top of page
  • John Barr

Tokyo Story : Looking Without Trying to Prove Anything

Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 film Tokyo Story regularly appears near the top of lists of the best films ever made. Tokyo Story is one of a series of films that Ozu made between 1932 and 1962, all of which share common (often identical) themes and even identical storylines, all of which observe the family as it operates both internally and as part of a wider society, and all of which are located in Tokyo. This body of work, taken as a whole, provides a wider Tokyo Story; it provides an insight into life in Tokyo during the period when Japan wrestled with the arrival of western Modernism…

Just to Look Without Trying to Prove Anything

Just to look without trying to prove anything is a phrase used by the German film director Wim Wenders in his 1985 film Tokyo Ga,1 in which he visits Tokyo for the first time, in search of the city that he has previously understood through Ozu’s films. In using this phrase Wenders recognises Ozu as an observer, a witness, rather than a polemicist. Of course Ozu has creative and editorial control over his films and those things are never disinterested or neutral; he chooses what to show us, especially in his interiors, which are almost always shot in the studio and are therefore stage sets constructed to Ozu’s requirements. That accepted, if Ozu has a hidden agenda then it is well hidden and, unless he is deliberately misleading us, we can relax and simply absorb a slice of life in Tokyo during the period covered by these films. In his films from 1933 onwards Ozu has been criticised for representing only one part of Japanese society, the bourgeois middle class. However, this suits our purpose, as the reduction of variables helps us to understand what has varied over time. This approach, coupled with Ozu’s frequent repetition of theme, storyline and even characters, makes these films ideal as a vehicle for observing social and physical changes over the period. Because we study the same section of society and revisit the same scenes featuring the same characters in the same situations we can directly compare what has changed from one film to the next, and date these changes. Ozu himself said: I don’t make anything other than tofu. Tofu, of course, has no strong flavour (some would say it is bland) but it provides a reliable base for other additions, another ingredient, a highlight (soy sauce, dried bonito flakes, grated radish, grated ginger, sliced spring onion, a spot of wasabi). These are the variable elements that add flavour. As the novelist Osamu Dazai writes in his short story, Female : This is where we sprinkle in the atmosphere of the times.2

I was Born But… (1932)

I was Born But… is a silent film from 1932, just a year before publication of Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki’s essay In’ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows), in which Tanizaki writes of the Japanese woman, specifically the Japanese housewife: Most of her life was spent in the twilight of a single house, her body shrouded day and night in gloom, her face the only sign of her existence.3

The wife from I was Born But...

Her body shrouded day and night in gloom, her face the only sign of her existence.

This is the world of the housewife that Ozu shows us in 1932 but, outside the home, the world is changing. We see the husband and children in this outer world, going to work and school, socialising and interacting with other men and children. We see them engaging with western technology (the car, the film camera). We see them in western clothes. But we never see the wife in anything other than traditional Japanese dress and we never see her outside the home or engaged in anything other than household chores. When the husband attends a home-movie evening at his boss’s house the children also attend but not the wife. It is not clear if she ever leaves the house as we see tradesmen and delivery boys bringing goods and services to the door. Her life appears to consist of cooking, cleaning, mending clothes and running the household.

The house itself is sparsely furnished. We recognise the traditional elements of Japanese architecture: tatami, shoji, fusuma. There is little else and no furniture beyond a small brazier and a couple of low tables, one for general use (eating, drinking and conversation between the husband and wife) and one to act as a study desk for the children. Although this is a middle-class family where the husband is a white-collar worker in an office job it is apparent that they are not wealthy.

The house is sparsely furnished.

By contrast, the husband’s employer is wealthy, lives in a western style* mansion and, when relaxing, sports exaggeratedly western clothing while he pursues western pastimes (tennis on his private tennis court). Of the films under discussion here, this is the most overtly political in its social commentary and in this respect follows a pattern established in Ozu’s earlier films but not noticeable in his subsequent films. The political commentary in the film is directly expressed and I will return to describe it later.

* The architecture is not yet modern but is typical of the Teikan Style promoted by the Japanese government at that time (see post dated July 6 2017, Two Houses : Part One).

The husband visits his boss at his western-style mansion, complete with tennis court.

