Yasujiro Ozu would later achieve recognition for producing Japanese post war classics such as Late Spring and Tokyo Story, but in his early work you’re able to find much of the filmmaking DNA that would come to define his heavily influential style.
Tokyo Chorus is Ozu’s 7th film, and centres around a family man trying to provide for his family of five after losing his job at an insurance firm. This is all set in a Tokyo which is tumbling into a depression of sorts, at the start of the Shōwa period, and finding another job, even for a college educated man such as himself, isn’t easy. Given his background in silent comedy, Ozu wouldn’t have been faulted for making a farce of this man Shinji Okajima bumbling around searching for another job (actor Tokihiko Okada, who plays Okajima, displays considerable comedic talent throughout the film also.) Instead he uses the story to pose a question that would come to define the rest of his career: how does a large outside influence effect the family unit?
There are arguably no filmmakers who have studied the family as closely, silently, and sensitively as Ozu, and even from a young age (he was 27 when he directed this film) he shows these sensibilities in full force. When Okajima takes a job handing out flyers for an old college professor, his wife confronts him about his new job, there silence between the two burns off the screen and into the viewers psyche.
It is in this home setting that Ozu would find his cinematic home; everything that makes his greatest films so affecting is present: the long knowing pauses, the patience of dialogue, and the critical understanding of who the most important person in a room is at any given point. After a brief spell in hospital, the couple’s daughter Miyoko returns home and we cut to a scene of her, Okajima, and her brother playing a joyous clapping game on the floor of the lounge. It is a happy moment, but after this momentary relief we remember the family is quickly losing out of money, and the camera immediately cuts to Sugako (Shinji’s wife). We follow her down a path of quiet despair as she comes to understand they have braved a wave but have not yet survived the tide.
The other elements here tend to pale in comparison to Ozu’s definitive work, which can be a drawback of having such a virtuosic catalogue. The soundtrack which permeates the whole film works wonderfully in the comic moments, and the more physical moments especially, as it seems to punctuate the conflict scene between Okajima and his boss, yet during the more melancholic notes it still never dips below peppy and surely takes away from the conversational silences which are so well scripted and directed. No doubt this is a continuation from his days making silent comedies.
There are blunt moments throughout the script where Ozu’s storytelling is not yet as delicate as it would become, and tends to err on the side of clumsiness in a few areas. He isn’t as comfortable in the frame as he would become, and his signature stylistic details aren’t yet present, but there are a few scenes that linger on longer than an average filmmaker would leave them.
Importantly in this film as well Ozu places the family relationships simultaneously within and against the context. Shōwa period Tokyo is destitute, with vagrants on the street seeing businessmen come crawling to the same employment offices that they frequent, and yet Sugako still feels burning shame at seeing her husband work a menial job to support the family, labelling him a “horrible sight.” Indeed, Okajima himself never quite feels comfortable working such a low prestige job, but once he (and his wife) realise how important it is that the family must be supported, he accepts the work (and she helps out as well.)
Ultimately, I believe Ozu’s ideals on family place it at an importance above any social or cultural context, and that these ideals put him in place as the universal family filmmaker. They are well established here, and make for a compelling, if flawed, early entry into one of the most influential and respected oeuvres in world cinema.