Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review - Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family

February 20, 2014

Brothers and Sisters of the Toda FamilyJapan, 1941

In the opening scene of Yasujiro Ozu’s moving 1941 film, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, a rather wealthy family is preparing to take their first picture together in quite some time, and the atmosphere couldn’t be more joyful. In-laws reminisce about their entrance into the family, and there are generally smiles and expressions of good will all around. The preparations complete, the family sits for their picture – all but the youngest son, Shojiro (Shin Saburi), who at that moment is sitting in his room in a house robe, utterly preoccupied with his own activities. For a moment, it seems as if he deems it completely acceptable to appear in the picture in that exact attire, and, from that, we immediately understand the kind of person he is – somewhat spoiled and lacking direction in life, yet quick when motivation strikes. Some time later, the family patriarch and matriarch sit together and reflect upon their day. There was the picture, the lunch afterwards with its savory dishes, and the soothing music and colorful flowers in the park that they walked through in the late afternoon. It was a perfect day. It is also the patriarch’s final one with the family he worked so hard to provide for.

Like Ozu’s later films, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family reveals the fragile nature of culture and family ties, depicting them as largely depending on there being a figure strong enough to keep everyone on the same path. In many families, this figure is either the mother or father, but in some Asian families, this figure can be harder to pin down. Sometimes there are two maternal figures in the same household – a grandmother and a daughter-in-law. There may also be a father and a grown son under the same roof. In such situations, there can be uncertainty surrounding just who the decision-maker in the family is, and this can cause there to be friction.

In Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, the father’s death sets off a chain of events that ultimately culminate in a dereliction of filial duty. After the family is forced to sell the family home, Mrs. Toda (Ayako Katsuragi), as well as her youngest daughter, Setsuko (Mieko Takamine), moves in with her eldest son and his wife. The arrangement is met with disapproval almost immediately, and a game of one-upmanship begins, as Mrs. Toda’s daughter-in-law sets out to assert her authority, which, in the process, diminishes her mother-in-law’s. This is the beginning of a year of disappointment for Mrs. Toda and Setsuko, as they shuttle from home to home and experience letdown after letdown, all the while being told in no uncertain terms that they are merely guests – and not very wanted ones at that.

Like Ozu’s other films, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is filled with memorable, revealing moments that have an amazing sense of realism to them. In one scene, we watch as memories of seemingly inconsequential events flood Shojiro’s mind after his father’s death, and we watch as he mentally contrasts the man he has become and the man he feels his father wanted him to be. There’s also a fascinating conversation between Setsuko and her childhood friend Tokiko (Michiko Kuwano) over Setsuko’s sudden desire to work and the difference between being the daughter of an employee and the daughter of an employer, and there’s also the heartfelt exchange between Setsuko and Shojiro after Setsuko’s fiancé ends their engagement. His most important message to her: Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you aren’t alone. Of course, there are also exchanges revealing a level of bitterness, division, mean-spiritedness, and overall lack of concern, all of which is somewhat shocking. In one of them, Setsuko is told of the shame her sister would feel if she ever saw her working. In addition, throughout the film, we are reminded of the classism that can exist in places in which there is such a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots. It is as if Ozu is opening the curtains on a darker side of human nature and revealing a series of rather unpleasant truths.  

Having said that, I should also say that Brothers and Sisters of the Todo Family is not as polished as Ozu’s later films. It contains some slightly jarring jumps in time, and it is not always easy to pin down the dynamics of the Toda family. The film has also not been as well preserved as other Ozu films. From the copy of the film that I have, it is clear that the film is in dire need of restoration, as signs of age and deterioration appear throughout it. There are also significant sound problems, as well as occasionally frustrating translation errors. In short, viewers used to watching Criterion Collection versions of Ozu’s films may be disappointed with how the film looks. However, I doubt they will have the same feelings about the film itself. The film has a superb cast, in particular, Saburi, Takamine, and Katsuragi. More importantly, it succeeds at stirring strong emotions and creating deep empathy and serious resentment for some of its characters, and viewers will likely be impressed by the man that Shojiro has become by the end of the film. Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is indeed a film that is worthy of being discovered. (on DVD in Asia)

3 and a half stars

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