Monday, January 26, 2004

Straight Up

Maybe it's because the people I tend to hang with these days (when I'm in the rare mood to hang) are for the most part, merely different shades of jade. Or maybe because with everything else going on in this world it's natural to think about cost and implication first (and second), with wonderment coming in a distant third. But I have to admit I'm both bewitched and bewildered by those recent stunning photographs coming back from Mars.

Yeah in essence all we've been seeing are pictures of rocks. I could go outside my door, take a picture of my backyard and get something similar looking (although my yard really doesn't have that many rocks, Mars doesn't have my weeds, nor have we yet seen any pictures of a dilapidated garage- the kind that sits just outside my kitchen window). Yet it is kinda mind blowing to contemplate how far away those rocks are and where the crystal clear pictures are actually coming from. Never has such a barren landscape looked so beautiful and awe inspiring.

That is unless you plop Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story into your DVD player. Ozu isn't as well known in this country as Akira Kurosawa yet from everything I've read many Japanese consider him their finest filmmaker. Tokyo Story is a definitive example of why this might be.

The movie's story is starkly simple. An elderly couple who live in the country decide to visit their adult children in Tokyo. While there they discover their children have busy lives and don't have much time to spend with them. The couple cut their trip short and upon returning home, the mother becomes ill and dies. The children are thus forced to deal not only with their grief but also some mandatory guilt that they didn't spend more time with their parents when they had the chance.

But Tokyo Story isn't a melodrama (in the Hollywood sense) nor is it an indictment of selfish behavior by the children. What gives the movie some of its absorbing power is that the children are not monsters but recognizable. Being too busy to rearrange schedules was probably as common an occurrence as it was in 1953 Japan as it is in 2004 America. Ozu is able to make his point subtly by showing regular people doing regular people like things. It's human nature to not always appreciate the things we should until it's too late.

What makes this movie transcendental, remarkable, and unforgettable however is Ozu's skillful direction. His transition shots are often of the Japan landscape- rolling trains and fresh laundry hanging on lines and flapping in the wind. For an American viewing the film 50 years after it was made those touches provide a familiarity against a backdrop decidedly foreign. This is a movie shot by a visionary artist- with many of the camera angles being framed low off the ground- the position the couple is seen kneeling throughout the movie- giving it an unmistakable yet indescribable Japanese quality. One can't imagine Ozu's American contemporaries like Hitchcock or Billy Wilder or John Huston making the same movie quite the same way.

Thus this is a foreign movie in every sense of that term. It's not the subtitles, the Japanese landscape, nor the Asian faces that gives this away, it's the way Ozu creates a quiet movie with lots to say- how in the movie's many silent moments he forces the viewer to not only think about what is going on in the story but think about how it applies to human nature in a universal way. Tokyo Story is a great movie- one of the best I've ever seen- not because of any grand statement it makes but because its artistry seeps deep inside and enlightens at the same time as it inspires.

In one of the final scenes, the daughter-in-law, who actually goes out of her way to be kind to the elderly couple, says a farewell to the youngest daughter, who is left to take care of her father. The daughter criticizes the selfishness of her siblings while asking a sad question, "Isn't life disappointing?" And the sympathetic daughter-in-law is forced to admit "Yes it is." It's a heartbreaking scene because you realize the two characters have come to a realization that is quite inevitably apparent the more you travel through this world. The two young women smile at each other and go their separate ways. It's family that brought them together in the first place yet they aren't connected because they are related by blood. Rather they share a common bond because they are the rare who are sensitive enough to understand that selfishness is an all too universal human trait.

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