Late Spring (1949)

Ozu is rarely nostalgic or backward looking. His ageing characters may express regret at changes in society but generally accept these as an inevitable and necessary part of life. A phrase commonly adopted by his elderly characters is: We shouldn’t ask for too much. Unusually then, Late Spring opens with idyllic scenes of a traditional temple compound and young women in kimono attending a tea ceremony class, and towards the end has a scene where two elderly male characters review life from the verandah overlooking the Zen Rock Garden at Ryōanji in Kyoto. The fact that these scenes are a departure from the norm raises the question as to why Ozu has chosen to include them, as the locations themselves add little to the surface storyline.

The film opens with idyllic scenes from a temple compound and young women in kimono attending a tea ceremony class.

On the eve of his daughter's wedding they take a last trip together and visit Kyoto, where the father reviews life from the verandah overlooking the Rock Garden at Ryōanji.

The film was released in 1949, just four years after Japan’s defeat at the end of WWII and with Japan still under allied (principally American) occupation. In these circumstances it seems possible that Ozu wishes to demonstrate that, whilst the West has superior technology and Japan, as Tanizaki had written, must accept and adopt that technology in order to prosper, Japan, particularly in relation to the USA, has a more ancient and superior culture. Or perhaps he wishes to give comfort to his audience: Japan may have been defeated and be under occupation but, despite these disasters, the soul of the nation is intact in its cultural heritage.

Sandwiched between these scenes of traditional Japanese culture at the beginning and end of the film we have one of Ozu’s recurring themes** : that of the widowed father (or in the case of Equinox Flower the widowed mother) who has an unmarried adult daughter living at home and taking care of him. He is torn between his inevitable loneliness if he lets her go and his desire to secure a happy future for her.

** Late Spring (1949), Equinox Flower (1958), An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

In comparison with the family home in I was Born But… the family home here, whilst still displaying the traditional elements of tatami, shoji, fusuma, is considerably brighter and better furnished, including items of western furniture, although we never see anyone using the latter, leading us to suspect that they have been bought for style rather than utility – a departure from the circumstances shown in I Was Born But... where every item in the home is utilised.

The home is brighter and better furnished and we see some items of western furniture, but these do not appear to be used.

Ozu also shows us scenes from downtown Tokyo, where large western-style office and commercial buildings, each filling a city block, have begun to replace low-rise, fine-grained, mixed-use neighbourhoods.

Downtown Tokyo, where city-block sized commercial buildings have begun to replace fine-grained, mixed-use neighbourhoods.

Early Summer (1951)

The family home in Early Summer is similar to that in Late Spring but there are noticeable differences and these are introduced from the very beginning of the film. In the opening shot an elderly man sits cross-legged on the floor, apparently preparing green tea. Although he is surrounded by the usual elements of traditional Japanese architecture (tatami, shoji, fusuma) he is dressed in western clothes and sits on a western-style carpet surrounded by western-style furniture and artefacts. There is considerably more clutter than in the houses featured in earlier films.

Making green tea whilst dressed in western clothes and seated on a carpet laid over tatami mats.

Three-generation family: grandparents, mother, son and unmarried aunt (the father's sister).

The father is absent at work.

The grandmother and mother wear traditional dress whilst the unmarried aunt and the males wear western dress.

In the next shot we see the family members eating together and it becomes apparent that the man is the grandfather in a three-generation household. In his earlier films Ozu oscillates between depictions of the three-generation family and the nuclear family but this is the last occasion in which he portrays a three-generation family living together in the same house. At the end of the film the grandparents move out and go to live with an elderly relative in the country and this introduces two themes:​

  1. The rupture of the traditional family, at least in Tokyo, where the city becomes the domain of the younger, working generation and there is no longer a place for the older, retired generation – a physical retreat of the older generation from the modern city.

2. The tendency for the elderly to return to tradition, as presaged in Late Spring, when

the two elderly male characters visit the Rock Garden at Ryōanji – an emotional

retreat of the older generation from modern life.

The grandparents move to the country; a physical and emotional retreat from the city and modern life.

Ozu illustrates the other side of this coin with scenes of modern office blocks in Tokyo and the younger generation who work there, represented by the unmarried daughter.

The unmarried daughter as modern woman doing modern work in a modern office block in the city.

