“Tokyo Twilight” (Tôkyô boshoku, 1957) is the last black-and-white Ozu movies and the darkest one I’ve seen — both in the norish lighting of nocturnal scenes, especially those in a mahjong bar (prefiguring something of the look of Shinoda’s “Pale Flower”; Shinoda received his only assistant director credit for “Tokyo Twilight” and later made a documentary about Ozu), and in exploring the borders of despair. It is still a story of a family, albeit one shattered indirectly by the war.
Gradually and indirectly, the viewer learns that while the patriarch of the family, banker Sugiyama Shûkichi (Ozu’s go-to father, Ryû Chishû) was overseas (in Korea), his wife and mother of his two daughters and one son, was dallying with a man in Tokyo. After her husband returned, she ran away with her paramour. Akiko was only three at the time and does not remember her mother. All photos of the wife/mother had been destroyed.
Her older sister, Takako (Ozu’s go-to daughter, Hara Setsuko) was old enough to remember her mother. He father pressured her to marry an academic, Numata (Shin Kinzo), who has turned into an abusive drunkard, rather than the man she wanted to marry. Both daughters have come home, Takako with an infant (Machiko), Akiko (Arima Nikeko [Black River, The Human Condition] with a growing embryo fertilized by a feckless student named Kenji (Masami Taura) who is hiding form her having found out she is pregnant.
The mother, Soma Kikuko (Yamada Isuzu) is back in town. The man she ran off with died in a POW camp (this confuses me, since I thought the lovers decamped after the husband returned after the war!) and she and her current man (it is not clear to me that they are married, or, indeed that she legally divorced…) run the mahjong parlor. In search of Kenji, Akiko goes there and intuits that the woman is her mother.
Takako is very unhappy that her mother, cause of so much pain, has met Akiko and goes to order her not to reveal to Akiko that she is her mother. This does not work out well
Plot spoiler alert
After an abortion and a confrontation with her mother in which Akiko says she will never bear a child, and some more melodramatic turns of the wheels, Akiko steps in front of a tram at a dangerous crossing, dubbed “Devil’s Crossing). Officially an accident, there is no doubt in my mind that it was deliberate. Not killed instantly, Akiko decides she wants to live, but doesn’t. After telling their mother that it is her fault (which I don’t accept in that the collision immediately followed another conversation with the irresponsible Kenji; moreover this follows soon after police haul her in for being a single female in a seedy bar without any semblance of a crime to charge against her), Takako has a conversation with her father about the need of a child to have two parents. She is going back to expose her child and herself to more drunken violence, which does not strike me as a happy ending. I think her father blames himself for too much. As for inadequate communication with his daughters (his son died in a skiing accident, btw), there utter unwillingness to tell him what bothers them seems to me as much a culprit as his oblivousness. So far as I can tell, he did his best to be a single parent and not dwell on his own pain.
End plot spoiler-alert
Many Japanese movies seem slow to western viewers. This one seems needlessly prolonged (141 minutes) for its fairly simple story. The long-held shots of objects (“pillow shots”) don’t appeal to me, and the invariant camera placement at the level of one meter wore on me many Ozu films ago (especially, when this results in the head being cut off from the frame). As usual, there are enough cuts that the lack of camera movement does not lead to the movie seeming visually static. And, as usual, the Ozu troupe of actors performs subtly and superbly.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray