japan. I even wrote my thesis on them: “Observing the Changing Family Dynamic in Japan through Ozu’s films.”

It was a joy to stay with my friend Yoriko, and her husband Ari, in their Mission District apartment, while watching three films, Early Summer (1951), The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952), and Tokyo Story (1953), at the historic and beautiful Castro Theatre. My only previous travel outside of Japan was to Korea, where there was no time difference. I vividly remember feeling disoriented and unexpectedly tearful from the jet lag... it was quite shocking. I was impressed by the vast ocean landscape during the drive from SFO to the city. Dates and yogurt were exceptionally delicious. I remember a stranger at a bus stop who casually and kindly struck up a conversation with me out of the blue.

I wanted to watch Ozu’s films in San Francisco because I wanted to experience firsthand how American audiences would perceive the classics of Japanese cinema from half a century ago. Reflecting on it now, twenty-one years ago I had no idea about Ozu’s global acclaim. Back then, I couldn’t fathom how feelings toward family members could be universally touching, despite the stories being set in the mundane domestic scenes of 1950s Japan, with images of tatami mats, chabudai (low dining tables), kimonos, or ochazuke (tea over rice).

What I particularly remember is the atmosphere of joy among audience members during the moderately filled screening of Tokyo Story. People laughed and got angry at various scenes, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of watching a comedy film. Until then, I had the impression that Ozu’s films were grave monochromatic works only shown in cinematheques in Ginza and discussed by notable film critics. (There was a famous movie theater, Namikiza [1953-1998] that exclusively showed domestic and international classical movies; Ginza is renowned for its appreciation of anything old and traditional, its taste for uniqueness, and its passion for luxury items — it’s a truly exclusive district.) The reactions I experienced in the Castro were fascinating. Tokyo Story tells the story of a retired couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), who travel from western Japan to Tokyo to visit two of their children and their daughter-in-law, whose husband — their son — is presumed dead in the war. Their eldest daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimura), runs a beauty salon out of her home and doesn’t have much time for her mother. In one scene, Tomi is about to leave for the public bath and Shige says, “Mom, why don’t you wear my dirtier sandals there?”

There was a murmur in the audience, “Oh, how mean...,” and even someone whispered, “...Bitch!” Yes! I thought so, too! Later I learned that Shige might have suggested this simply to prevent theft of footwear, that there was no other intention. Really? Nevertheless, Haruko Sugimura’s excellent performance as a bitch is memorable. I recently rewatched Tokyo Story to write this essay. During the family dining scene after Tomi’s funeral, Shige tells Shukichi, “Father, please take care of yourself.” When he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, Shige confides in her siblings, “Well, I would prefer it if our father died first. When Kyoko [the youngest sister who lives with Shukichi] gets married and leaves the house, we will have so much responsibility.” I couldn’t help but laugh at her blunt honesty, which I believe resonates with many of us.

Kitakyushu Film Circle Council, where I work currently, celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2013, a decade after my San Francisco trip. Because it coincided with the hundred and tenth anniversary of Ozu’s birth, we organized a commemorative event in which we invited silent film pianist Mie Yanashita to accompany a screening of Ozu’s prewar silent film A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) in Kitakyushu. In 2023, the hundred and twentieth anniversary of his birth, the fashion brand BEAMS released tote bags and T-shirts printed with illustrations of Ozu’s portraits and famous scenes from his films. The broadcasting service WOWOW aired remakes of six of Ozu’s early silent films set in contemporary times, directed by upcoming filmmakers, in an omnibus drama format. It seems that commemorative projects both at home and abroad every decade are becoming increasingly active artistically and commercially, making Ozu far from being a forgotten filmmaker born a long time ago. As Ozu himself said, “What is eternal remains always new.”

When I revisit Tokyo Story as a fifty-plus-year old, the sadness of the separation between the father and his daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), pierces my heart, and tears well up again. Unlike the couple’s actual children in Tokyo, Noriko makes time for the elderly couple, seeing them as more than just one more thing to attend to in overly busy lives. Now, both Noriko and Shukichi will be alone.

Eight years after the war, although it is incredibly painful for Shukichi to lose Noriko, he hopes she will find happiness by remarrying. After she confides in him, “I feel like I can’t stay like this forever,” he hands her Tomi’s keepsake wristwatch and emphasizes for the first time that he feels her to be his true daughter, a sentiment Noriko clearly shares.  

Behind this simple exchange of dialogue, I felt the strength of their love for each other. It was a sublime scene for me.

Perhaps “it can’t be helped”— this is a line Shukichi utters an abundance of times in the film. I might have missed this repetition if I hadn’t gone to an English-speaking country and read the subtitles. It was a revelation: I felt that these lines symbolized life’s uncontrollable sentimentality — they reflect the impermanence that pervades the entire world of Tokyo Story.

Ozu’s films are loved worldwide, needless to say. But the experience of watching Tokyo Story in 2003 at the Castro Theatre, where all the audience members shared their hearts, is unforgettable for me.

1. Translator’s note: Renowned in Japan, Sakumi Hagiwara is a contemporary director, cinematographer, theater producer, and professor.
2. Translator’s note: WAVE, most prolific in the eighties and nineties, was one of Japan’s most avant-garde and fashionable sound and visual art cultural hubs. It had a cafe, bookstore, mixing studio, screening room, and etcetera.

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