Tokyo Story (1953)

The themes explored in Early Summer are continued and expanded in Tokyo Story. The film opens with the elderly parents packing their bags in preparation for a trip to Tokyo to visit their adult children who have moved there from their provincial hometown. As the film unfolds it is evident that the children are too preoccupied with their own busy, work-dominated lives to spend time with their parents, who are bounced between their son and daughter before finding some refuge with their daughter-in-law, whose husband (their son) is still ‘missing presumed dead’ eight years after the war. The daughter-in-law spends more time with them than do their own children and welcomes them as a last link with her dead husband. Eventually they are relieved to return home, pleased to have seen their children and grandchildren ‘one last time’. They know they will never return to Tokyo, understanding that it is a place where they do not fit.

Ozu also introduces a different aspect of Tokyo in this film. Our first view of it is not of grand buildings of government or commerce but of smoke stacks and factories, illustrating Japan’s post-war drive to re-establish itself as the industrial and technological equal of the western powers. The main characters have not been born and raised in Tokyo, they have been drawn there as part of the rapid urbanisation that accompanied Japan’s ramping up of industrial production and although they are middle-class (the son is a doctor) their living conditions are cramped and run down in comparison to those enjoyed by the families featured in the earlier films noted above, or indeed by the parents back in their hometown.

Tokyo as the industrial engine of Japan's recovery, pulling in labour from all over the country.

Both the son and daughter run their businesses from their respective homes, the son as a doctor, the daughter as a hairdresser. The daughter-in-law is an office worker for a small trading company. They all struggle financially. This is the Tokyo of migrants, drawn to the city by temptation or necessity, and supporting the burgeoning economy through their own efforts.

Most of our time is spent in two households, that of the son, his wife and their two boys and that of the widowed daughter-in-law. The son’s house is cramped and run down. There is clutter everywhere but no evidence of luxuries, consumer goods or labour-saving devices, just piles of boxes, books and clothing. The house struggles to contain its four occupants and the boys complain at having to accommodate their grandparents when they visit, causing further tensions. The house is crammed together with others but there is a sense of neighbourhood and community and mutual support.

The doctor son runs his surgery from the house. He is often called out, even on his day off.

His wife runs the household and also acts as his receptionist and assistant.

The house struggles to contain its occupants.

The daughter-in-law’s flat is modelled on the Dojunkai apartments built in the 1920’s (see post dated October 12 2018, Dojunkai Apartments) and is also rather run down. Single-room apartments open off a wide corridor that gives access to communal washing facilities. Again there is a sense of community and mutual support, with the corridor serving as the neighbourhood street. We see cabinets, empty bottles, wash basins stored here, a tricycle suggests that children play here, the daughter-in-law borrows a bottle of sake and a serving flask from her neighbour in order to entertain her parents-in-law. She has no kitchen and their meal is delivered from a local restaurant.

Apartment block modelled on Dojunkai apartments.

Corridor as street and a sense of community.

The daughter-in-law borrows a bottle of sake from her neighbour.

Entertaining the in-laws. The sake and flask are borrowed; the meal is ordered in from a local restaurant.

Good Morning (1958)

Two identical scenes suggest that the location of the houses featured in Good Morning is the same as, or very close to, the location of the doctor son’s house in Tokyo Story. In both scenes an elderly grandmother stands on top of the large grassy dyke that sits behind the houses as she gazes out over the river that flows on the other side of it. Such dykes are common along riverbanks in Japan but, given Ozu’s use of repetition, the clear implication is that both scenes are set in the same neighbourhood. The houses in Good Morning are modest but new, and arranged in a regular grid that suggests modern planning techniques rather than the more casual, incremental growth of the old neighbourhood. A sense of community still prevails, with housewives and children going in and out of each other’s homes all the time to borrow or to exchange gossip or, in the case of the children, to watch television in the one house that has it. In these ways the new neighbourhood of Good Morning is similar to the old neighbourhood of Tokyo Story but in other ways it is different.

Top image from Tokyo Story; bottom image from Good Morning.

By setting the same scene Ozu places us in the same neighbourhood but at different times.

