Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is carefully prepared and visually intricate, but by story standards it is incredibly strait forward. Ozu uses a centralized camera to put the viewer at the center of the dialogue, almost like a kid looking up and observing the adult’s actions and conversations; all carefully framed and paced with stillness and awkward pauses in conversation included. By imposing the limitations of a low angle camera with no tracking shots, Ozu is forced to pack as much information and subtle movement into each frame as possible.
The major factor of Ozu’s style is conveyance. The anxiousness that comes with a family visit is palpable in the opening of Tokyo story. Norikos over exaggerated facial expressions along with her sister in laws cheapness and efforts to get the parents to leave as soon as they come is all too familiar; the tension in the silence is made apparent by the closeness of the space shared by the actors. I will be discussing two scenes in which this minimal framing is crucial to conveyance.
The first being the small fight the Grandparents have at the very beginning over the inflatable cushion. The father swears he gave it to her, and that her memory is going because she is always losing things. He finds it in his belongings shortly, and the mother sits in silent victory. Not only is this a great visual argument, it’s conveying so much information about the characters. The mothers obviously had these arguments before, the smugness isn’t shown on her face but the little victory is palpable. We are introduced to the dynamic of their relationship, and through the children we see all the stages of the relationship.
The other is the sea wall the Old couple sits on, where mother becomes dizzy.
The scene is gorgeous, our two main characters sit on the sea wall in stillness, the shot is almost deliberately cut in half, and the bottom is in darkness that swallows the characters shadows. Too contrast, we have the shimmering ocean stretching away from them. The stillness in the shot makes the wind apparent as it ruffles the hot springs guest robes. We can see the clothing ripple and watch them pay close attention to their balance while still braving the potential fall for the sake of the view. Which leads to mother’s dizziness, and one of the only shots of pure foreshadowing in the film. As mother attempts to stand up on the sea wall she collapses kneeling in front of her husband. The father explains it away as mother has just had bad sleep, but then we cut to two smoke stacks belching black smoke. It is the only instance in the movie where smoke stacks are blowing black smoke and it is clearly overshadowing mother’s health.
Ozu’s conveyance is what makes his movies so powerful. This ability to so say so much, to deliver stories within stories through subtle gestures and literal windows, is what justifies the somewhat grinding pace of the film. The small moments that seem arbitrary at first amount to a bigger picture that shows the theme steadfastly through out the whole film.