The title itself echoes that of Ozu’s critically acclaimed Tokyo Story. But this is not Ozu’s Tokyo. The Tokyo of Tokyo Sonata is not postwar Japan of the 1950s; it is the Tokyo during the global recession of the late 2000s. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Tokyo Sonata, like Ozu, is concerned with Japan’s nuclear family and the very fabric of Japanese society in times of crisis. Unlike Ozu, Kurosawa is traditionally an auteur of the J-horror variety, dealing with cyber-ghosts and serial-killers. But he manages to construct a fairly meticulous domestic drama and blend it with elements of suspense and dread.
Though Ozu was never overtly socio-political with his messages, he had an understated understanding of the way social conditions created the climate we live in. Kurosawa, however, is directly concerned with these climates and the inevitable chain reaction that occurs when a family member falls victim to its conditions. Specifically, he is interested in the male head of the Japanese family – the father and patriarchal figure – after he loses his job and tries to hide it. What happens to the rest of the household? The dutiful housewife must continue to play her subordinate role; the eldest son is compelled to join the army; and the youngest son finds himself drawn towards piano lessons they can’t afford. Only lies and secrets hold this family together. This modern-day Tokyo that Kurosawa envisions is a place of desolation and repressed emotion. However, he isn’t solely blaming this on the economic climate. The members of the family seem to be very insular even before the father loses his job. The financial crisis that afflicts them is merely the catalyst for a family breakdown. But maybe a necessary breakdown. A cathartic breakdown.
I never had the pleasure of watching Tokyo Sonata at the cinema; It was never released locally here in New Zealand, at least as far as I’m aware of. There is this idea that Japanese cinema is too foreign for Westerners. This idea plagued the international distribution of Ozu’s films when they were first released. And this idea continues to plague Tokyo Sonata which still has not been released on DVD in the Australasian region. But, make no mistake about it, these worlds are not so different from ours.
In Ozu’s Tokyo, the character’s are taught to bear their grins even in the face of crushing disappointment. This is does not seem possible to us; we are not Ozu’s people, though we understand their suffering. In Kurosawa’s Tokyo, his people are crushed by disappointment, but there is the possibility of rebirth and new beginnings. Hope is all we have. And sometimes that’s enough.
What makes a man a man? It’s a question that hangs over both Bobby and Sung-Nam in Five Easy Pieces and Night and Day, respectively.
Man is a solitary creature.
Or so he likes to say.
He often longs for company.
He often wants to play.
Yet in his heart
He feels the void
He cannot stay. So
He does what he’s
Best known as Ozu’s first talkie (sound film), The Only Son (1936) is a highly accomplished domestic drama that would set the bar for all his subsequent features. It tells the story of a hardworking single mother who sacrifices what little life she has left to give her only son a chance at a future. She sends him to study in Tokyo, the city of opportunities, as she is led to believe that’s the right thing to do, after a talk with her son’s schoolteacher. Then time passes. Thirteen years, to be exact. The mother goes to Tokyo to visit her son and discovers he has a wife and a baby. He is also, to her disappointment, working as a night school teacher. Not quite what she had imagined for her son’s future. Not quite what she thought she had given up so much for.
If the plot sounds familiar it’s probably because it is. The central theme of shared disappointment between parent and child is a recurring motif in Ozu’s ouevre. It seems to be a precursor to something like Tokyo Story. The theme is even highlighted at the beginning of the film with a quote by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutogawa: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” This may as well be Ozu’s mantra.
What makes The Only Son standout is its narrative and structural elements you don’t normally find in Ozu’s films (at least not the ones I am familiar with). The first 15-minutes of the film are devoted to the life of the mother, dealing with her job as an employee at a silk-weaving factory, exploring her financial restraints, and showing her initial reluctance to give her son a proper education. And then, as previously mentioned, time passes. Such elliptical storytelling isn’t unique to Ozu’s films, as he often would omit essential plot details and jump ahead in time, but it was rare to see him jump so far ahead that actor’s have to be cast to play their older counterparts.
The remaining 65-minutes of the film are fascinating in their introduction of storylines that seem to mirror the central one: the reappearance of the son’s school teacher, who also moved to Tokyo in search of greener pastures, now working in a seemingly dead restaurant; and a neighbour’s son who is injured trying to impress his friends into letting him play with their baseball glove, because his mother can’t afford to buy him one.
