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Japanese Edition: My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Tokyo Story (1953)

An introduction on these films from RMIT’s animation research expert Dr Ruth Richards and co-curator of the Melbourne Cinematheque Associate Professor Adrian Danks.

My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1988

When you think about Studio Ghibli, you cannot help but picture Totoro. The instantly lovable Totoro (along with the grinning Catbus) have become synonymous with the renowned studio, and with its creator, Hayao Miyazaki. My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) was originally released in a double bill with Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka), perhaps one of the studios most devastating films. It is in many ways quintessential Studio Ghibli, and emblematic of the themes Miyazaki has often returned to throughout his career, namely childhood and the natural world. As sisters Satsuki and Mei explore their new world, we experience the ups and downs, delight and wonder, right along with them.

– Dr. Ruth Richards ​


Tokyo Story, dir. Yasujirō Ozu, 1953

Welcome to this special 70th anniversary screening of Yasujirō Ozu’s much-loved Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari). I’m an Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media Communication at RMIT University, and I’m also one of the co-curators of the Melbourne Cinémathèque, the key place to see Ozu’s films in Melbourne over the last 40 years. During this time, we have programmed three seasons dedicated to the great director’s work alongside many other single-session and double-feature screeningshe is one of our lodestones. 

Often considered the most Japanese of filmmakers and a key influence on major contemporary Asian directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Hirokazu Koreeda, as well as other filmmakers as diverse as Wim Wenders, Claire Denis, Aki Kaurismaki and Wes Anderson, a closer examination of Yasujirō Ozu’s formally rigorous and truly singular body of work – almost all of which was completed at just one of Japan’s major film studios: Shochiku – reveals a complex artist exploring the tensions and connections between Japan and the West, parents and their children, the individual and society, the infinite and the intimate, the universal and the specific, the traditional and the modern. 

Although Ozu’s extraordinary body of work, produced between the late 1920s and the early 1960s, is incredibly consistent in a manner almost unprecedented in the history of cinema, it is his 1953 film, Tokyo Story, that has regularly been singled out by many critics, filmmakers and moviegoers. It has been an important gateway for those discovering Ozu’s brilliant and measured but stylistically striking, often bittersweet cinema, along with the extraordinarily deep riches of Japanese film history more generally. It was indeed the first Ozu film that I saw, screened by David Stratton on SBS’ Movie Classics while I was in the latter stages of high school in 1983. Watched on a small, portable television in my bedroom, it was still one of my key, formative encounters with the cinema, an opening up to a deceptively leisurely, carefully timed and precise cinema of a kind I had never experienced before. I am still feeling the cumulative impact and influence of that encounter to this day. In some ways, this fascination and deep admiration had its culmination in 2016 when my daughter, my partner and I paid our respects to the great director by visiting and cleaning his grave in the seaside town of Kamakura, where he sits next to his mother and adjacent to another great director of classical Japanese cinema: Keisuke Kinoshita. Ozu is the kind of filmmaker who encourages such dedication and acts of pilgrimage – it was a well-trodden path. 

Behind and within Tokyo Story’s seemingly simple, everyday facade, an elderly couple’s trip to visit their children in Tokyo becomes an elegy told with extraordinary sensitivity, sympathy and bittersweet understanding – for the loss and disintegration of the traditional Japanese family. A timelessly moving portrait of the strain of modernisation, loss and the processes of ageing, Tokyo Story first appeared in Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time Poll in 1992 and is, along with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), the only other film to be included in the top five over each of the last four iterations of the poll (it was even number one in the Directors’ Poll in 2012). For many, it remains one of the great masterpieces of world cinema and highlights film’s uncanny and sometimes profound ability to shine a forensic and sympathetic light on the joys, disappointments and profundities of everyday life. 

If you’ve never seen an Ozu film before, Tokyo Story provides a wonderful introduction to his very particular, foreign (even to many Japanese audiences) and deeply familiar world. There are also many more masterpieces for you to go on to discover. Although Tokyo Story is a truly wonderful film, it’s ended up being a little way from my favourite Ozu film, despite the fact that it has become, in many respects, quintessential and features many of the actors now synonymous with the director’s work, including the sublime Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu in its lead roles. I’d actually recommend taking the opportunity to see any Ozu film. At the recent Melbourne International Film Festival one of Ozu’s least known and often critically downgraded post-war films, The Munekata Sisters (1950), was screened and turned out to be a major Ozu film. Despite the difficulty of picking favourites, here’s a short list of the Ozu film I most love and value: Late Spring (1949), Late Autumn (1960), Early Summer (1951), An Autumn Afternoon (1962) and I Was Born But… (1932). And, yes, the consistency of those English-language titles – less so in the original Japanese – is misleading, a little confusing and completely appropriate. 

To conclude this brief introduction, I’d just like to highlight a few elements of Ozu’s cinema for you to notice and think about while watching Tokyo Story. In many respects, Ozu’s films are most concerned with representing and lulling us into a particular rhythm of both cinema and life (although vastly different in many ways, French director and comic Jacques Tati is an important and appropriate point of comparison). The soundtracks and shot duration of Ozu’s movies tell us much about this preoccupation (with the opening and numerous transitional shots often establishing and reinforcing this rhythm). We often hear things gently clanging, lapping or chugging in the aural background of Ozu’s soundscapes – though there are really no backgrounds here, as you’ll see and hear. These elements, heard particularly at the beginning and ending of films like Late Autumn, Tokyo Story and numerous others, create a gentle but metric (almost mathematical) rhythm that is intimately related to the more general tempo of the films. The repetition and variation of these sounds – corresponding to what we also see, particularly in shots emphasising the reflections of water, plants blossoming and shedding their leaves, jauntily neon-lit alleyways, and branches moving in the breeze – heightens the experiential sense of lifecycles and seasonal change that lie at the centre of many of the films as well as our affective responses to them. 

Ultimately, Ozu’s films communicate a peculiar attitude towards the audience, partly distancing us emotionally while involving us experientially. Ironically, this experiential emphasis and how it insists on audience involvement and his films are, quite profoundly, adventures in space, time and perception has a greater cumulative and emotional impact than many more histrionic melodramas. In the end, it may not be that Ozu fully de-dramatises his narratives – even though many of the big events of life occur offscreen and we only see and hear their rippling aftereffects but rather allows such moments of drama to blend and flow with the currents of everyday existence. This makes everything, even a shape or object, the subject of a kind of drama. 

Ozu’s films create highly composed and stylised worlds somewhat removed from but firmly rooted in our own – much of this achieved by focusing on the intricacies and rituals of daily life. This is partly realised through the rigorous application of particular stylistic choices and limitations: for example, the overwhelming use of a single lens length (50mm); an extraordinarily consistent deployment of camera height and angle; a mostly locked off or immobile camera; an insistence upon deep space composition; and a denial or flaunting of many of the conventions of continuity editing like the supposedly necessary changes of angle between shots within a scene and a clearly defined and consistent axis of action (Ozu often utilises and explores the 360degree space around his characters). Ozu throws out or plays many of these conventions while creating a highly identifiable series and style of his own. In the process, Ozu’s films allow us to see, hear and feel afresh the physical and experiential universe that surrounds the characters as well as us. 

Welcome back to Tokyo Story for those revisiting an old favourite for the second or tenth time. For those of you who’ve never seen it before, welcome to Ozu-ville; filmgoing will hopefully never be quite the same again. 

– Associate Professor Adrian Danks