Ozu’s 1941 “The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family” (Todake no kyôdai, his first box office hit, starts slow and is fairly excruciating for the viewer, just as it is for the widow (Katsuragi Ayako) and unmarried daughter (Setsuko, Takamine Mieko) of an art collecting seemingly successful businessman (Fujino Hideo) who dies after the celebration of his 69th birthday so deep in debt that the home in which they’ve been living has to be sold along with other assets including all the art.
There are two sons (one married, one not), and two married daughters. The eldest son reluctantly takes his mother. Circumspect as his mother and sister are, they annoy his wife, who treats them badly, as does the sister who takes them in next. Before moving on to the other daughter/sister, they move into a wreck of a house that was not sold because it was judged uninhabitable. First, however, Setsuko has to endure a sister lecturing her on how bad it would look if she got a job (the mistreatment of dependents and having to sell of all the assets still leave concerns about face…).
At the ceremony for the first anniversary of the patriarch’s death, the younger son returns from China, shocked at his siblings’ failures of solidarity and filial piety. After denouncing and dismissing his siblings and their spouses, Shojiro (Saburi Shin) asks his mother and sister (and longtime maid) to come with him to China (the port of Tianjin) where he is prospering, and agrees to marry Setsuko’s friend Tokikio (Kuwano Michiko).
The reversal of fortune of those who had still been dependent on Mr. Toda has nothing to do with the war (the total war was yet to come, but Japan had already seized much of China, including Tianjin). That the old verities of depending on the family are becoming unreliable looks ahead to the atomizing of individuals in Ozu’s postwar movies. Setsuko is a model of silently bearing abuse from family members and caring for her mother, and Shojiro turns out not to be the wastrel he appeared to be before going off to make his fortune across the Yellow and Bohai Seas.
There are many shots of clocks, as traditional Japan’s time ticks away (not that I think that Ozu had any inkling of the disasters to come from imperial expansion exploding a few months later). The awkwardness about taking in kin (even for a short visit) will be central to Ozu’s most venerated film “Tokyo Story” (1953).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray