Toronto Silent Film Festival 2013: Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Chorus’ sings in counterpoint to The Crowd

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Tokyo_Chorus-1_1932
Tokyo Chorus
Directed by Yasujirô Ozu
Written by Kôgo Noda
Japan, 1931

After launching its 2013 schedule with one of the most unrelentingly somber works of art ever committed to celluloid, the TSFF took a more genial tack on the second night of its run. Revered for his celebrated series of post-World War Two family melodramas, Yasujirô Ozu actually began his career as a comedic filmmaker – and this rambunctious movie (which befited immensely from keyboardist Laura Silberberg’s jaunty live accompaniment) reflects that. As special guest speaker (and Shinsedai Cinema Festival co-programmer and co-director) Chris MaGee argued during his introductory remarks, Tokyo Chorus occupies a crucial place in Ozu’s oeuvre, announcing a “familial turn” that would eventually produce masterpieces like Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953).

The intense dramatics of those later efforts are mostly absent from Tokyo Chorus, but that does not mean that this isn’t a serious film. In fact, it is highly instructive to think of Ozu’s sensitive treatment of life on the fringes of middle class “respectability” and “freedom” with King Vidor’s (in many ways) similar 1928 foray into The Crowd (a film that, perhaps not coincidentally, is next up on the TSFF schedule). Like its Hollywood counterpart, Ozu’s work combines cinema verite-style attention to sociological detail (that flock of straw boater hats on the wall of Okajima’s insurance office, the dust on the “Calorie Cafe’s” menus and flyers, the web of streetcar cables that both liberate and cage in the city’s denizens) with a canny psychological analysis of the workings of the early-to-mid-20th century family.

The differences between the films are particularly enlightening. For one thing, the American urge to sentimentalize childhood and put it on a highchair/pedestal plays no part in these proceedings. Tokyo Chorus‘s struggling dad (delightfully – and very convincingly – portrayed by Tokihiko Okada) has no illusions about his older son or daughter (we don’t hear much about his feelings about the baby of the family). He might spank them on occasion, and tries to pull rank whenever he can, but, on the whole, he treats them as beings no more or less exalted than himself — an admirable attitude dramatized in a way that cannot help but startle 21st century viewers (it seems like the man spends about a quarter of the film exhanging slapstick shoves with juveniles). In fact, everyone is pushing everyone else in this movie: the teacher and the students during the opening inspection scene from the protagonist’s college days, Okajima’s son and his rivals on the street outside the family’s house, and (in one of the film’s most memorable scenes) Okajima himself during the course of his fan-duel with his soon-to-be ex-boss. This boisterous and very nearly ubiquitous physicality speaks volumes about Ozu’s conception of the typical Japanese citizen’s idea of his or her relationship to the masses. Simply put, Ozu’s characters, irreverent though they may be, do not purposefully set themselves apart from their peers within the jostling crowd.  This might help to explain why Ozu’s vision (at least in this instance) is so much less tragic than Vidor’s film, which is driven primarily by its protagonist’s oft-frustrated need to see himself as a tastemaker and a radically unique being, rather than just a standard issue consumer drone. (And it is rather significant that when Ozu introduces modern advertizing culture into his film – with the cafe owner’s “Our Portions Will Really Fill You Up” slogan – he treats it as purely a joking matter, rather than, as in Vidor, as one of the primary structuring influences upon 20th century life and personality.)

But despite its frequent bursts of frenetic (and very funny) comedy, what remains with the viewer are the many beautifully composed shots and sequences depicting family life in Japan during the early 1930s. This is perhaps best exemplified by a disarming scene in which the entire nuclear unit gradually slips into a game of pattycake to slap their fears away. It’s an incredibly generous portrait of a group of people who are held together not by social pressures, or reverence, or even mutual respect, but rather by a kind of playground egalitarianism that keeps the song going strong, even if it doesn’t always keep the peace.

Next up for the Toronto Silent Film Festival is, as previously mentioned, King Vidor’s The Crowd (a film, and a director, that this reviewer has written about at some length in the past), which is playing at Innis Hall at 4pm on Saturday. You can find the entire TSFF schedule here.

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