TOKYO CHORUS (1931)
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
The silent beginnings of a Japanese filmmaker icon!
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Cast: Tokihiko Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Hideo Sugawara, Hideko Takamine
Early in his career Ozu made this silent take on the modern dramedy (drama-comedy). It shows budding tendencies of the style and sensibility that later would become Ozu’s trademark, which is to say a central piece in Japanese film history. Like so many Ozu-films to follow in its footsteps, also Tokyo Chorus is centered around the middle-class nuclear family. A recurring main theme throughout the film is authority issues.
Our main characters - a young couple and their two sons - 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 and acting jokingly disrespectful towards 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 coworkers, he ends up getting fired when opposing unjust work practices.
At home he must deal with his insolent son, who 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 peace in the family he disciplines the boy.
In the following 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.
Between the lines
The moral of the story: Like father like son. The social implications reflected in the story are far vaster, however. 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 compliance and 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 nature and righteous persona.
Virtually every scene has a humorous touch, which in large part can be attributed to the compelling cast. Especially the father and son are portrayed wonderfully. 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.
Naturally, Ozu and his film style had not matured fully when making Tokyo Chorus. Still, his later to become typical traits, such as low camera angles and static camera utilization, were already prominent. Likewise were some early traces of the director’s infamous «pillow shots».
Tokyo Chorus is a very nice starting point for anyone interested in Ozu’s formative film making years. It is an entertaining, humorous, well acted out silent gem with a lot of heart. Why this film 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.