I learned to talk Ozu in the baths. Chin-deep in hot spring, lips pruning, my mother and my grandmother would wait for women to walk just out of earshot. Then, they offered their verdicts: Setsuko Hara forehead. Those Kinuyo Tanaka cheeks. Wrists made for slipping out wallets, like hers, oh you know, that actress so good with showing appetite—Haruko, yes, Haruko Sugimura. I should specify that we talked Ozu women—he gave us so many shades—because there really was only one Ozu man: Chishu Ryu, the poet of sighs. That’s not quite true, of course. There are wagons of men in the four decades of his films. But in the waters of Hakone and Atami, my mother and her mother weren’t quite interested in dissecting man or brotherhood. Disrobed, we wanted to get to the heart of things, to the kinds of truths, and un-truths, mothers pass on to daughters. Talking Ozu always quickened this process; in his films, women took care of their secrets. Our eyes half-closed, napes wet, we saw the bathers around us at the angle of his camera: Why would a woman lie? How would we be able to tell?
Lying reflexively—for propriety, for protection, for another person’s sake—is at the core of Tokyo Twilight (1957), his last film in black and white. On the surface, it’s the sorry tale of the Sugiyama sisters: Setsuko Hara is Takako, stuck in an unhappy marriage, while Ineko Arima is Akiko, a student who has an abortion, and eventually commits suicide. It’s also a story about a hapless father (Chishu Ryu) and his faithless wife, a mother who suddenly reappears, after having abandoned him to be with the man that she loves. Those familiar with Ozu will blink a little at this plot description: things happen in this one. Where’s his famed subtlety, the ellipses, the abstraction, and that old nut: things left unsaid? Yes, things happen, and that was the way that Ozu intended it. Before the shoot, Ozu said that for the first time since the war, he wanted to try a dramatic piece, after a long time of making movies that were compilations of observing nothing. “Instead of avoiding drama, I want to grapple with drama head-on,” he said. “The story structure is melodramatic, but I think it’s up to how I do it, whether it’ll end up as a melodrama.”
And what is the melodramatic without its gnarly web of lies? Each Sugiyama lies through her teeth, but as we watch, the fit of the term “melodrama,” with its predictable strings of the soap opera and strained expressions of uninhibited emotion, starts to fall apart. It becomes clear that those in the wrong are less the ones who lie, and more those who aren’t paying attention. Thing is, when you’re busy constructing a front, it’s much harder to recognize the facades of others. Instead of the comfortable, stable distinctions of morality, of good and evil, and the emphasis on the viewpoint of a single victim, Ozu doesn’t let anyone escape the scythe of our judgment, or our compassion. Everyone’s a liar who won’t bother to listen to the people that they love—and he lingers on each face as they register, and shoulder, the consequences. The acute bleakness and power of this film, I think, is that as things happen—with each calamity, each test of mettle, each failure to step up—the film asks whether telling the truth would’ve helped things. Would things be that different even if they’d bothered to be honest with each other? What would that have changed?
Ozu asks these kinds of questions in the form of ordinary objects: apples, teapots, a piece of knitting. In a slight, but remarkable scene, Ryu is listening to his daughter’s marital woes, facing a little stuffed dog, its tail up and perky on a table. He stares at the dog as Hara talks on, and finally he grabs it by the head—as one might grab a roll of toilet paper—and slowly angles it from side to side, examining its stiff, fluffy whiteness. He gets nothing from it. He looks at the dog as though he’d been hoping for a revelation, one that it simply cannot provide. The scene then cuts to a mahjong parlor, where his other daughter, Akiko, is sitting and smoking, wearing a white fluffy sweater, looking numb and bored. We almost don’t need that cut to her—or to that white sweater. Their relationship is already told by the way he had grabbed the dog. What’s more striking is that the white dog appears again and again throughout the film, in odd corners of the frame, a stuffed little sentinel to the family’s sadness. After Akiko’s death, it stands in the left corner of the frame as Hara turns away and sobs, saying that she’ll return to her unhappy marriage. It faces us, its mute, cute white fur providing a still counterpoint to her grief—a reminder that despite all the events, some things do not have the capacity to change.
Tokyo Twilight is very similar in plot to Ozu’s earlier silent film, Woman of Tokyo (1933): a woman, Chikako, lies about her night activities, and therefore, her brother throws himself in front of a train. There’s a scene in it that always haunts me, whenever I watch Tokyo Twilight. In Woman of Tokyo, Chikako’s brother finds out that she had been working in night clubs to fund his college fees. He confronts her, yells, and slaps her three times, and runs out. In his wake, Chikako uncovers a mirror, and kneads away tears. She presses on her cheek, and we see her reflection in the mirror. Chikako confronts the face that she sees, and in the cast of expression on her face—from stricken despair, to resolve—we hear the echo of an earlier title card: “Did I put myself through so many hardships, only to be slapped by you?”
In Tokyo Twilight, women also see their own reflections in a mirror, but it is less clear what they see. The first is Akiko, sitting and brushing her hair, as Takako asks her why she comes home so late. The mirror is outside the frame, and we only see Akiko’s profile as she lies without blinking, focused on her rhythmic brushing: she’s studying at her friend’s house, she says. At the very moment we see her seeing herself, she isn’t showing herself at all. After Akiko dies—moaning that she doesn’t want to die—the story clips on to Takako, in mourning, confronting their mother. “It’s your fault,” she says. Setsuko Hara is most beautiful when she’s ablaze with indignation and blame. She implies that Akiko had killed herself after realizing that she might not be their father’s daughter. With this, the mother decides to leave town, and move to Hokkaido. I’ll be leaving on the 9:30PM train, she tells Takako, with hopeful eyes. We’ll never meet again.
Once at the train station, the mother can’t stop fidgeting, opening the train window and craning out. We see the reflection of her eyes in the enamel paint of the train. “She won’t come, no use looking,” her lover grumbles on the seat next to her, and shuts the window. Undeterred, she takes out a napkin from her breast, and cleans the cloudy window. A possible mirror: but she doesn’t see her reflection. Instead of seeing herself—and the face of a woman who had resolved to live with the decisions she’s made in her life—she sees through the window, at the world outside, looking for what she wants outside of herself. She doesn’t find it. Ozu denies her the relief of self-recognition, and that of a daughter’s forgiveness. There’s no moment of absolution. In the stark, precise horror of this coldness—Tokyo Twilight starts and ends in snow—Ozu is a witness to her face, as she starts to give up. Perhaps we’ll always be dishonest to others, and especially to ourselves, he seems to say—but look at her face. See how it changes.
Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Twilight (1957) is showing November 8 – 14, 2019 at Film Forum in New York.