Nobility, Decency and Misery of Existential Silence in Post-WW2 Japan

That’s how Ozu introduces post-WW2 Japan to the viewers in the very beginning of his film. That’s how the urban context of people’s life looks when the goal of industrialization is not to serve people’s needs but to have the population serve economy and technology.

With nice perspectives like this Ozu fills the pauses in the development of the story about characters’ life as its socio-economic environment.

We see here the group of peripheral personages that with slight modifications appears throughout the film as another filler of the pauses in depiction of the relationships between the main characters as an ominous sign of times. These innocent gamblers are ordinary people who don’t have anything better to do in between working hours – whose souls are empty. Today’s American equivalent is soap-opera vigil, pop-music ecstatic rituals and violent video-games.

Sugiyama is a senior clerk or junior manager in the bank. He is an abandoned husband and a noble father of two grown up children. In this shot we see him as if kidnapped from the reality by his meditative dissolution in the memories of his tormenting past. Why can’t he find/invent a language to express his grief – why can’t he talk about it?

Sugiyama’s wife’s “betrayal” of her husband and their two children, hangs over her like chains. The inability to communicate with each other and their adult children about what’s happened makes x-spouses a kind of artists of meditation.

Ozu, no doubt, intentionally makes this shot of Sugiyama’s daughters like a family photo – to emphasize that their very vitality and their very ability to live confidently have been hurt by the prevalence of spiritual silence over human problems and language of sharing the truth even when this truth is painful. Setsuko Hara (on the left) playing the elder sister and famous for leading roles in Kurosawa’s films of 40-50s, has the exceptional ability to express the spiritual gift of interiorizing and containing grief instead of surrendering to frustration and aggressive acting-out. But in the context of Sugiyama family problems spiritual silence (with all its sublime nobility) covers up critical emotional truths instead of addressing and trying to understand them without blaming and finger-pointing.

Sugiyama’s daughters were growing in feeling of being condemned by their family – they learned to hide from themselves what took place between their father and mother, never to address it with words and shared emotions. In a world of traditional (not existentialized) spirituality, words about living life belong to vanity and gossip. The younger daughter wasn’t prepared to accept the facts about her family and in the despair of shame committed suicide.


“Twilight in Tokyo” is an example of Ozu’s style which starts to register the reality on screen not just as what human eyes can see, not as the social atmosphere which human beings fill with their presence, not as a concentration of the will and the human energy in the leading protagonists, but as what can be felt as the giant invisible (existing behind what can be seen) living organism which can be called the living world. In Ozu people’s everyday life is something like precipitation of Being – its periphery. We feel being’s heaviness, as if hanging inside the screen; we feel how the characters are suspended in this heaviness and only partially are moved by their own wills. But “Twilight in Tokyo” is not only registering the connection of people with being. The film also problematizes this connection, looks at it critically. In other words, there are bridges between being and twilight, being can also be existential twilight. Ozu helps us to understand in what historical periods it happens and what psychological condition corresponds to this phenomenon when being becomes twilight.

The main protagonist of the film Sugiyama, a single parent of two daughters, personifies Japan’s destiny in a period of intense and indeed, crushing modernization of the country in the middle of 20th century. In his private life Sugiyama keeps the spiritual posture. He is not concentrated on social and politico-economic life of his society (a rather typical position for people with traditional religious background). It is a very difficult task for any actor to act/impersonate the condition of a country in a certain epoch. How can an actor create the character of the country – a multilayered and multi-variable abstraction? Ryu Chishu is amazingly successful in delivering the portrait of a not only typical upper middle class Japanese but the condition of the soul of Japan in the post-WW2 period. On the one hand he shows his character as reserved and depressed, on the other as a man motivated by Zen-Buddhist emotional estrangement from the existential reality, and at the same time as a conformist functionary of the existing system. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate when Sugiyama is sad and apathetic, when he is just wise according to Zen and when he is just a responsibly obedient citizen dedicated to his daughters. These variables fuse with one another ending all together in a giant silence.

Sugiyama was abandoned by his wife in a period of fascist militarization which destabilized life, made imagination run amok, split human passions from psychological wholeness. Japanese militarism stimulated by technological development brought painful defeat. The post-WW2 industrialization was a feverishly speedy attempt to forget the national trauma, a maniacal side of the psychological depression of a whole nation. Sugiyama’s depressive manner of living and feeling is combined with his social and financial success.

We see Sugiyama as a temperate man at home and as a senior clerk at the bank. Years ago when his children were still small and his wife betrayed him with a younger man and soon betrayed their children by running away, Sugiyama behaved in a very noble fashion. He never condemned his wife, never in the presence of his children accused her or tried to put her down and destroy her image in their eyes. He never even told his daughters real story of their mother’s scandalous disappearance. He suffered silently. He didn’t want to poison the children with his torment. But the painful truth that he didn’t share with his children even when they grew up (when the younger daughter by chance learned the facts she wasn’t able to cope with them – her mother’s behavior destroyed her idea of herself as a part of a decent family and she lost belief that she is the child of this good, honorable man, her father) made his younger daughter too shocked and this triggered her suicide. Is Sugiyama a victim of circumstances or a participant in creating the consequences which ruined his and his daughter’s life? Is he responsible for not preparing his daughter to look at the eyes of the destiny and be able to survive the impossible truth? Sugiyama’s emotions and intellect are too entrenched, he is too wrapped in silence, clichés and his own decency and as a result he wasn’t able to teach his children existential spirituality and understanding of life. If his daughter could be taught not to identify so absolutely with her origins, to have a strong identity and to have her own goals in life as basis of her self-image, she could be alive.

Ozu permanently interrupts the narrative by the nightmarish shots of industrial backdrops (similar in meaning with Antonioni’s shots of the factory in his “Red Desert” – 1964). The narrow corridors and narrow streets as if exist independently of human beings (Ozu parodies the concept of avenues of historical development and transform people into a kind of street or house ghosts who became an appendix to the rituals of everyday life decided by the rhythms of business and commercial competition). Being as participation in life of the universe is transformed into an abode of ghosts where work became routs of alienation and where meaninglessness is artificially embellished by the anonymity of smiling gregariousness.

Today, in the time of filmic detective stories with actors using the principle of one basic emotion per scene (to be for the viewers the object of easy identification) or Hollywood blockbusters with gamma-gimmicks – to view Ozu’s film means to find ourselves human again although exactly in a situation when people started to lose their humanity while following laws/claws of hyper-modernization/post-modernization. In this sense “Twilight in Tokyo” is an introduction to 21st century.

The same Zen-based, noble, entrenched behavior that is characteristic for Sugiyama in his private life, we see in his public life too. This person wisely implies that it is natural for the decision-makers to make their decisions for everybody and that for people like him the best that can be is just to follow – modestly, decently, and responsibly. When being cannot produce existence, when between the world in its wholeness and civilization with its dynamic forces there is no space for the development of human being as an agency (as an active participant in creating forms of living) – we see twilight over the world. The film depicts how religious tradition and enforced modernization swallow human development and lead to tragic results for religion, for modernization, for human beings.

Yasujiro Ozu (1903 – 1963)

Posted on Feb 5 2015 –   “Tokyo Twilight”, 1957, by Yasujiro Ozu  by Acting-Out Politics