Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Setsuko Hara: 1920 - 2015

The great Setsuko Hara, director Yasujirô Ozu’s favorite leading lady, passed away today at the age of 95. In her honor, here is a repost of our review of Criterion's release of Tokyo Story from 2013.

Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story from 1953, now available in a superbly packaged Blu-ray edition from Criterion, is a film that subtly captures the dynamics of family life in ways that feel stunningly real. There are moments here of such immediacy and personal truth that it seems impossible for Tokyo Story to be a relic of a bygone age and culture. Yet, due to Ozu’s masterful - one could say otherworldly - powers of observation, this sixty year old glimpse into the unremarkable lives of the Hirayama family presents the human condition with a universality that still rings true in 2013.

Tokyo Story is the final installment of what film scholars call The Noriko Trilogy; three films Ozu made shortly after WWII that feature a female character named Noriko, played by the charismatic Setsuko Hara. However, the films are not narratively continuous and, in fact, Noriko is a different woman, with different circumstances and conflicts, in each picture. Yet the films are tied together by similar themes of quaint family traditions versus the forces of modernity that seek to undo those traditions. The people of Japan may have been traumatized by atom bombs, but in Ozu’s delicate vision, the corporate world and early forms of feminism have wrought the most enduring changes to his nation’s social fabric.

In Tokyo Story, we meet Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishû Ryû and Chieko Higashiyama), a long married couple in their sixties who live a quiet life in the small town of Onomichi. As the film opens, the pair are packing for a long train journey to Tokyo, where they will visit their adult children, who are now busy with careers and families of their own. This expository sequence, which Ozu plays largely for subtle laughs, is complete with a nosy neighbor and a good natured squabble over a missing cushion. But in between the giggles, Ozu manages to establish the Hirayama’s family history and, more importantly, their outsized expectations for this trip. Those expectations are rooted in societal traditions of generational reverence, but those traditions are fading rapidly as Japan’s younger generation rushes to catch up with the Twentieth Century.

Once in Tokyo, the elder Hirayamas get passed from son Koichi (Sô Yamamura), a doctor, to daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), a beauty salon owner, and back again in a game of musical guest rooms. Koichi and Shige have precious few moments to spare for their parents and their visits feature long, restless silences and brief, disinterested conversations. Shige even ships Mom and Pop off to a seaside resort for a few days, but the constant noise of swinging singles in full party mode makes it a hellish stay for the reserved Hirayamas. Once back in Tokyo and again left to his own devices, Shukishi meets up with some old drinking buddies and experiences the sweet oblivion of too much sake, much to the comical alarm of Shige, who leaves her father to sleep it off in a barber’s chair.

Up to this point, Tokyo Story could be considered a gentle, rather modest comedic look at manners and mores in contemporary Japan. However Ozu has much more profound messaging in store. When the Hirayamas visit Noriko (Setsuko Hara), wife of their son Shoji who went missing in the war and is presumed dead, they find a kindred spirit who understands the unspoken purpose of their journey. Throughout the film, Ozu has used Tomi’s brief, bittersweet mutterings as a foreshadow of Tokyo Story’s tragic and transformative final act. The rapid spinning away of one’s time on earth, especially as that time grows ever shorter, is brought from subtext to full blown narrative catalyst, and ultimately all the characters are called to account for their actions. As the Hirayama family reunites for one of life’s most challenging yet inevitable passages, Ozu creates rhythms and moments of such touching clarity Tokyo Story is transported into the rarified realm of the unforgettable.

Experts generally consider Tokyo Story is be Yasujirô Ozu’s overall best film - a task akin to picking out the most beautiful gem in bag of diamonds - and Criterion’s wonderful Blu-ray will augment that reputation. It is a film this reviewer has enjoyed several times over the years, with each screening bringing new and profound facets to the surface. The extraordinary chemistry among Ozu, Chishû Ryû and Setsuko Hara - also found in Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) - reaches its zenith here, delivering an impassioned plea for remembrance and respect. Tokyo Story is really humanity’s story, and a stinging indictment of the myopic selfishness common to all members of the family of man.

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