The most gut-wrenching scene of the film occurs when the titular son wakes up to find his mother unable to go to bed. He understands why. She is concerned for his wellbeing and disappointed by his position in life. He too is disappointed by life’s meagre offerings, but doesn’t know what else to do. She insists he must overcome all the necessary obstacles – to try harder. To be a great man, like he promised as a child. He says he cannot. She says he must. After all, she has given up everything for him and is now stuck living in the very factory she works; her house was sold to fund her son’s future. And, suddenly and unexpectedly, we hear crying. The only son’s wife has been listening to the conversation – awaken by their distress. She, like the audience, understands how filled with disappointment their lives are.
This scene is impeccably constructed. Ozu presents a domino effect of disappointment. Each character in the house is presented in a series of consecutive shots, each one visibly upset, except the final character, the sleeping baby. Ozu then bookends this moment of great tragedy in his usual way, with a pillow shot (narratively-unrelated shot of scenery). Perhaps he does this to let us digest the profound sadness we have only just witnessed. This pillow shot – of and empty room in the house – lasts for approximately a whole minute. We are forced take this moment in, to contemplate it, whether we want to or not.
In Ozu’s world, people are faced with disappointments throughout their day-to-day lives, the weight of responsibility and expectation. He wants to show us the world in all its relatable imperfection. The least we can do is accept and acknowledge the existence of these truths rather than blithely ignoring them. After all, he must have gone through great pains to show us these things. No art this honest is made without some sort of suffering.
Somewhere along the line, after the shift towards mainstream gay acceptance, queerness in cinema died. Queer in the truest sense, not just films with gay characters, but unabashedly gay characters who challenge the status quo.
What do I mean I say “queer?” I mean strange, odd, different. And, most especially, transgressive and possibly shocking. Something that feels at odds with the rest of both mainstream heterosexual and mainstream gay culture. I’m talking about films by directors such as Derek Jarman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Kenneth Anger; or the earlier efforts by guys still working in the business today: Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and John Waters. But, if contemporary LGBTI film festivals are any indicator, these transgressive punks of cinema have been replaced by a new wave of gay filmmaking. Films aimed at gay audiences but with commercial sensibilities, filled with contrived plots and lazy characterizations – like Eating Out (2004) or Another Gay Movie (2006).
Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) was a welcome addition to the gay film canon, but it wasn’t queer in the truest sense. It was encumbered by – a term I generally avoid – the “straight male gaze.” A film etched in class differences more so than concerns of queer expression, though it was undoubtedly a film with queer content: romantic and erotic female relationships, explicit lesbian sex scenes, and the questioning of one’s sexual orientation. At the end of the day, director Abdellatif Kechiche made a beautiful film, arguably great even, but it is a film in the vein of (but much better than) Brokeback Mountain (2005) – successful in intention and execution, but aimed at a non-queer audience. They are studies of characters with an ambivalence towards their sexuality rather than a celebration of it.
In Gus Van Sant’s debut feature film, Mala Noche (1986), we meet Walt, a gay store clerk. He falls in love – sudden, unrequited, obsessive love – with a boyish Mexican immigrant. At one point he even declares, “I have to show him that I’m gay for him.” Gay. Gay. Gay. This film is very gay. It’s not the sort of politically-charged work Van Sant’s later, but still successful, Milk (2008) is, with big stars and big locations. It’s free from the shackles and burdens of money, as well as its obvious benefits. It’s the work of a young gay director attempting to share something intimate. It is queerness personified, unfettered by any studio system or mainstream accolades.
That is not to say that contemporary cinema lacks radical queer filmmaking. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004) and Patrick Wang’s In the Family (2011) are all striking examples of queer films made within the last decade that feel unapologetic and radical in their own ways. Weekend for its unabashedly gay riff on David Lean’s Brief Encounter and authentic male-on-male sex; Tropical Malady for its unrelenting elliptical take on homosexual desire through surprising narrative structure; and In the Family for its endlessly empathetic depiction of the domestic drama from an outsider’s perspective.
Maybe it is the growing acceptance of the gay community in most of modern society that is the very cause for queer cinema’s lack of queerness. There is no desire to fight for something the community believes they have won. No longer do filmmakers want to offend the heterosexual sensibilities of others – or the heterosexual sensibilities they themselves have adopted. I’m personally not quite ready for queer cinema to assimilate and lose itself to cheesy rom-com sentiments or mainstream-arthouse sensibilities. There is always something to rebel against. Now we just need to find it.