Here’s an interesting viewing experience: being only intermittently interested in a film but welling up by the last twenty minutes! Wim Wenders‘ documentary about the late director Yasujirō Ozu and his beloved Tokyo is fitfully interesting but not quite the analysis/appraisal that I wanted it to be.
From what I’ve seen so far, Wenders’ narrative features are better than his documentary work. In this respect, he will always be behind Werner Herzog (who makes an oddly unsubtitled appearance here, dunno if that was the DVD or the film), in particular, his narration is not as good; his delivery is flat and very often the voiceover is redundant, simply explaining what is in front your eyes.
There are also long stretches in which Wenders is indulging in a rather dull travelogue; the problem being that if this is ostensibly a film about Ozu, then you can certainly devote a large section to the place which was so integral to the artist’s work (for example – Julien Temple spends a good 15-20 minutes of his Dr. Feelgood doc, Oil City Confidential, introducing their home, Canvey Island). However, it feels for long stretches like Ozu takes a backseat to Tokyo. That’s not to say that that stuff is all boring, certainly the sequence which follows the making of wax food replicas is very interesting and all the footage of Japanese people going about their everyday lives but I would have preferred to see that in a separate documentary about Tokyo itself. Now, there is an argument to say that Ozu’s work was about everyday Japanese life and that Tokyo-ga reflects that in some way but it doesn’t discuss that. Wenders just tends toward doing that rather irritating thing of talking about Ozu by way of himself for a long time – hence, a “this-is-what-I-did-on-my-holiday” feel. So, you wish for most of the run time that Wenders had made two movies: one about Tokyo, one about Ozu.
That said, once he gets talking to Ozu collaborators, Chishū Ryū (most famously the elderly father in Tokyo Story) and cameraman Yuharu Atsuta the movie picks up quite considerably. Again, it would’ve been nice had Wenders subtitled these interviews rather than injecting his own voice over the footage but the insight we get into these two gentlemen and their relationship with Ozu is fascinating. For one, the surprisingly humble and self-effacing Chishū’s admission that he considered himself a “poor marksman” and “among the ranks of the less talented” of Ozu’s players. A staggering insight when you consider that he appeared in 32 of Ozu’s 54 feature films.
The real turnaround, though, comes from DOP Yuhara, who discusses very intimately, the favoured set-ups of Ozu’s films (locked-off camera, 50mm lens and stood at about the eyeline one would have kneeling on a tatami mat). Later, he discusses the longevity of his career with Ozu – over 30 years, from camera assistant to director of photography – he is clearly so proud of his relationship and work. Right at the end, however, Wenders asks him if he has worked with anyone else after Ozu’s death and this causes Yuhara to break up. With terrible sadness, he confesses that he considers his work not as good after that and that he had done his best work. This immediately raises the questions we’ve been wanting: what was Ozu’s effect on those he worked with? Is a director only as good as his/her crew? What was it about his work that seems so personal to everyone else?
A long time spent waiting for such a pay-off and ultimately not serving as a good introduction to Ozu. Shame, really.
[Oh, by the way, from my very limited knowledge of Yasujiro Ozu, I’d say start with Good Morning]