Tokyo-ga

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Wim Wenders is the German “new wave” director with the least ability to tell stories. I remember that once upon a time I liked his “Kings of the Road” (1976), which had no plot, and “Paris, Texas” (1984), which had very little. I thought that Wenders’s “Hammett” (1982) was unbelievably bad and would have cut about two hours from “Wings of Desire” (1987).  It surprises me not at all that he assisted Michelangelo Antonioni, the premiere anti-narrative director, in making “Beyond the Clouds” (1995).

Since Wenders often offers arresting images, I thought that his filmed impressions of Tokyo, ca. 1983, might be interesting (in a visual, non-narrative, Antonioni way). Moreover, it was something of a pilgrimage in quest of traces of the Tokyo of Ozu Yasujiro‘s (1903-1963) films (with their static camera setup and slight plots; “Tokyo Story” from 1953 is the most widely lauded; “Ohayo” from 1959 is a particular favorite of mine).

Ozu’s cameraman (throughout the last decades of Ozu’s oeuvre), Atsuta Yuuharu, shows Wenders the traditional house and garden in which most of Ozu’s films of his last twenty years were filmed, and how Ozu and Atsuta set the camera up very low (closeups were shot from just below the eye-level of someone seated, longer shots were shot from lower still). Atsuta’s continued devotion to Ozu is the most affecting part of Wenders’s film.

Wenders also interviewed Ryû Chisû, who played father roles in Ozu movies from the 1930s into the 1960s. Ryu also venerated the memory of Ozu and takes Wenders to Ozu’s grave (a black granite stone with a single archaic character meaning “nothingness” on it). Ryu washes the headstone.

Other than those two important, recurrent collaborators with Ozu, what Wenders finds of Ozu’s Tokyo is that there are trains to film, including orange ones and green ones (saturated colors are a hallmark of the German New Wave). Winders runs into Werner Herzog atop the Tokyo Tower. Herzog expounds at some length, but there are neither subtitles nor paraphrasing from Wenders (as there is for Ryu and Atsuta—the only subtitles are French ones for some footage from Ozu at the beginning and the end of the film).

The rest of the film tells me nothing I didn’t know about Tokyo and shows very little. I’ve seen Japanese baseball (albeit not as played by the very young children Wenders filmed) and the building-top golf driving-ranges and Pachinko parlors (though not as many closeups of the silver-colored balls). What I had not seen but grew tired of watching was the manufacture of the plastic models of food that are displayed in Japanese restaurants here as well as those in Japan.

He also shows some young Japanese dancing in Yoyogi Park to 1950s American rock’n’roll (plus one with Blondie on his boombox). Their intensity is interesting, but Wenders does not question any of them about what they are doing or why.

As I remembered, Wenders’s English is fluent (less accented than Herzog’s) but what he says tends to be ponderous. My memory (from a personal appearance in Berkeley with “Kings of the Road”) was reconfirmed. Wenders expresses wonder at what he shows, but has nothing analytical to say to enhance viewers’ understanding of Japan (ca. 1983 or in Ozu’s time of rapid change, 1953.

Wenders attempts to make something of the irony of the televisions of the world being made in Japan and broadcasting American or American-influenced popular culture, but has nothing at all original to say about “globalization” or about the erosion of traditional authority (Ozu’s leitmotif).

For someone familiar with and reverential toward Ozu’s films, “Tokyo-Ga” is somewhat boring. Similarly, someone familiar with Tokyo now might have some interest in seeing how little it has changed in a quarter of a century. For someone who lacks such interests and familiarity, I’d think “Tokyo-Ga” would be very boring. (And, it may bear stressing that I am someone who on occasion grows impatient with Antonioni films, but who does not find Antonioni’s anti-narrative visualizations boring. Even with a higher than seems to be usual tolerance for films low on plot, I find Wenders’s films often boring and usually incoherent.)

“Tokyo-ga” is included as a bonus eature in the Criterion edition ot Tokyo Story.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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