Yet another one of Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpieces, Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo boshoku) demonstrates the disintegration of family as a structuring and supportive social unit in postwar Japan. It turns Ozu’s exceptionally poignant Late Spring (Banshun, 1949) on its head, suggesting the embittered aftermath of the kind of hopeful marriage with which the earlier film ends, and even further suggesting that the father’s sacrifice in Late Spring, his letting go of the daughter who anchored his life into a life of her own, has turned up empty for them both. (The father in both films is played by Chishu Ryu. In both films the character’s first name is Shukichi—the same name as the characters Ryu plays in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, 1953, and Equinox Flower, 1958.) Rather than drifting apart like floating weeds, the family in Tokyo Twilight is riddled with lies, secrets and spousal abuse behind closed doors. Watching it unfold is an unshakable experience.
Shukichi Sugiyama is a hardworking, middle-aged man whose two daughters, college-age Akiko and her older sister, Takako, are currently living with him in Tokyo. Takako has left her brutal alcoholic husband, whom Shukichi had persuaded her to marry. This is not the only source of regret in Shukichi’s life. When Akiko was an infant, his wife, Kisako, left with another man, a friend of his, abandoning him and their three children. Their son died six years ago. Now Kisako is back in Tokyo with another partner (the man she had run off with died in a prison camp during the war), and Shukichi learns that Akiko is pregnant with her irresponsible boyfriend’s child. Akiko has an abortion. Tragedy follows, further battering the cold, already embittered man’s heart. Takako’s decision to return to her spouse—she will not abandon him as her mother abandoned her father—leaves Shukichi very much alone.
Ozu’s plot—the original script is by him and writing partner Kôgo Noda—is the stuff of melodrama, but the precise dialogue, Ozu’s humanism, and the muted treatment Ozu imparts to the material generate a very different, profoundly affecting result. Father and daughters, although living together, each lead a painfully lonely life. Not even her delightful two-year-old daughter remedies Takako’s conflicted soul, and the discovery of her mother in the neighborhood provokes more bitterness and anguish in Takako, who is more or less the one making the greatest effort to hold together what remains of the family. This effort, doubtless, is unconscious on her part. It is partly motivated by her having (temporarily) broken up her own family by leaving her husband—an action for which she is likely compensating vis-à-vis parent and sibling. It seems that family is no longer something that can be counted on to bring stability to its members; rather, an effort must be made to stabilize it.
This effort—as much as anything else, Akiko’s unmarried pregnancy and abortion signify its futility—is needed to restore a semblance of traditional continuity to lives disrupted and up-heaved by war. To whatever extent the institution of the Japanese family took its orderly patriarchic character from the nation’s dictatorial rule by an emperor, that world has vanished and taken much of the idea of family (in its modern form) with it. Kisako’s abandonment of spouse and children—one wonders: was Shukichi as harsh a husband as Takako’s?—indeed implies that family, even when intact, is little more than a ceremonial façade that carries within its domain the seeds of its own undoing. But above all, because they invited such a close, anguished reconsideration of all familiar institutions, the war, Japan’s defeat and the difficult aftermath of occupation contributed to a more general unraveling of the institution of family. In effect, Tokyo Twilight examines scraps and shards of family, while its title implies a momentous transition—the end of something (including the family as a reliable institution) and, hopefully, the beginning of something else. The film ends not only with Takako’s departure from Tokyo but, also, Kisako’s.
Twilight refers to two lights in the sky, the faded sun after it has set and the moon that is coming into focus. There isn’t a single shot in the film that shows either light, let alone both simultaneously. Rather, the streets, the wharf and the characters’ lives are all permeated by that particular time of day: dusk. Tokyo Twilight is a film of cold, wintry evenings—it is shot in black and white—whose grays and darker grays, untouched by chiaroscuro, are all correlative to souls whose lives are at loose ends and are difficult for them to take hold of. (It is also a film of lonely, dingy meeting-places—bars, mahjong parlors.) Here is one of Ozu’s bleakest films that quite reverses our sensitive expectations based on our familiarity with Japan’s greatest film artist. How many times have we marveled at the intimations of human closeness and connection conveyed by Ozu’s shots of a couple, their backs to the camera, sitting side by side? (These are among Ozu’s signature shots.) In Tokyo Twilight the shot recurs—and Ozu blows it apart. The couple aren’t a pair of old married folk, as in Tokyo Story (1953). Here, they are Akiko and Kenji, her boyfriend, sitting together on the pier, bound together by Akiko’s news that she is pregnant, as the foggy dusk and the sound of moaning foghorns envelop them. Ozu cuts to a frontal view of the couple and cuts back and forth between them as they quarrel, with Kenji (cruelly) even questioning whether he is the father. Kenji abandons Akiko, leaving her seated alone, promising to meet her later at an appointed place to which he never shows up. All this quite undoes what we are used to taking and feeling from the classic Ozu shot of a couple sitting together, where the sweet sadness distilled derives from the transience of even the closest human connection as mortal life is measured against eternity. Here, in Tokyo Twilight, the couple instead falls apart, disintegrates, before our very eyes.
Similarly, shots of people together may end in this film with one lonely figure, after another or others have departed, left alone in the frame. A related poignancy is achieved when Kisako and her partner are seated together on a train which is about to depart Tokyo and, her head out the window, she is hoping against hope that Takako will turn up to say goodbye. We know, and Kisako’s partner tells her, this is not to be.
Tokyo Twilight is brilliantly acted. As Takako, Setsuko Hara gives one of her most complex and richly detailed performances; Ineko Arima is heartbreaking as Akiko; Chishu Ryu, eloquent as the father; Isuzu Yamada, Kenji Mizoguchi’s star of the ’30s, phenomenal—it’s the performance of her career—as Kisako.
Tokyo Twilight is full of thoughts that lie too deep for tears.
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Tags: Yasujiro Ozu