Families no longer run businesses from home; the wives stay at home and the husbands commute to work in offices. The house interiors are smart and modern. Whilst they retain the familiar elements of tatami, shoji, fusuma, they also feature modern kitchen units, coordinated furnishings, modern colour schemes and an overall sense of having been ‘designed’. The wives talk of washing machines, who has one, how could they have paid for it, perhaps it’s being bought in instalments… The boys talk of television and sneak off to the one house in the neighbourhood that has one when they should be studying. Ozu is recording the separation of work and home and the replacement of the producer society of Tokyo Story with the corporate consumer society of Good Morning.

Housewives drop in and out of each other's homes, to borrow, to gossip, to talk of washing machines.

Children congregate in the one household that has a television, that belonging to a young couple with no children but with the latest in consumer goods and fashion.

The young couple have a bed rather than futon and she wears a western-style housecoat most of the day, only dressing to go out. She is the object of gossip amongst the other wives.

The apartment block typology is also revisited and, in a similar treatment to that used for the houses, the apartment block in Good Morning appears as a newer, smarter version of the one that appears in Tokyo Story. The large, wide corridor remains but it is no longer a neighbourhood street full of empty bottles and children’s toys. It has become a straightforward, empty corridor with the trappings of modern technology and regulation, featuring fire extinguishers and fire hose cabinets. And the apartments that it serves are no longer single rooms reliant on communal facilities; they are self-contained units with ‘designed’ interiors similar to the houses described above.

Top image from Tokyo Story; bottom image from Good Morning

A newer, smarter version of the apartment block.

Top image from Tokyo Story; bottom image from Good Morning

The street replaced by the corridor and fire escape.

The occupant of the featured apartment is a young bachelor who lives with his older sister, and Ozu introduces a love-interest sub-plot between his character and the unmarried sister who lives with the principal family of the storyline (sister to the husband in this family). These two characters are dressed and styled like characters in Hollywood films of the era. The bachelor works as an English translator and we see skis propped just inside the door of the apartment, all suggestive of a more western lifestyle.

Note the skis and cane chair. This same chair appears many times in Ozu's films of this era.

The English speaking eligible bachelor, who skis and has Hollywood looks.

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

Ozu’s last film, and his last depiction of Tokyo, opens with a view of a huge industrial complex, much bigger and more modern than depictions of industry in previous films. This is followed by various scenes of an increasingly modernised, commercialised and neon-signed Tokyo. Two years before the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and the opening of the first bullet-train line between Tokyo and Osaka, we are left in no doubt that we have entered the era of Tokyo as major industrial and commercial modern city.

Modern Tokyo: Industrial, commercial, neon-lit.

Whereas characters in earlier films struggled to support themselves through their own efforts (Tokyo Story) or were sometimes unemployed (Good Morning) we seem to see a Tokyo of full employment, but at a price. The actor who played the part of the eligible bachelor in Good Morning is now married. A bit older and jaded, he lives with his wife in an apartment block but, where the apartment block of Good Morning appeared to be in a relatively central location, this one is clearly located on the outskirts of the city on vacant land on the far side of the railway tracks from an area of old, run-down houses and shacks. His lifestyle is that of the salaryman; he works long hours for the company six days a week and on his day off is too exhausted to do anything other than lie in his apartment. His aspirations are limited to playing golf, but he can’t afford even to buy some second-hand clubs from a friend and will never use them anywhere other than a driving range.

The apartment block on the outskirts of the city.

The salaryman husband arrives home with some second-hand golf clubs that he has agreed to buy from a friend. He has not yet payed for them and his wife tells him to return them as they can't afford such luxuries. He does eventually buy them, but only with money borrowed from his father.

His father’s circle, who are now in middle or senior management positions in large corporations, enjoy the lifestyle to which he aspires, with membership of the golf club and pleasant houses, although these are also on the outskirts of the city.

The father visits a friend's house where they play Go while drinking imported whiskey.

Note the golf clubs and golf balls left casually in the hallway. These are men who can afford to play golf. These are men who have membership of a golf club.

Note the miniature television. This is the technologically advanced Japan, although the architecture of the bourgeois house is traditional.

