Tokyo Stories

in 61st Venice Film Festival

by György Báron

Can we see with the eyes of Yasujiro Ozu? Can we see the images of modern day Japan through the lens of Ozu’s camera? The first filmmaker to pose this question was Wim Wenders twenty years ago. In his personal diary, ‘Tokyo-Ga’, he tried to find the familiar locations and pictures of Ozu in contemporary Tokyo. His remarkable film essay records a fiasco. ‘Tokyo-Ga’ is about searching and not finding. Wenders had to realise that the old, intimate, peaceful family life of Ozu is forever destroyed.

Last year, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Ozu’s birthday, the internationally acclaimed Chinese director and leading figure of Taiwanese new cinema, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, tried to find the tracks of Ozu in his new feature, ‘Café Lumière’ (Kohi Jikou), which was also in the competition programme at the Venice Festival. Café Lumière begins with the well-known takes of Ozu. First, we see rails and trains in long shot, then the familiar interiors of Ozu’s films: empty spaces separated by walls, curtains, doors and windows, shown from the famous low angle of the Master. The characters step into the space, sit down in the frame, then leave the location while the camera still remains there for some moments.

Nevertheless, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film is not a mere repetition or imitation of Ozu’s cinema. After this beginning, he goes out into the streets of Tokyo, moves his camera, panning, tilting and travelling with it. The story is actually quite the opposite of Ozu’s late films. The heroine is a young girl, Yoko, who returning from Taiwan and now living in Tokyo visits her parents in the countryside. This journey is the reverse of that of the old parents of ‘Tokyo Story’, who visited their children in the capital. Ozu’s late films speak about the collapse of traditional Japanese family life, the passing of time and death. Café Lumière, on the other hand, is a film about birth. Yoko visits her step-mother and father to tell them she’s pregnant by a Taiwanese guy and wants to keep the child, but she doesn’t want to marry the father. She enjoys a good, friendly, platonic relationship with another guy, Hajime, who runs a second-hand bookstore in Tokyo. The boy is in deep, passionate love with Yoko but will not say a word about it. They never speak about feelings. Sitting in small Tokyo cafés, they speak about the works of a legendary artist, Jiang Ewn-Ye, whose oeuvre they are researching together and about trains as Hajime is a railway fanatic. They spend a lot of time together chatting and researching. This strange couple and their joint research reminds us of the young protagonists of some Rohmer-films, first of all ‘La Femme de l’aviateur’. Ozu’s spiritual world with the light flavour of Rohmer in 21st century Tokyo – that’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s homage to his Master.

The director said he “tried to imagine how Ozu himself would have shot a film in today’s Japan”. I’m not sure he would have made a film this way but I’m quite convinced he would have enjoyed ‘Café Lumière’, the picture that reflects the calm, peaceful, melancholic spirit of his works and was dedicated to his memory.