I had somehow gained the impression that this was not going to be the best of director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent work, but enjoyed it a great deal. Certainly, if I hadn’t seen Millennium Mambo (2001) and Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007) I would have found it more difficult. As it was, I was prepared to go along with its gentle narrative flow and just observe a new, but still East Asian, perspective on the life of Tokyo’s suburbs, coffee shops and railway systems. The railways are the giveaway clue and this is a film commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku to commemorate the centenary of their famous director Ozu Yasujiro in 2003. I take the title to be a play on words evoking film history and the coffee shop (what would have been a bar in Ozu’s Tokyo) which forms the alternative setting to the railway.
The central character in the narrative is Yoko, a young writer from Tokyo who is researching a Taiwanese musician/artist from the 1930s (Jiang Wen-Ye (1910 – 1983). She has just arrived back from Taiwan and she spends time with her parents who still live in Takasaki, a city in Central Japan 100km away by rail. Later she meets up with her friend Hajime, a bookseller in Tokyo with a railways obsession. There is very little plot but part way through the narrative Yoko reveals that she is pregnant.
I’ve read a lot of comments about the film and what many of them miss is that although Hou’s film is undoubtedly an art film, Ozu produced mainstream entertainment, albeit for what I assume to be an upmarket audience. This is an important point because although loving Ozu marks anyone out as a cinephile today, in the 1950s and 1960s he would be a ‘popular’ director. Hou, however, is definitely for cinephiles. However, Hou knows how to sell a film. In his earlier career when he was a leader of Taiwanese New Cinema, he invariably cast non-professionals. Here he casts Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, as Yoko. Hajime is played (in very relaxed style) by one of Japanese cinema’s leading stars, Asano Tadanobu.
Café Lumière is a very easy film to watch, but arguably a difficult film to read. Mark Lee’s camera frames characters in careful, often static, compositions in Hou’s usual recent style – i.e. through doorways or windows, down corridors, round corners etc. Outside the houses and coffee shops it offers us long takes in long shot, observing the world and Yoko’s journey through it. The shots of trains and trams are beautiful. One shot of a minute or so shows a scene in Tokyo with three railway lines at different levels crossing over each other – and across a river. It’s as if we are looking into a model railway layout or watching a scene from an anime. I love trains but I can understand that for many they are not particularly interesting. And this is what makes the film problematic for a mainstream audience. Comments on the film complain about particular scenes, why are they doing this or that? There is a desire for narrative, a need to be told something, for actions to be in a chain of cause and effect – for the story to mean something in the way that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson argue constitutes a typical Hollywood narrative. But this story doesn’t have an ending, it doesn’t really have a direction. What we see instead is a family and a relationship between friends. In many ways this is a ‘realist’ film par excellence since it corresponds to the ways many of us live our lives – we don’t lurch from one dramatic crisis to the next, sometimes what we aim to do isn’t achieved, we can’t think of things to say, we’d rather just stare out of the window.
Café Lumière could be described as a postmodern narrative, one in which references are made to other ‘texts’ on several levels. The situation of the unmarried daughter and her parents’ concern features in both Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) and one scene is very close to that in Tokyo Story (1953) when the parents visit their widowed daughter-in-law who has to borrow something from a neighbour in order to offer them hospitality. Hou doesn’t attempt to copy Ozu’s compositions directly but he achieves something of the same tone. The obsession with Tokyo’s railways emerges not just through Hajime’s actions as a character but also the camera’s seeming obsession in almost fetishising train images as if exaggerating Ozu’s occasional glimpses of trains simply for effect. Yet railways also act as triggers for memory – Yoko spots the station cat which she remembers from her childhood in Takasaki when she took the child to school. It’s also interesting that she lives on a tram route in Tokyo, one of the last two remaining from Ozu’s Tokyo. None of these references will mean much to audiences unaware of either Ozu or Taiwanese-Japanese history but this is the nature of film art for a cinephile audience.
The little details that emerge about the Taiwanese boyfriend and from Yoko’s meeting with Jiang Ewn-Ye’s widow and daughter point to a ‘discourse’ about a personal and cultural history that brings together China, Taiwan and Japan over the last century and which is mirrored in the histories of the film industries in these countries (and which also involves Hong Kong).
Hou is now in his 60s but still wishes to represent a younger generation – even when it is via the incomprehension of their parents. Fortunately, for me, the occasional musical accompaniment, which I think refers to the composer who Yoko is researching, was much easier on the ear than the techno of Millennium Mambo.
