It’s called the tatami shot. The camera is fixed on a short tripod, the lens positioned at waist height and the actors sit on the floor, level with the viewer’s eye line, to give the impression we’re sitting among them. The depth of field is increased, the camera doesn’t move and our perspective stays fixed and unwavering as the drama unfolds slowly before us.
Named after the traditional mat found in Japanese living rooms, the tatami shot is a stylistic hallmark of film-maker Yazujiro Ozu. Voted by movie directors in 2012 as the greatest film of all time, his 1953 work Tokyo Story is the tatami film par excellence, an immersive, penetrating study of an elderly Japanese couple who visit their grown-up yet ever-busy children in the capital. Treated as an inconvenience and ushered coldly from house to house, the parents eventually return home before the movie’s sad final act plays out.
It’s a simple story but a complex drama. Thanks to Ozu’s stationary, static style, our appreciation of the domestic events in each home is somewhat restricted. We never get a total sense of where we are and what’s happening, receiving only partial glimpses into the characters’ interior lives and regularly having to make sense of the action based on what’s not said or done.
Action is the wrong word, for precious little happens in Tokyo Story. The threadbare plot unravels sedately, major events are omitted, the performances are understated and dialogue is often confined to awkward social pleasantries. Together, they cloak an undertone of disappointment and indifference that aches throughout every scene, resulting in a beautifully-crafted vision of dysfunctional family life. Unspoken pain is part of the furniture, all of it captured in a sober cinematic style that feels both curiously immersive and detached, a stillness exacerbated by the fact that only one tracking shot is deployed in the entire film.
Despite that, there’s movement everywhere, and in the most profound sense of the word. From the opening shot of the pupils walking to school to the closing shot of the boat cruising through the harbour, Ozu’s film is one about transition – a couple’s train journey to a city, the transformation of children to adults, the relentless modernisation of society, the increasing demands of professional life, the inexorable dissolve of familial bonds, the regression of adults back to childlike dependency and the final, inevitable move from life to death.
Through it all, Ozu forces us to confront those difficult, eternal questions. Can families survive the passage of time? What obligation do children owe their parents? How do we best prepare ourselves for the end? And what’s the best way to remember and dignify those who are gone? For a film so overtly calm and austere, Tokyo Story is replete with instability and uncertainty, a mood revealing itself in subtle ways – the disappointed glances, the growing spatial distances between characters, the feeble social rituals that fail to articulate what’s really going on, and, most of all, the long, thick silences, which Ozu creates by lingering his camera on a scene long after the talking has stopped.
Tokyo Story forces us to sit, reflect and come to terms with what we’re watching. When the movie ends, you realise there’s so much more to it than first meets the eye - and that you’ve spent two hours under the spell of a true cinematic master. With remarkable patience and tenderness, expressed through judicious editing, delicate writing and a love of the human face in all its wonderful complexity, Ozu’s worldview is brilliantly elucidated, the sadness of his scenario bearing down on you with all the quiet force of gravity.
Tokyo Story isn’t a pessimistic film though. Rather it’s a wise film, and that wisdom seems born out of time itself. Time is everywhere – in the family heirloom of the watch, in the changing landscape, in the characters’ anxiety about the past and the future, and in their inability to find more of what is life’s most precious resource. Moving both surprisingly quickly and excruciatingly slowly, time changes people, moves them apart, brings them back together and pushes them away again. Time is a relative concept to Ozu, and relative is the operative word here, with time strengthening and weakening family ties in ways we can all identify with.
There’s nothing special about this family though. As the title implies, this is just one story among millions in the world’s most populated city. But the experience of this group of people feels so unique and vividly etched that you can’t help recall the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.
Tokyo Story is equally as great a work of art, and has a similar sense of life as conflicted, tragic and, in some ways, unknowable. Yet it is majestic too, and in the face of all the pain and disappointment, Ozu teaches us to look, to imagine and to feel this quality - and to remember that this life, and this family, are the only ones we’ll ever have.