In his previous films Ozu rarely shows us the wider context for his characters’ homes, preferring tight shots or, generally, showing only interiors. In this film he shows the wider context for both the salaryman's apartment block and the house of his father’s friend and, in both cases, this indicates that they sit on the edges of the city, the first on vacant waste ground that is still relatively cheap to purchase and the second in a hilltop suburb. Both illustrate the issues raised by the architect Takamitsu Azuma just four years later concerning the difficulty of maintaining family life in the heart of Tokyo (see post dated July 6 2017, Two Houses : Part Two).

Top: the salaryman son's apartment in context.

Bottom: the father's friend's house in context.

Recurring Themes

Ozu uses recurring themes, recurring characters (the father, the widowed father, the unmarried daughter, the elementary-school-age brothers), recurring situations and recurring locations in these films. Often we see identical characters in identical situations and this allows us to compare scenes from different films in order to identify any variable elements, social or physical, that have changed in the interval. There are numerous themes of this sort and I will examine three examples:


Several of the films feature a family with two young sons (I Was Born But…, Early Summer, Tokyo Story, Good Morning). In each case there is a dispute between the sons (principally the elder son) and the father but the cause of the dispute and the method of resolution change from film to film.

Top: I Was Born But... : The brothers arrive home.

Bottom: Good Morning : The brothers arrive home.

In I was Born But… (1932) the dispute concerns the sons’ disappointment and loss of respect for their father. The father’s employer is a home-movie enthusiast and when they all attend a home-movie evening at his house the sons are dismayed to find that these include various scenes of their father clowning for the camera. The laughter of the audience and their father’s obsequious attitude towards his boss disgust them. They leave, disillusioned and upset at losing their image of their father as a ‘great man’.

I Was Born But... : The brothers sulk in their room having lost faith in their father as a 'great man'.

The father returns home later, bringing a treat for the boys. They refuse it and denounce the father for his cowardice in front of his employer. This leads to an argument between the older boy and the father, which ends with the father beating the son.

I Was Born But... : The father beats the elder son.

The boys go to bed and the father sits, remorseful and guilty, appealing to his wife that he has no choice but to behave as he does in a world where the rich hold power over the lives of others, and pondering the fate of his sons: will they too grow up to live in a similar world with an unchanged social order?

In Early Summer (1951) the dispute concerns the sons’ request for some extra track for their model train. The next day the father arrives home with a package that the boys assume contains the track. Excited they take it to their room only to find that it is a loaf of bread. Angry, the older boy confronts his father, throws down the bread and kicks it across the floor. In the resulting argument the father wrestles with the boy but only in an attempt to control his tantrum.

Early Summer : The father tries to control the elder son's tantrum.

The source of argument has moved from the structure of society to the material wants of the sons. Although their request is modest it remains unfulfilled.

In Good Morning (1958) Ozu virtually repeats the set up from I was Born But… : the boys sitting at the desk in their room and their refusal to accept a treat (although in this case it is their aunt who has brought home the treat). However the cause of the dispute is similar to the cause of the dispute in Early Summer. In this case the boys have requested a television and the older boy criticises the father for his refusal to buy one. The level of request has escalated from the relatively modest request made in Early Summer and the method of resolution has changed. The argument between the elder son and the father is purely verbal and the father fails to intimidate the boy in any way. Some days later the father relents and buys a television.

Good Morning : The brothers sulk in their room.

Good Morning : The dispute between the father and the elder son results in a stand-off. The father cannot exert control over his sons.

Good Morning : The father relents and buys the television.

Three Old Guys Walk Into a Bar…

In several of these films three old friends (in both senses of “old’) go for a drink. They start in a Japanese-style restaurant and later move to a bar. Two examples are Tokyo Story (1953) and Late Autumn (1960). The men are from a similar social background in both films but their financial circumstances and the settings in which they eat and drink are different. In the earlier film their clothes and conversations about money indicate that they are not wealthy (they are also retired) and they choose modest establishments for their eating and drinking. In the later film they never discuss money, their clothing shows that they are relatively affluent (they all hold senior management positions) and they eat in expensive-looking restaurants. When they meet to drink it is at their golf club, complete with golfing attire, smartly-dressed barmen and mock Tudor surroundings based, not on golf’s British heritage, but on American clubhouse style.

Tokyo Story : The Meal.

Late Autumn : The Meal.

Tokyo Story : The Drink.

Late Autumn : The Drink.

