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Invisible Spectatorship in Tokyo Story (1953)

Invisible Spectatorship in Tokyo Story (1953)

Tokyo Story (1953)

Tokyo Story (dir. Yasujirō Ozu, 1953), a phenomenal film with a simple story framed by Japanese minimalism, tells the story of Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama, a retired couple from Onomichi, south-west Japan, who decide to travel to visit their children in Tokyo.

The film takes a tragic turn when the parents are sent to a hot spring resort after no one seems to have time for them except for their daughter-in-law, Noriko. The misguided decision comes as a result of life’s unpredictability, as Tomi falls ill and passes away. Made almost a decade after the Second World War, Tokyo Story is an introduction to Yasujirō Ozu’s unique style, presenting a story of loss and disenchantment that focuses on the fragility of time and exemplifies Ozu’s distinctive cinematic gaze: low camera angles, 180-degree cuts, overlapping shots, and the absence of camera movements. Ozu’s principal focus throughout is on how ordinary human emotions are portrayed in a changing family — a theme that has grown in importance and relevance over time — and throughout the film, Ozu expertly displays visual stillness, narrative emptiness, and dialogic pauses, largely thanks to his unique visual style (the gaze of the camera), which always conveys more information than the direct narration alone. This opens the door to the spectator to question what it means to be a spectator in the story of Ozu’s carefully crafted masterpiece?

In Tokyo Story, the entire frame represents the gaze and it is Ozu’s central concern. It is the point at which the spectator’s desire is fully realised. Ozu wanted self-aware images that can stand alone, images that take into account our desires; there is nothing else beyond the frame, everything is the shot (which he himself referred to as the “basic unit of construction”). The camera in Tokyo Story is a constant observer — and therefore, by extension, so are we. This is achieved firstly by positioning the camera at a low height and specifically implementing a 50mm lens. The camera positioning around three feet above the floor replicates the perspective of an observer seated on a tatami mat,  connoting the implicit figure of an invisible spectator. Throughout the film, the use of low-angle perspectives and the 50mm lens — the lens closest to our natural sight —invites viewers to feel like a participant in the narrative, providing a means of cinematising reality and drawing us in as active spectators. Ozu does not dictate the gaze of the audience, but instead allows for this active spectator to determine this themselves.However, he does supply the means to ensure we are involved; for example, he places the audience at different angles in the characters’ conversations, so actors frequently appear to directly address the camera — reflecting a sort of cinematic gaze.


While this can be unsettling at first, it provides a sense of familiarity and intimacy with the characters: we are caught in what we see and are unable to separate ourselves from it. When the camera stays in place for longer than is comfortable, we are provided the time to remain in Ozu’s universe, free of the pressures of action or speech and free to think about the space itself, who has occupied it before, and who will occupy it next. These motionless movements provide a soothing rhythm. In the role of spectators, we are given the responsibility of intimate witnesses, attested to the truthfulness of the action, and held partially responsible for the outcome of it. We also meet gaze in cutaway scenes. As the camera lingers for a moment while the characters are out of sight from the familiar surroundings in order to draw attention to the emptiness of the left-over space, the viewer imagines he or she is no longer merely a spectator. The scenes themselves seem as if they are speaking directly to us. This is another way Ozu allows space for reflection, by enhancing the importance of the space the characters live in and inhabit, and by inviting us as spectators to consider our own gaze and relationship with the film.


From a narrative perspective, Ozu anchors the gaze by establishing the couple, Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama, as intrusions not only on their children’s lives but also on the spectator’s. Since the couple shows no desires of their own within the film, they occupy the visible field without contributing to it in any way. In our view, the couple are no longer worthy of compassion but seen from the perspective of their children, who want nothing to do with them. This is what makes the film so exceptional. By showing the elderly couple as a constant presence disrupting the children’s life, Ozu prevents the spectator from feeling sympathy for the couple. The spectator’s desire manifests itself when viewers believe that they can make a difference. This is truly contemplative cinema because it portrays the inevitability of life, but also because viewers can feel it mirrors their own experience.


To Ozu, the gaze is a means of indicating the spectator’s responsibility for structuring what is on screen. By demonstrating the possibility of having a subjective view of the story, he challenges a fundamental aspect of filmic spectatorship. A perfect portrait of Ozu’s Japanese identity and perfectionism, Tokyo Story displays a distinct look that belongs solely to the director. It is a tragic cycle, a story about an aging couple realising that their family no longer needs them. Tokyo Story succeeds in its simplicity. It is a film that delivers a feeling of never intruding, but of simply witnessing the events unfold. Ozu simply wants to look at life and allow us to do the same.

Written for The Film Dispatch by Veronica Silvestre.     




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