A strange moment is buried near the end of Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Two sister-in-laws, Kyoko and Noriko, are chatting and airing their grievances when Kyoko interjects, “Isn’t life disappointing?”
Noriko smiles back at her. “Yes,” she nods. “Nothing but disappointment.”
“Well I should get going,” says Kyoko.
“Goodbye, then,” responds Noriko. They smile at each other and leave.
You might find this an oddly quotidian treatment of existential tragedy – but that oddness is precisely what defines the work of Yasujirō Ozu.
Ozu is the secret maestro of Japanese cinema; hiding from the public eye, his legend as one of the great humanists of the 20th century is kept alive by critics and film school students. One explanation of this is that Ozu’s films are Buddhist at heart. Though mainstream western culture can easily digest the bushido code, with its emphasis on honor and revenge, the mystic passivity of Buddhism is far more alien to us.
The best example of Ozu’s Buddhist ideology is found in his interpretation of pain. Earlier in the same conversation between Noriko and Kyoko, Kyoko is angrily deriding their siblings’ treatment of the elderly grandparents. “I felt sorry for poor mother,” she says. “Even strangers would have been more considerate!”
When I first watched the film, I was on Kyoko’s side. I saw it as a morality play – essentially about how we should treat our parents better. It was unusually subtle for a morality play, but ultimately didactic nonetheless. One YouTube comment on Tokyo Story proves that others feel the same way: “Great movie it makes me want to bee a better son, and to never have children!”
On my second and third viewings, however, I began to understand that the real revelation of this scene is the line that comes next. Noriko responds, “Look, Kyoko, I thought so too when I was your age. But as children get older, they drift away from their parents.”
The film is full of these oblique statements that seem to pardon the childrens’ unkind behavior.
“Children never live up to their parents’ expectations. Let’s just be happy that they’re better than most.”
“They’re certainly better than average. We’re fortunate.”
“I think so, too.”
“We should consider ourselves lucky.”
“Yes, we are very lucky.”
At first glance, I perceived these as truisms, put in the mouths of the characters to conceal their real anger and sadness at their children. But I began to realize that, quite the opposite, they are the central idea of the film.
The Buddha allegedly stated, “Pain in life is inevitable but suffering is not. Pain is what the world does to you, suffering is what you do to yourself.”
Through Ozu’s lens, there are two reactions to pain; acceptance and suffering. The wise person lets pain occur, even feels it, but does not turn it into moral judgment. As Lawrence of Arabia says, “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” The unwise person, conversely, obsesses over pain, places it under headings like “wrong” and “evil”. These moral categorizations themselves create a new form of pain, which the Buddha labels suffering. Suffering is unnecessary and pointless; it is, at its heart, a vain attempt to eradicate the first kind of pain.
It is hard, if not impossible, for me to put myself in this mindset. When I try to weigh its merits, questions arise: If we feel pain, do we not suffer? Isn’t pain bad? Why shouldn’t we morally judge bad people?
Perhaps it is my Western upbringing, or perhaps I’m just wired that way. But even a surface-level understanding of Ozu’s perspective on pain has given me insight into his other works. Late Spring is not about the evils of societal norms, and The Only Son is not about the tragedy of the education system – they are simply presentations of pain, like a chef serving the bitter along with the sweet.
This deeply Eastern philosophy caused Japanese film exporters to view Ozu’s films as unmarketable to a Western audience; Tokyo Story was not known among European and American film critics until the 60s and 70s.
Ozu’s Buddhist portrayal of pain stands in stark contrast to the other looming titan of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa was often accused by critics of being “too Western”, and although it is perplexing to assign normativity to this, it’s true that Kurosawa’s films basically operate under a Western value system. Having grown up watching John Ford films, he saw the world in terms of cowboys and bandits.
Ikiru, Kurosawa’s masterpiece about ageing and death, is strikingly different from Tokyo Story, although on the surface they deal with similar subject matter. Both are about ageing men trying to deal with the horror of death and the loneliness of solitude. In Tokyo Story, the answer is feeling pain and hardship without suffering. In Ikiru, the answer is precisely the opposite – the main character purges himself of pain through a valiant act (building a playground), immortalizing him as a hero. For Kurosawa, accepting pain is not an option – he legitimates the existential dread that Ozu dismisses.
Nearly all of Kurosawa’s films can be viewed through this lens. In Seven Samurai, the heroic samurai eradicate the pain of the villagers by slaying the bandits. In Rashomon, the pain of ignorance and subjectivity is washed away by the good deed of fostering an infant (the film ends with sparkling sunshine replacing the pouring rain).
Kurosawa took great inspiration from the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, even attempting unsuccessfully to adapt his novel The Idiot. Dostoevsky is the perfect figurehead for the tortured Western perception of pain. For him, the only real problem was the Problem of Evil, and it is the existence of evil and pain that serves as the central obsession of his novels. He could not stomach a world in which men were evil and caused others pain.
Ozu, on the other hand, made films that present pain in a commonplace manner. He is known for “pillow shots” – shots of empty alleys, piles of magazines and vases of flowers that are interspersed between the scenes of his films. He is fascinated with objects because they exist regardless of human pain. They represent the eye of the world, looking placidly at us as we come into existence, suffer, and die. They represent peace, tranquility – nothingness. Uncoincidentally, “nothingness” is the single word inscribed on Ozu’s gravestone.
At the end of Tokyo Story, the grandfather returns home to southwest Japan, alone for the first time since the death of his wife. He sits cross-legged on a tatami mat, fanning himself. A neighbor stops by his window, and they chat about life.
“Living alone,” he says, “I think the days will seem very long.”
“Absolutely. You’ll feel lonely,” she says, smiling cheerfully. They bow and she walks away.
He lets out a calm sigh, listening to the put-put of the boats in the harbor.