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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Yasujirō Ozu | 東京暮色/Tōkyō boshoku (Tokyo Twlight)


gambling with life

by Douglas Messerli 


Yasujirō Ozu and Kōgo Noda (screenplay), Yasujirō Ozu (director) 東京暮色/Tōkyō boshoku (Tokyo Twlight) / 1957


 Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight of 1957 is one of his darkest and despairing of his works. Here, as in most of his films, the focus is on domestic relationships, but whereas in most of his cinematic depictions people come to a common level signifying open communication, in the Sugiyama home, people come and go with the quick ring the opening door as they sit and stand at various levels or hurry off to their own rooms within.
      Shukichi Sugiyama (Chishū Ryū), a successful banker, lives at home with his youngest daughter, Akiko (Ineko Arima), who has been attending the university but, to his disappointment has decided instead to become an English-language stenographer. She is at the age when, as a grown child, she is testing the limits of her freedom, and, having fallen in love with a fellow student, Kenji, she stays out late each night; in the local bars and gambling parlors she is known as a wild woman.

     Just prior to the beginning of the film’s events, Akiko’s elder, more domestically responsible sister, Takako, has temporarily left her professor husband, Yasuo Numata, and with her toddler daughter has moved back home. She alone seems to care for her father, who gratefully accepts her attentions, although he mostly eats out each evening before returning home.
     In many of the film’s early scenes, we follow both the elder Sugiyama and his youngest daughter through a series of tea houses, bars, and other locations, wherein passing strangers and friends reveal information, both inconsequential and personal, that establishes the context of the drama’s events.

     With a few cinematic strokes Ozu makes it clear that Akiko, seeking out her boyfriend, is pregnant. And we later discover from Sugiyama’s sister, Shigeko Takeuchi (Haruko Sugimura) that Akiko has attempted to borrow money from her, without giving her the reason, which we must presume is for an abortion. 
      When Akiko finally does catch up with her Kenji, he is overwhelmed by what he describes as his bad luck. Although he promises to meet her after he gets off from his job, he never shows up, soon after determining to leave Toyko.
      After waiting for hours in the bar in which Kenji has promised to meet her, obviously a meeting place for a house of prostitution, the young Akiko is taken in by the police for questioning. Takako is called, and arrives at the police station to take Akiko home.
     Takako attempts to keep the news from their father, but he too has been called in their absence, and questions Akiko about both her attempt to get a loan and her arrest. Takako finally succeeds, however, in stopping the questioning, sending the obviously upset Akiko to bed.

     In short, any real attempt to get at the truth is silenced in this house, and neither father nor sister discovers the facts which may better help their troubled family member. Soon after, we observe Akiko at a clinic, having evidently found the proper amount of money to get the abortion. The father accidentally discovers the source when a friend later reveals that he has lent Akiko money.
     Shortly, moreover, we discover another of the family’s secrets. A woman who runs a local mahjong parlor, Kisako Soma (Isuzu Yamada) is asking questions about Akiko, and seems to already know, reports a friend, a great deal about her. Akiko herself visits the parlor and speaks briefly to the woman, who invites her into a private room to talk, Akiko refusing to enter.

      She later reveals her encounter with Kisako to her sister, suggesting that the woman seemed almost like her mother, a woman who she has been told died when she herself was a toddler.
     The family’s busybody aunt confirms to Takako that she has encountered Kisako in a department store. Takako, who knows the true story of her mother’s abandonment of the family for another man, visits the mahjong parlor to demand that Kisako not reveal her identity to her sister.
     But once more, a causal comment by a friend that Akiko’s sister has visited the mahjong parlor leads the younger sister to confront her elder sibling. Takako is forced to reveal the truth, and in anger and believing that her own “bad” ways may have been inherited if she was the daughter of the other man, she seeks out the woman, who takes her to a nearby location where the two can privately talk.
     Their conversation begins with the girl’s insistence to know whether or not Sugiyama is her real father; when Kisako insists that he is, Akiko turns on her chastising her for her abandonment of the family and storms out. 
     Depressed both by the abortion and her encounter with her mother, Akiko retreats to a Chinese noodle shop. When she accidentally encounters Kenji there, he tries to apologize for not showing up in the bar and lies to her about his feelings; Akiko slaps his face and runs from the shop. The owner hears a scream and leaves to find out what has happened while Kenji merely sits alone in self-pity.
     Ozu reveals the rest of his story in a series of sequences with ellipses between them. In the first, Takako and her father sit by the beside of the suffering Akiko, who coming briefly out of a coma, reports that she wants to begin over again and hopes that she will survive. This suggests that the “accident” may have been an attempt at suicide, but Ozu is careful not to definitively tell us what really happened.
     In the second sequence Takako visits her mother to tell her of the death of Akiko and blame her, yet again, for her preference for her lover over the family and maternal responsibilities, leaving the elderly woman alone with the recognition that both of her daughters have suffered for her leaving them. Kisako’s husband, who, having been offered a job elsewhere, has been trying to convince her to join him, and she now tells him that she is ready to go.  
     The third sequence entails a visit to the Sugiyama house by Kisako. Met at the doorway by Takako, she is not invited in, but nonetheless, Kisako gives her condolences and hands over the flowers she has brought, telling her of her intentions to leave by train soon after.
     At the station, Kisako keeps peering out the train window, hoping to be seen off on their voyage by Takako, who never shows up.
     In the last sequence, Takako, finally seated at the same level as her father, tells him of her decision to return home, determined to try to make the relationship work for the same of her own child.
     It is almost, in these last five sequences, that the director were closing off all possible routes of real love and communication for his characters. Perhaps Takako will find a new life with Numata, but we have no evidence for his transformation or that she will find new happiness. 
     Throughout this powerful story, Ozu shows almost all of his characters gambling. When Akiko goes on search of Kenji, she first encounters his classmates illegally gambling in their rooms. Again and again the denizens of the mahjong parlor put their money on the line while claiming they always lose. Later, we observe even the family scion, Sugiyama, sneaking out of his bank office to play the local slots. Akiko and Kisako, quite obviously, have bet their lives against love. So is Takako making a bet that life can be made better through personal sacrifice.

Los Angeles, October 28, 2015


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