A Message From Our Sponsors…

Ozu’s films were early adopters of product placement. Whether Ozu himself chose the products in order to indicate the flavour of the times or whether the studio was responding to the power of certain companies to secure placement is largely irrelevant; in either case the products reflect changes in commercial realities within Japan over time. The earlier films feature Japanese products and mostly industrial companies: Bridgestone Tyres; Kirin Beer. Later films begin to feature the entertainment industry and a mix of Japanese and foreign sources: JVC Victor; MGM. Later again the films increasingly feature consumer goods and these are generally split between Japanese technology and foreign fashion: television sets and rice cookers from Japan; shoes, fashion, drinks from overseas (Kirin Beer replaced by Johnnie Walker Whiskey and Coca Cola).

1953 : Tokyo Story : Bridgestone Tyres.

1953 : Tokyo Story : Kirin Beer.

1958 : Equinox Flower : JVC Victor and MGM.

1959 : Good Morning : Japanese electrical goods, foreign fashion goods.

1960 : Late Autumn : Golf shirts and Coca Cola.

Plus ça Change…

Donald Richie, the writer and film critic, has written of the criticism that was directed at Ozu post 1933 (ie after I Was Born But…) where it was argued that his earlier ‘burning fury against social injustice’ began to degenerate and decay. Instead Richie argues that, whilst Ozu might have abandoned what is termed ‘social realism’ he did not abandon realism or the portrayal of unhappiness, only the investigation of unhappiness caused by social wrongs in favour of the investigation of unhappiness caused by the human condition. In a way, Richie argues, by ruling out the opportunity for external forces to create major disruptions, Ozu opens a space in which he can examine the disruptions that are part of being human and, therefore, potentially more universal. He achieves the transcendental from a base in the mundane, in the bourgeois family – undisturbed by social upheavals, undismayed by financial misfortunes – where a sense of the daily-ness of life is perhaps most readily discovered… birth, love, marriage, companionship, loneliness, death, all loom particularly large… because so much else is ruled out.4 Against this ‘mundane’ portrayal of the everyday background to daily life, the smallest of changes is highlighted and I have tried to illustrate some of them in this piece.

Equally important to Ozu’s approach however is that it offers us the possibility to identify the things that do not change and, in this area, I would argue that Ozu continues to reveal social issues, and specifically the position of women.

The position of women remains essentially unchanged through all of these films. Yes, we see younger women in the workplace, but only in supportive roles and only until they get married (and they are expected to get married), at which point they should quit in order to look after their husband, home and family. And that’s all they do, from the wife spending her life in the 'twilight of a single house' in I Was Born But… (1932) to the young wife of the salaryman in An Autumn Afternoon (1962), all they do is cook, clean and run after their husband and family. In a scene from An Autumn Afternoon, when the husband spends his day off lying on the floor, we see the shadow of his wife cast across the wall, still busily doing housework.

1962 : An Autumn Afternoon : The husband rests and recuperates on his day off.

No rest for his wife; we see her shadow, still scrubbing, cast across the wall.

Despite all this, and to paraphrase Jane Austen: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman over a certain age must be in want of a husband. And nobody is more energetic in revealing this truth to these young women than older men (fathers, bosses, friends of the family). Often the older male character will take the young woman out for a meal or drink, where he explains to her that, despite any thoughts she may hold to the contrary, her only route to true happiness lies in marriage – often to a man suggested by him. Somehow, it is always an older, married man explaining this, never an older married woman, although the older women also subscribe to the universally accepted view that a young woman should marry. And, in a scene similar to that where the father in I Was Born But… has to smile and play the fool for his employer, we see the young woman smiling and thanking the older man for his advice, concern and kindness.

1. Tokyo Ga, a film directed by Wim Wenders, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, translated by Thomas J Harper and Edward G Seidensticker, published by Vintage Books.

2. Female, published in Self Portraits, a selection of short stories, Osaka Dazai, translated by Ralph F McCarthy, published by Kodansha International.

3. In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, translated by Thomas J Harper and Edward G Seidensticker, published by Vintage Books.

4. The Donald Richie Reader, a collection of articles written by Donald Richie, edited by Arturo Silva, published by Stone Bridge Press.

bottom of page