TOKYO CHORUS (1931) FILM REVIEW
Updated: Mar 30
Tokyo Chorus was silent, but made Yasujirô Ozu heard!
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Cast: Tokihiko Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Hideo Sugawara, Hideko Takamine
Introducing Tokyo Chorus
Tokyo Chorus (1931) was Yasujirô Ozu's first step towards becoming one of the most respected film directors in history. It was the first film to show signs of Ozu's signature style, a trademark that would become a central piece in Japanese film history.
So far, Ozu had learned the ropes of the Japanese film industry by directing slapstick comedies on demand from Shochiku Studios. Some comedy remained, but Tokyo Chorus told a much more serious tale about a family man struggling to juggle the new responsibilities that came with Japanese modernization.
Like so many Ozu-films to follow in its footsteps, also Tokyo Chorus was centered on the middle-class nuclear family. Recurring main themes are the examining of social structures fostered by Japanese modernization, and more importantly, authority issues.
Ozu’s Background for making Tokyo Chorus
Ozu directed his first film in 1927 at Shochiku Studios. In the following three years he made 19 films, some which was well-received in Japan, but ultimately didn't make the biggest waves in the film community.
Before directing Tokyo Chorus, Ozu felt demotivated by how little impact his filmmaking made. So, he decided to make a serious film with a humorous touch. In his own words, he tried to go for a «nonchalant mood».
«I couldn't figure out what to do to make a good film. What can
a director bequeath to posterity? I began to find film meaningless.»
- Yasujiro Ozu about Tokyo Chorus -
Evidently a wise decision, since Tokyo Chorus ended up listed as the third best film in 1931 by the first and foremost film authority in Japan, Kinema Junpo. Thereafter, Ozu won the award for best film the following three years in a row, from 1932-1934.
As such, Tokyo Chorus is noted by film researcher David Bordwell as Ozu's first step into the limelight. Tokyo Chorus was the film that made Japanese film critics take note of Ozu. Less than a decade later, he also had the Japanese audience in the palm of his hand.
Plot for a Silent Tokyo Song
Our main characters - a young couple and their two kids - are struggling to get by in early 1930s Tokyo. The first scene is a flashback from the father’s high school days. Apparently innocent, he was pulling pranks, acting out of line, and upsetting his Sensei.
Cut to five years later, and our protagonist is in the middle of a conflict with his employer at an insurance company. Standing up for his coworker, he ends up getting fired when opposing unjust work practices.
At home, his insolent son is terrorizing the family when the father didn’t get him the bike he was promised. In a matter of hours, the tables have turned. The father goes from opposing authority to taking on the role of an authority figure himself. To regain family peace, he disciplines the boy.
The next few days, the father and son get on better terms. The sad faces of his children are too much for the father to bear. So, he decides to get his son a bike after all. In the same day, while searching for a new job, he incidentally runs into his former Sensei.
He is offered a degrading job on the spot, with the promise of a better position in the horizon. As such, both authority issues are dealt with in one day. The family harmony is secured, and a new healthy relationship is forged with his overbearing Sensei.
Trapped Between the Lines of Servitude and Paternity
So, what is the moral of the story? Like father like son? The social implications reflected in the cross-generational authority issues are far vaster. It was a time when Japan was both modernizing and fighting to maintain some sense of national identity.
This led to many unfamiliar family situations. Japan's modern salarymen suddenly found themselves chained to their new nuclear families, without the support that came with multigenerational households.
The father had to become a role model, sole supporter of the family, and learn to comply with the modern pecking order that took hold in many Japanese businesses.
By filming the protagonist amidst a plethora of modern office supplies and imported wares, Ozu underlined feelings of unfamiliarity. Modernity took control of everything, and yet, the salarymen were supposed to take charge of their own family life.
The highly uniform and obedient Japanese society was a perfect setting for Ozu to raise questions about authority. Surrounded by irrefutable norms and public domination, what happens when the little man is done wrong by the system?
As a whole, the movie seems to advocate that conformity leads to happiness. Sometimes though, individuals have to stand up for themselves or their peers. The father was after all in the right when defending his coworker at the insurance company, an act which ultimately outlined his good-natured and righteous persona.
Producing a Voiceless Chorus
Speaking between lines - a reflection of the Japanese tendency to understate emotions - would soon become an Ozu trademark. In Tokyo Chorus, however, many emotional outbursts are laid bare, while others are hidden behind gestures, looks, or expressed via set pieces and props.