Banshun (Late Spring) is often regarded as the first of the late cycle of Ozu’s films and defines the style that is regarded, especially outside of Japan, as defining his work. It contains a number of those traits that have come to be seen as classic Ozu: from the visual traits such as sequences of travelling by train, the famous ‘pillow’ or ‘intermediate’ shots, which pepper the opening sequence or an elaborate tea ceremony that introduces the women of the story to the narrative pace, the focus on the intimate spaces of the middle class Japanese home and the narrative elision of important events. This last is a powerful means of skewing the structure to make those small moments and details the focus of screen time and, therefore, to allow the development of the drama through the intimate exchanges and not external drama. As part of this, the rhythms of daily life capture the emotional temperature and are used symbolically. The familiar greeting “tadaima” (“I’m home”) alters for Noriko as events threaten her happiness; the return of Somiya after his daughter’s wedding recalls an earlier scene of his homecoming and disrobing with some stark changes. What Ozu does so masterfully is to weave so subtly varied emotions into ‘set pieces’ that might on the surface appear very familiar, not least because of the reappearance of actors. Both Hara Setsuko and Ryû Chishû appeared in many of these late cycle films, Ryû was Ozu’s actor on most of his features (apparently all but two) and their playing of the emotions maximise the feeling of small moments that have deeply-felt repercussions for each of these characters. At times, it is in the nuance of an expression – at other times it is in a dramatic heartfelt outpouring. An observation of Hara (in character) is that she smiles when she is unhappy and cries when she is happy – adding to her enigmatic appearance, since her emotions are often contrapuntal when they are not hidden.
Something to appreciate about Banshun in the cinema, is how it is as much funny as it is dramatic or even tragic. Noriko (Hara) is a young women out of joint with her time – finding her father’s close friend and fellow widower ‘unclean’ for marrying again (although, in discussion at Bradford, we wondered whether something had been lost in translation there from the original Japanese?) for which she is constantly teased by him. Professor Somiya (Ryû)’s sister is played by another regular Ozu actress (Haruko Sugimura – the daughter, Shige, in Tokyo Monogatari) in a comic turn as the match-making aunt. Ozu jokes directly with us by leaving out narrative elements (as he does in other films in the visual language) – when he withholds certain information from us – Hattori’s engagement, for example.
As part of a Western audience, I can find things that are ‘very Japanese’ about the film – the noh play, for example (which is apparently Kakitsubata based on the Tales of Ise? If so, it performs a second function as a metaphor as a tale of loss and longing, of being banished on a journey. However, aside from recognising that what might appear representative of a culture to outsiders has a far more complex position within the culture itself, it’s also worth remembering that in Late Spring as elsewhere in these films presents us with a world that is Ozu’s own rigorous creation. Part of effect of this is the way in which the emotions are incredibly ‘globally’ resonant – the relationship between the daughter and the father is entirely recognisable and affecting. Ozu is involving in a way that can (whether it should or not) lead us to ignore the specific cultural setting and talk about the characters – as people. In the end, does Noriko move towards something that is ‘natural’ and necessary – the right course of action to start a life with her husband. Or should she have been left to choose her own, completely contented (and free) life, with her father?
This was the first film that Ozu Yasujiro was able to make for five years (he was stationed in Singapore from 1943-5) and it was made on a shoestring at Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio in Kamakura, the ancient city South-West of Tokyo where Ozu lived and died. According to David Bordwell the film was scripted in just 12 days and the final cut lasted only 72 mins – it was after all a very difficult time in Japan.
Bordwell writes in detail about the film, including the similarities to prewar films by both Ozu and Naruse but he doesn’t mention the two things that struck me straightaway – the social and industrial context and the neo-realist feel. (To be fair he probably mentions these traits in other parts of his book that I haven’t read.)
The story is very simple. One of a group of people living in a clutch of houses amidst the rubble of Tokyo comes home one day with a small boy in tow. All the local residents have temporary jobs that reflect a struggle to make ends meet in this period of post-war reconstruction – yet there are also ‘new’ characters such as the smart young niece of one of the men.
The boy appears to have been abandoned by his father in the city and Tashiro (Ryu Chisu) has taken pity on him. But Tashiro doesn’t want to look after the boy himself and he tries first to unload him on his neighbour Tamekichi and when he refuses, on the widow Tane. She doesn’t want to look after the boy either but she lets him stay the night. Over the next week the reluctant Tane comes to accept the boy. That’s about it really as far as the narrative goes. There are incidents and there’s an ending, but the film is about the characters and the social situation rather than the narrative structure. This is why I think that neo-realism is a valid reference. The situation in Tokyo was similar (worse probably) to that in Rome or Berlin. Perhaps the Japanese were fortunate in not having so many ‘displaced persons’ (although there were Korean and Chinese migrants in Japan under the Occupation Authority). Like the neo-realists, Ozu was working with a familiar daily occurrence and seeing what it allowed him to explore in communities. May 1947 was too early for Ozu to have seen Bicycle Thieves or Germany Year Zero – or indeed any of the German ‘rubble films’ of the postwar period. But there are similarities in the situation and his approach. Although most of the film is studio bound, there are significant location-shot scenes. There are studio sets and these are studio actors, but still there is a sense in which this is a ‘story from the streets’ (rather than a literary adaptation like many of Ozu’s later films). It’s worth remembering also that the Occupation Authorities were supportive of some themes while they banned others. A story about a widow in the ‘new Japan’ was probably very acceptable in a climate of support for women’s rights.
