December 19, 2013
Tokyo Chorus – Japan, 1931
Yasujiro Ozu’s 1931 film Tokyo Chorus is a sweet look at the life of a young man trying to establish himself in the world at a time of economic hardship and approaching catastrophic world events. The film is a combination of the genres that most entertained audiences in Japan at the time of its release. It has elements of a youth comedy in which young men act silly and play jokes on their elders and elements of a family drama, one in which a family must contend with hardship in multiple forms. It also has as its lead character a salaryman, a man whom many people in the audience must have seen themselves, their friends, or their children in. We follow salaryman, Shinji Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), from his days fooling around in school to his days years later working as an insurance agent in Tokyo. The years have done nothing to dampen his rebellious nature. The film’s first act strikes a rather humorous tone, and it is filled with jolly pranksters, secretive co-workers trying to sneak a peak at their colleagues’ bonuses, and a verbal duel involving two men engaged in what appears to be a fan-slamming competition. It then takes on a more serious tone and becomes a film about economic survival. That these distinct genres fit so well together is rather remarkable.
After hearing about a senior employee who has been recently laid off, Shinji decides to confront his boss. His efforts, while noble, only lead to his termination. From here, the film focuses on his efforts to keep his family healthy and content, while trying to secure newemployment. It proves harder than he expected. His situation is worsened by the demands of his seemingly spoiled son Sono Chounan (Hideo Sugawara). Having seen all of friends riding shiny, new bicycles, he has decided that he too must have one, and he’ll accept no substitute. His demands reminded me of the children in Ozu’s later film Good Morning. In that film, two children take a vow of silence until their father buys them a television. Here the boy just screams and wails at the injustice of it all, and it is not as easy to empathize with him, especially given the fact that we know why his father didn’t buy him one. To survive, the family must therefore make some tough decisions, and at one point, Ozu gives his audience an important example of one. He focuses his lens on Shinji’s wife Tsuma (Emiko Yagumo), as she opens her bureau drawers expecting to find her collection of treasured kimonos. Her reaction to the emptiness that greets her speaks a thousand words.
It is a cliché to describe a film such as this one as being about the will to survive and the power of the human spirit, and yet that is exactly what it is. The kinds of events that Sinjo and his family endure are the kinds that indeed try men’s souls and have the potential to cause people to give in to despair. During one such moment, we watch as Tsuma begins to softly weep as she and her family all play a childhood game. It is a bit of foreshadowing that the game involves them sitting close together as a family and finding a way to smile, for this is how they will have to remain if they are to persevere.
The film has been called a family comedy, even though there are far more serious moments in it than comedic, and the performances of its cast have obviously been influenced by later thoughts regarding acting in silent films. Gone are the exaggerated mannerisms that marked the early comedies and dramas of the silent era. In their place are more realistic expressions and hints of actual dialogue being spoken in between intertitles. In other words, it has the look of a modern-day talkie, sans the dialogue.
I mentioned that the film was released not long before the start of World War II. Now, Ozu and the film’s screenwriters, Kogo Noda and Komatsu Kitamura, could not possibly have known that Japan would soon be engaged in one of the most horrendous conflicts of modern history, but I have a feeling that they could sense there was a movement afoot. Perhaps this is the reason that the film’s final act strikes such a somber tone, as the protagonist’s former teacher (Tatsuo Saito), a man who would have lived through the First World War and the trying years that followed, looks at his former students as if their rather joyful rendition of a graduation song is marking their official entrance into an adult world for which they are woefully ill-prepared. It is as if we are watching these characters – so young and full of promise – in their last genuinely innocent moments.
It is true that Ozu made better films, films that compared to this one seem more focused and less repetitive. However, watching this one, I could see evidence of a director that understood the plights of everyday people and knew how to tell their stories. Tokyo Chorus marks a turning point in a career that continues to astound moviegoers, and as such, it is likely required viewing for Ozu’s fans, as well as film buffs curious about the progression of one of film’s most respected directors. More importantly, however, the film is a fun and moving experience. (on DVD as part of Eclipse: Silent Ozu – Three Family Dramas)
3 and a half stars
*Tokyo Chorus is silent with English intertitles.