Tender restraint: Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight (1957)
Tender restraint: Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight (1957)
published online at senses of cinema issue 90 (march 2019)
A man’s hat left forgotten on a wall hook in a laneway izakaya; a bottle of whisky lit by lamplight on a desk piled with mountains of books; a plume of steam rising from the spout of a metal teapot; the consistent motion of a pendulum in a grandfather clock – these objects and moments exist in the margins of the action of Yasujirō Ozu’s final black-and-white film, Tōkyō boshoku (Tokyo Twilight, 1957). Through the lens of cinematographer and Ozu’s frequent collaborator Yūharu Atsuta, these uninhabited compositions possess a poetic significance that gestures towards the themes that underpin the film’s narrative: abandonment, loneliness, neglect and the passage of time. Taken together, they encapsulate the Zen sensibility of mono no aware that forms the basis of Ozu’s cinema. Loosely translated as the “awareness of mujo or the transience of things and a bittersweet sadness at their passing,” the mood of mono no aware in Tokyo Twilight departs from the gentle recognition of the melancholia of the everyday in Ozu’s films to an uncharacteristic bleakness. Touching on subjects as distressing as suicide, abortion, alcoholism and abuse, Ozu’s story of a father (Chishū Ryū) and his two adult daughters, Takako (Setsuko Hara) and Akiko (Ineko Arima), marks the filmmaker’s entry into a darker terrain.
It is for this reason that Tokyo Twilight has rarely featured in sustained critical analyses of Ozu’s oeuvre, with critics such as Robin Wood referring to the film as “the one nobody wants to talk about.” In many respects, the legacy, or lack thereof, of Tokyo Twilight is much like the silent presence of the objects in the transitional shots throughout the film that are seen but largely left unacknowledged. Although Ozu maintains his directorial style – encapsulated in his trademark low-angle framing and eschewal of pans, dissolves and other cinematic trickery – along with his thematic interest in intergenerational family dynamics, the turn to “darker images as well as an unusually serious narrative” resulted in the poor reception of Tokyo Twilight upon its release and it later being regarded by Ozu as a failure. David Bordwell attempts to contextualise the perceived problems with the film and writes that the “frankly melodramatic materials and devices clash with the Ozuian penchant for suggestion and abstract structure.” This suffusion of melodrama with melancholia as a key distinguisher of Tokyo Twilight is further heightened by the tangible feeling of coldness that is borne out in the film’s wintery setting. Shots of the bare branches of trees and characters bundling themselves in clothing and blankets to stay warm serve as a counterpoint to the films Ozu made with autumn, spring or summer as their background.
Although the renewal promised by the changing of the seasons in his other films is notably absent here, Ozu was nonetheless using Tokyo Twilight as a vehicle to change perceptions. Prior to its release, he claimed that “the true flavour of the Ofuna-cho [home drama] will be found in this film.” Paradoxically, Tokyo Twilight is arguably one of Ozu’s most restless films, wherein the familiarity of domestic scenes is replaced by the desperately itinerant movements of Akiko as she attempts to find her errant boyfriend, Kenji (Masami Taura), in Tokyo’s mahjong parlours, noodle shops, laneway bars and late-night cafés. This view of the city is one in which the characters wear face masks as protection from its contamination, men are arrested for stealing women’s underwear and anti-prostitution laws are enacted. The setting of a ‘home drama’ predominantly within the seedy textures of Tokyo’s industrial topography can be interpreted as Ozu’s comment on the fracturing of the Japanese family in the aftermath of the Second World War. Indeed, an anxiety around the structure of the family is established early in the film when Takako leaves her abusive, alcoholic husband with her daughter to move back in with her father and Akiko.
However, it is Akiko’s transgression of falling pregnant outside of wedlock that traces the film’s emotional fault line. Throughout the film various characters label her “delinquent,” as having gone “astray,” “decadent” and “a wild one”; even her sister, although unaware of Akiko’s pregnancy, states that Akiko’s withdrawnness is because “she grew up without a mother’s love. That’s why she is lonely.” From this perspective, crisis in the film is prefigured through the absence of Takako and Akiko’s mother (Isuzu Yamada), who left when they were children. Despite the infractions of his female characters, Ozu does not bear witness as a judge, but rather opens up a space through which to negotiate complex notions of feminine and maternal identity. Specifically, the film is sensitive to the manner in which the speed of modernity does not necessarily free the female characters from conventional gender expectations, even though they have the capacity to move beyond the domestic sphere. As Joan Mellen contends, “Ozu’s women, young and old, sooner or later, discover that romantic love is a luxury few can afford.” This is particularly realised in a line from Takako and Akiko’s aunt, “What on earth are young people thinking these days? Hurry and marry [Akiko] off.” Akiko’s uneasy traversal of modern Tokyo is bound by the inalterable traditions of the past.
This tension between the past and the present is conveyed in the film through the ambiguity of twilight, which is poised between the fading sun of the day and the deepening darkness of night. Although Tokyo Twilight is one of Ozu’s gloomier films, pushing further into melodrama than his other works, it still retains his tender restraint. When the characters break down in tears, Ozu does not exploit their emotions, but quietly observes them. In Kogi Tanaka’s mid-length documentary Talking with Ozu (1993), German filmmaker Wim Wenders aligns Ozu’s work with the creation of “a universal language.” Although Tokyo Twilight has been consigned to the boundaries of his oeuvre, it remains true to the overriding sentiments of Ozu’s cinema: empathy and acceptance.
Image: Film still from Tokyo Twilight, dir. Yasujirō Ozu
 Adam Mars-Jones, Noriko Smiling (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011), p. 14.
 Robin Wood, “Notes Toward a Reading of Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo Boshoku),” Cineaction 63 (2004): p. 57.
 Woojeong Joo, The Cinema of Ozu Yasujiro: Histories of the Everyday (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2017), p. 194.
 David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (London: BFI, 1988), p. 339.
 Yasujirō Ozu, quoted in Donald Richie, Ozu (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 241.
 Joan Mellen, “Late Ozu, Late Naruse,” Film Quarterly, 61.4 (2008): p. 30.