One example is the materialist pileup that engulfs the father. A more subtle emotional reveal, is when a game of hand-clapping transforms into a realization of dire straits, as the image cuts to a hand slowly fanning over a sick child.
Though the undercurrents in the story are serious, Tokyo Chorus never becomes gloomy. Virtually every scene has a humorous touch, which in large part can be attributed to terrific casting and great chemistry between the actors.
Especially the relationship between father and son is wonderfully portrayed. The son eating interior paper walls in protest, is a priceless moment. The father and his colleagues (at the insurance company) trying to hide their excitement over the year-end bonus is equally so.
Ozu and his film style were far from fully matured when making Tokyo Chorus. Still, many of his typical traits to come made their first appearance here. Most prominent were the low camera angles, the concealed character emotions, and the infamous «pillow shots».
Ozu did things his own way, and more importantly, in his own tempo.
The pillow shots, like the pillow words in poetry, are small apparently insignificant cutaways which on the contrary underlines important context. An image of clutter underlined a chaotic mental state. Treetops swaying reflected the innocence of youth, while fabric pipes spewing smoke was the image of responsibility and duty in modern Japan.
Ozu also tended to revisit pillow shots in the same movie, showing some small change in details to signify some character development. The most evident example of this in Tokyo Chorus is the student gathering that opens and closes the film.
The first student line-up shows a lively bunch, full of anticipation and hopes for the future. The last gathering in the school yard depicts a much more somber group, who have come to learn a thing or two about the future that awaits when adulthood soon is upon them.
The Echoes of Tokyo Chorus
Ozu took inspiration from Hollywood cinema. In Tokyo Chorus his infatuation with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Loyd and Ernst Lubitsch are still evident, which is interesting, since his trademark style soon would conceal any traces of such inspirations.
That being said, as much as Ozu played with American cinematic conventions in the 30s, a few decades later he would come to make films that would give back tenfold. Many American directors would soon look to him for inspiration.
Not many mention Tokyo Chorus as a direct influence. The budding tendencies in it are nonetheless the seeds from which many great filmmakers would later reap and re-cultivate their own movie-crops back in America.
«Ozu is ... not the most Japanese of all directors. He is what the
Japanese would like to think is the most Japanese of all.»
- Paul Schrader -
Among many, Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, American Gigolo) and Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth, Dead Man) have mentioned Ozu as an important source of inspiration. Schrader in particular has voiced his interest in Ozu's tendency to disregard American movie making norms altogether.
Not only did Ozu experiment radically with camera positioning and movement, he slowed down the tempo of his films to a slow churning slumber. As such, Ozu's relation to Hollywood went from being influenced, to opposing all its teachings, to becoming an influencer.
In Japan, Ozu was opposing cinematic norms just as much as abroad. In an essay about Ozu, Schrader deemed Ozu too unique among Japanese directors to earn the commonly used label: «The most Japanese of all directors».
Final Verdict for Tokyo Chorus
Wherever Ozu came from, or was going thereafter, Tokyo Chorus was an amazing achievement. It is not only a unique film in Japanese film history, but also in Ozu’s own filmography. Never would this perfect balance between comedy and drama be seen again.
It might not be perfectly representative of Ozu’s filmmaking, but still, Tokyo Chorus is a very nice starting point for anyone interested in Ozu’s formative years. It is an entertaining, humorous, well-acted out silent gem with a lot of heart.
In fact, Tokyo Chorus is one of the best silent films you will ever see. Why it has not been targeted for proper restoration and release on Blu-ray is somewhat of a mystery. It certainly has proven to stand the test of time.
You might wonder then, why Tokyo Chorus got a somewhat low rating. Well, the quality of the release does not enhance the experience, but then again, we are not reviewing transfers or distributors.
The main reason for our rating is that Tokyo Chorus pales in comparison to another silent treasure that came the following year. Ozu did it all better when making one of the best silent films of all time in 1932: «I Was Born, But...»
A2pcinema.com: Tokyo Chorus
Center for Japanese Studies Publication: Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema
Film Comment: On Yasujiro Ozu
Los Angeles Times: Yasujiro Ozu excelled in his quiet moments
Only the Cinema: Tokyo Chorus
San Francisco Silent Film Festival: Tokyo Chorus (Essay by Jason Sanders)