I’m beginning to realise, as I watch more of Ozu, that most critics are too keen to ‘sectionalise’ the director’s output – as if he stopped making one kind of film and then started something else. He didn’t of course. There is a gradual accretion of stylistic devices and although there are shifts in thematics, there are also threads running through the whole body of work. For instance, I understand that there was reference to the difficult social realities of contemporary Japan in the 1930s films. In this sense, Record of a Tenement Gentleman is a continuation rather than a new beginning. The comic tone that lies on top of the sentimentality in the film is also a recurring element and the focus on the boy picks up on earlier films and is repeated in cameo appearances in Late Spring (1949) and is very evident in Ohayo! (1959).
In stylistic terms, this film has some of the ‘straight on’, Medium Close-Ups/Mid-Shots (as in the image above), shots of laundry drying, groups around the stove in the houses etc. – as well as shots outside amongst the rubble and along the beach. (I honestly can’t recall whether the camera moved in these sequences or if it was the movement of characters within the frame – certainly there is the sense of movement along the beach.)
I see no real reason to separate this film from those that followed in the so-called ‘late period’ of 1949-62. I haven’t watched all of the latter yet, but I’m sure that I will find them both similar and different, but consistent – if that makes sense.
I enjoyed this film that sneaked out in the UK on a single print from Dogwoof – who appear to have offered it no support at all. In Germany it was a significant hit (1.1 million admissions) and it seems to have had a reasonable distribution in North America. The reviews in the UK were generally OK I think, but in the US I’ve come across some real stinkers in which the filmmaker is accused of banality and ‘hippie fripperies’. It’s clearly a film that touches the ‘superior art’ button in some critics. I know I’m prone to this kind of response, so I’ll proceed with care.
Doris Dörrie is a German filmmaker who I’ve tended to associate with comedies – often about gender relations. I’m not sure that I’ve seen any of her earlier films. If I have, I don’t remember. I watched this film without any other preconceptions and was quickly aware that the narrative in the first half closely follows that of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Perhaps more surprising, the second half of the film corresponds more closely to aspects of Zhang Yimou’s Riding Along for Thousands of Miles and also includes sequences that could remind audiences of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. In a way, none of this is surprising since the central narrative ideas are universal. However, any filmmaker foregrounding a debt to Ozu needs to tread carefully. I thought Dörrie’s script and direction, and especially the performances of her leads, kept the narrative simple and provided a moving experience for the audience. Others clearly don’t agree.
If you don’t know Tokyo Story, it involves an older couple living in Osaka who decide at short notice to visit their grown-up children in Tokyo. Their son and daughter have busy lives with jobs and families and the parents feel as if they are imposing. They visit a spa to relieve the burden and the only real welcome they receive is from their dead son’s young widow. There is also another son who doesn’t live in Tokyo. Dörrie locates her parental couple in rural Bavaria and their children in Berlin and Tokyo. Ozu’s young widow becomes their daughter’s lesbian partner. Dörrie also utilises two other Ozu traits – trains and what has been termed the ‘pillow shot’. The film is a rail fetishist’s dream with numerous railway scenes in both Germany and Japan. The ‘pillow shot’ in Ozu’s mise en scène is a ‘cutaway’ to a shot of a deserted street or landscape placed between the shots of characters inside buildings and engaged in some form of discourse. Personally, I thought that Dörrie used this idea very well and I didn’t find the images banal.
There are a number of specific Japanese elements in the German sequences that become of great significance when the story moves to Tokyo. The first is the work of the artist Hokusai and specifically his famous series of woodblock prints, 36 Views of Mount Fuji produced in the 1830s. Hokusai was very popular in Japan and woodblock prints were arguably the world’s first mass medium. Contrasted with this is a much more modern Japanese cultural form, butoh – a form of contemporary dance developed in the 1950s. Both the relatively old and the new Japanese cultural forms have fans in the West and Dörrie uses this as the basis for the trip to Japan. The Zhang Yimou film Riding Along For Thousands of Miles sees a father travelling to rural China to film the folk opera that was his dying son’s research objective. In Cherry Blossoms, the quest is to see one of Hokusai’s views of Fuji, the ‘shy mountain’. The quest means engagement with a totally different language and culture and finding a sympathetic local to act as a guide.
Japanese culture produces many festivals, often associated with seasonal phenomena and the spirits that inhabit places of natural beauty. The blooming of the cherry tree for a few weeks in Spring is the signal for ‘viewing parties’ – social gatherings beneath the trees. (The festival is known as hanami.) Dörrie uses one of these in a Tokyo park as a central focus for her Japan-set narrative – one in which a bewildered German tries to find some form of spiritual connection. Unlike Coppola whose film controversially offers a postmodernist view of Tokyo, Dörrie just lets us struggle with her German character to comprehend another culture through mundane actions like buying a cabbage. If this is cinematic banality (“unoriginal and boring”) for some critics, I think that they must inhabit very different worlds to the one I experience.
I think that most adults in their thirties with ageing parents or most couples in their sixties with grown-up children will find this film to be moving and gently provocative in thinking about how they feel as parents and children. If it also gets anyone interested in Ozu, Zhang, Hokusai or simply visiting Tokyo that would be a bonus. I’d certainly recommend it. The music is also terrific with some pieces by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Here is the trailer from the film. Spoiler – it rather gives away the plot twists, but apart from that gives a fair indication of the film.