Film of the Week: Tokyo-Ga

Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-Ga (1985) is a documentary about Yasujiro Ozu; in it, Wenders asks the question of whether or not the old Tokyo in which Ozu portrays nostalgia for in his films has survived in the modern Japan. Wenders never answers the question himself, but I’d argue that there’s enough evidence in the film to argue yes, the old Tokyo is still alive.

Tokyo-Ga­ isn’t strictly a documentary on Yasujiro Ozu. It’s also partly a diary, recalling Chris Marker’s own documentary Sans Soleil (1983). Coincidentally, Marker makes a cameo in the film as he was currently making Sans Soleil when Wenders was making Tokyo-Ga. Moving on, when Wenders isn’t focused on Ozu’s life or films, he is recording quotidian Japanese life—indoor golf, pachinko machines, and dances in the park are just some moments featured in the film. I argue that what makes the old Tokyo of Ozu’s films still alive in the modern Tokyo is the form and style of the cultures Wenders records.

To explain, Wenders interviews two people who worked closely with Ozu: Yuharu Atsuta, Ozu’s regular cinematographer who worked for Ozu from their own start as a cameraman until Ozu’s death, and Chishu Ryu, one of Ozu’s favorite actors. In his interviews, Wenders’ subjects discuss Ozu’s style of filmmaking, and the revelation is that Ozu focused on repetition, minimalism, and a very formal work ethic towards his directing—Ozu would only work with 50mm lenses and once he had decided the position of the camera, no one was to touch it at all.

When Wenders goes about recording certain facets of Japanese life, we find that the repetition, minimalism, and formalism of Ozu’s work pervade Japanese culture. The most direct reference would be a scene in the subway station when Wenders decides to focus a young boy who refuses to continue walking. To his mother’s dismay, every time the two begin to walk, the boy plops right back down on the floor.

Watching the two, Wenders comments that the rebellious personality of the boy is reminiscent of the rebellious boys in Ozu’s own films. Wenders doesn’t draw any specific comparisons but what comes to my own mind are the mischievous children of Ozu’s Ohayo (1959), a film centered on two brothers who take a vow of silence until their parents buy them a television set.

While this moment is one where Wenders draws a direct reference between the modern Tokyo and Ozu’s old Tokyo, it’s not one that necessarily fits my argument, and so I’d like to bring up one proper example: Wenders filming citizens playing golf.

Just like Ozu’s filmmaking, the citizens playing golf also display a technique for repetition, formalism, and minimalism which Wenders records in his own minimalist style. Long-takes and a static camera make it so that we’re only focused on the bodies of the golfers, in essence, the essentials. Due to Wenders’ style of filmmaking here, we become keenly aware of how the golfers move their body: the movement of their arm, the club, their swing, and so on. The technique of the golfers begin to resemble their own form of artistry that parallel Ozu’s.

This is just one mere moment in the film. The same analysis of the golf scene can also be applied to Wenders filming citizens playing pachinko, dancing, and artisans making wax food. If these moments in the film are supposed to be ways in which the old Tokyo has survived, then it is all the more fitting that Wenders bookmarks the film with opening and closing scenes from an Ozu film. By doing so, it is as if what makes up the footage for Tokyo-Ga is in its own right, an Ozu film.

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