This week’s selection of films take us to Tokyo, that most busy and bustling of mega-cities that offers myriad lived realities beneath its glowing neon lights and looming tower blocks. A place that has held fascination for many for decades and provided plenty of evidence for non-Japanese visitors to see that like the critic Roland Barthes once wrote, “the rational is merely one system among others”, the city has long provided fertile territory for both curious outsider and thoughtful insider for cinematic reflection.
These three films are linked by their setting in Tokyo but notable for the very different ways in which they see and depict the city, and offer those of us yet to visit it the chance to imagine its many contradictions and attractions.
Tokyo Story – YouTube
Director Yasujiro Ozu was the quiet, contemplative master of Japanese cinema and nowhere does his focus on the unsentimental truths of life and his acceptance of its inevitable changes come together as satisfyingly as they do in this, his masterpiece from 1953.
Like much of Ozu’s work, the film is deceptively simple in its setup and execution but enormous in its emotional heft and philosophical effect. An elderly couple leave their daughter at home in the country and set off to visit their other children in Tokyo. They’ve never been to the capital but realising that they’re probably running out of time, they decide to make the journey and enjoy some moments with their children for what may be their last time. Once there, they’re soon disappointed and saddened to realise that their urban children are too caught up in the bustle and demands of their city lives and the post-war changes sweeping over them, to really care that much about their ageing parents.
That’s about it as far as the story goes but thanks to Ozu’s measured direction — filmed mostly from his famed and favoured low camera angle — all the small moments of ordinary day-to-day life take on significance as we slowly become enmeshed in the minute indications of tone and unspoken emotions that bubble beneath the surface of the interactions. As the parents become increasingly aware of the gulfs that have opened up between them and their children and their version of Japanese life and that which characterises the urban centre, we are left to ponder the sad realities of loneliness and separation that mark so much of our small, ordinary lives. Dismaying but exhilarating, claustrophobic but liberating, it remains a unique film rarely matched in the history of cinema and infinitely rewarding no matter how many times you watch it.
The stone-cold classic:
House of Bamboo — YouTube
Samuel Fuller was a grizzled, no-nonsense war veteran who made his name as a director of film noirs that walked the line between sensationalism and social consciousness and earned him a cult reputation amongst the young French critics and filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s who would go on to create the influential French New Wave.
Fuller often drew on his experiences as a soldier in World War 2 for his films and here he creates perhaps his most commercial but still trenchantly critical noir shot in glorious Cinemascope and Deluxe Color and on location in post-war Tokyo.
Though his depictions of the Japanese sometimes veer into the uncomfortable territory of stereotypes, on the whole Fuller does a solid job of trying to raise pertinent themes about interracial relationships, foreign infiltration into Japan in the post war period and racism among Americans towards their former enemies. It was also one of the first US films to be shot in Japan after the war and to feature a Japanese actress (Shirley Yamaguchi) in a lead role.
In 1954, a US soldier is killed after a gang raids a train and makes off with its valuable cargo. A joint US/Japanese police investigation ensues and an undercover police agent (Robert Stack) arrives in Tokyo to help the authorities infiltrate a gang led by a former US soldier (Robert Ryan) who is now running rackets in the Tokyo underworld.
What follows becomes, in spite of its seemingly familiar storyline, a disturbing and provocative investigation into the uncomfortable realities of the relationships that were formed by former enemies in the uncertain economic and social realities of the post-war era.
It's also all beautifully and majestically filmed and imbibed with a passion for pushing the boundaries of the formal possibilities of film that Fuller exercised here more successfully than in any of his other films.
The diamond in the rough:
Tokyo Godfathers — Rent or Buy from Apple TV +
A memorable spin on the familiar Christmas movie that also stands as a classic of the anime genre, director Satoshi Kon’s 2003 not-quite-family-friendly animation offers a moving and relatable meditation on the importance of family that focusses on three bottom-of-the-social-pile characters you’re never going to see in a Disney version.
An alcoholic, a young girl and a drag queen living in the shadows and on the streets of the capital discover an abandoned baby in a rubbish tip on Christmas Eve. Determined to help give the infant a fighting chance over a bitterly cold Christmas weekend, the trio take her with them to their humble shack made of cardboard and plywood but fitted with some comforts and serving as the closest thing they have to a family home.
There we learn each of their stories and come to see how in spite of their rejection by mainstream society they have found friendship with each other and created a family that’s as close and as capable of providing love to their new companion as any she might hope to find elsewhere. Filled with singularly imaginatively animated adventures, harrowing emotionally devastating scenes and a large dose of coincidence in its resolution, it all makes for a memorably visual and dramatically satisfying animated experience that has a solidly relatable message at its heart.