The National Gallery of Art will screen Tokyo Twilight (Tôkyô Boshoku) (1957), another great film from Yasujirô Ozu, this Sunday for their series of films starring ‘Japanese Divas.’ Like Ozu’s Early Summer (Bakushu) (1951), which screens one day before, this film is also about modern women finding their place in a world steeped in traditional customs.
Shukichi (Chishû Ryû) has it tough. A divorcee and hard-working businessman, he takes care of his youngest daughter Akiko (Ineko Arima) while she studies English shorthand. He lost his only son to a hiking accident and now has taken in his older daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) and her child after she had an argument with her husband. The younger daughter is having a tough time in life. Growing up without a mother has made her agitated during this difficult period of early adulthood. She desperately searches everywhere for her boyfriend, so she can tell him she’s pregnant. In a gossipy culture that looks down on women who are stained with such problems, Akiko and Takako are stuck at a crossroads in their lives.
When Akiko does tell the boyfriend that she’s pregnant, he regards it with suspicion, wondering aloud if it’s even his child. She is thrown into turmoil while he thinks it over. If this wasn’t enough, Akiko is also dealing with the sudden reappearance of her mother, whom it turns out is now back in Tokyo, running her boyfriend’s favorite mahjong parlor. Eventually, Akiko decides to get an abortion, only for her boyfriend to show up afterward and ask where she’s been. Keep in mind, this is a black and white film from 1957. What other films from this era deal so honestly with real life problems and difficult, stark subject matter?
Ozu’s works rarely dealt with topics that were so seedy. Compare it to Late Spring (Banshun) (1949), a film that glowed with the beauty of traditional Japan and treasured its ancient customs. In that film, modernity lost out to tradition and the ending was happier for it. But in Tokyo Twilight, difficult modern issues can’t help but seep their way into a culture that is dead set on upholding tradition. Ozu’s films are usually calm and tranquil, where even death drifts by slowly without much noise. Tokyo Twilight is a one-off work that tackles its topics with all the subtlety of a pachinko parlor. It’s certainly sad, but Ozu always has the wherewithal to back away when it feels as though melodrama might rear its ugly head. The thematic elements, and even the way some of the more colorful characters speak, is all rather vulgar in comparison with his other films. Its frankness is shocking, but refreshing.
It is a work by Ozu, to be sure, just one with more of a raw nerve. It is darker….literally. Sunlight is rarely seen, and when it does make a cameo, it’s through murky windows. Every room seems filled with cigarette smoke and stale air. Even its dorm rooms are filled with brooding mahjong gamblers. The film looks gritty and diseased. Two characters walk around wearing surgical masks as if this dark city might infect them. The light that is found in the characters of every other Ozu film is absent here. All of the main players skulk through life like zombies.
Tokyo Twilight is an arresting picture, but always fascinating. It’s the perfect film to show to those who refuse to watch old movies because they believe they’re “boring” or have an old-fashioned sensibility. It is perhaps even more important to show it to those who love old-timey Hollywood movies; those people who complain about society being on a fast track to hell and pine over “the way things used to be.” That argument is always ridiculous, and this film proves the point. The storyline here may have one or two elements that are over-the-top, but the underlying emotion never seems contrived. This movie is a rarely-watched gem that deserves more exposure.
Tokyo Twilight will play The National Gallery of Art’s east building concourse this Sunday at 4:30. The DVD is available from The Criterion Collection, packaged together with other works from Ozu. No single North American home video release of the film seems to be available for sale. However, you can find the film streaming on Hulu. For more on The National Gallery’s screenings, visit their site here.