Wednesday, April 30, 2008

REVIEW: Tokyo-ga - Wim Wenders (1983)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Trains trundling from suburb to city to town, tatami mat rooms where young boys play while their parents sit gazing out at a fenced garden, nomi-ya where old men sit appreciatively sipping cups of sake; this is the landscape of Yasujiro Ozu who for 35 years and 54 films explored the Japanese family, its longing for the past and its coming to terms with an uncertain future. That is until 1963 when Ozu succumbed to throat cancer. His films have grown in popularity in the West thank to the efforts of critic Donald Richie and filmmaker Paul Schrader; and the name Ozu has become synonymous with a rigorously structured, but delicate and often melancholy Japan. All these years later one could ask, "Does this Japan still exist today?" That is the exact question that another great filmmaker asks in his documentary "Tokyo-ga".

In 1983, 20 years after the death of Ozu, German director Wim Wenders ("Paris Texas", "Wings of Desire") took a camera to Tokyo and surrounding areas in search of the world of Ozu. After so many years and an economic and social boom could he still find traces of the Japan that Ozu put forward in his films?

Wenders starts at the end, seeking out Ozu's grave in Kamakura and the single character carved into its stone: "mu", nothingness, and from this concept heavy with zen-like significance he then free associates on what he can capture with his camera (pachinko parlours, putting greens, rockabilly kids in the park), his reactions to them, and how these images can be put into the context of Ozu's films, which Wenders refers to repeatedly as "sacred".

What follows is a bit of a mixed bag; part travelogue, part monologue. One minute Wenders films his version of going through the Polka Dot Door (a Canadian kids show for our international members) and showing us how the wax models of food that are displayed in restaurant windows are made, the next he's interviewing his friend Werner Herzog who rambles on about wanting to be shot into space, but who never mentions Ozu at all. If it weren't for the wonderful (and often heartbreakingly emotional) encounters with regular Ozu player Chishu Ryu and Ozu's cinematographer for almost 20 films, Yuuharu Atsuta, you could be forgiven for not knowing "Tokyo-ga"is about Yasujiro Ozu at all, so in this way the documentary is not entirely successful.

Regardless of the meandering, if you have been lucky enough to have spent some time in Japan the scenes that Wenders has compiled will definitely give you a dose of nostalgia, and fans of Ozu will appreciate the added dimension of the appreciation of his cinema. After years in limbo as an out of print VHS tape the folks at the Criterion Collection have made "Tokyo-ga" available as a bonus disk that comes with it's release of Ozu's "Late Spring". Check it out.

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