“Tokyo Twilight” (1957)

by A.J. Hakari

"Tokyo Twilight" poster


Until 1957’s Tokyo Twilight, the Yasujiro Ozu pictures I’d seen had a certain lightness about them. It’s strange saying this about the man who gave us a tear-jerker on the scale of Tokyo Story, but even then, his family-oriented dramas seemed to contain at least some sweet element to offset the bitter. He gave these melancholic tales a glint of hope, a nuanced pat on the back reassuring us that things would be alright but a pat nonetheless. However, as the events of Tokyo Twilight unfold, one isn’t so certain that redemption will come easily for the characters…should it rear its head at all. This film has been referred to as one of Ozu’s darkest, if not the most bleak in his entire career. Approaching topics like child abandonment, dysfunctional marriages, and abortion in the highly intimate fashion for which he’s been hailed certainly makes the story feel as though there’s little hope in it, but Ozu knows better than to simply wallow around in depression and call it a day. “Dark” isn’t the best way to describe Tokyo Twilight, so much as it’s “honest,” naturally relaying the plights of its characters so as not to give their misery the slightest whiff of being engineered.

Our story centers around Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), a bank officer whose family has been dealt a number of tragic blows over the years. His son perished in an accident some time ago, his eldest daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) and her baby have moved back in after fleeing her emotionally distant husband, and youngest child Akiko (Ineko Arima) has gotten involved with a college student who doesn’t seem to think much of her. Despite these obstacles, Shukichi has tried to provide his kids with as much love, guidance, and stability as he could muster, although one past decision threatens to emerge again and potentially undo all that hard work. His daughters hear word that Kisako (Isuzu Yamada), the proprietress of a mahjong parlor, knows a great deal of information about the two and has been asking about them. Takako follows up, only to learn that the woman may in fact be their long-absent mother. As she feels Akiko — who’s just found out that she herself is pregnant — would be unable to bear the news, Takako resolves to keep it a secret, only to discover that lies and refusing to reconcile with the past is what’s been eating away at her family the whole time.

Where many dramas go wrong and what puts a bad taste in my mouth for the genre as a whole is when such movies become ruled by their somber content. Several have done this to dodge criticism on character interactions and plot developments that don’t add up, hiding their absence of tact behind a wall of sadness and decrying anyone who dares call them out. Admittedly, a small part of me feared this as I pressed play on Tokyo Twilight, even though I should’ve known better from the time I’d spent engrossing myself in emotionally earnest Ozu works like Passing Fancy and There Was a Father. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the man’s incredible sense of empathy and understanding put any feelings of dread to rest. Tokyo Twilight is as genuine and relatable of a film as it is because of Ozu’s lack of judgment, his refusal to exaggerate the situation so as to sway the viewer’s allegiances in one direction or another. He merely observes the characters as they are, and whether the decisions they make turn out for the best or only worsen matters, the circumstances that inspired them are loud and clear. Ozu expertly adapts to the heavier themes that the story comes upon, handling progressively heartbreaking revelations without demonizing the parties involved or turning them into martyrs for enduring such a daunting parade of misery. Still, while the movie’s ultimate message deals with how confronting the issues in your life will do less damage in the long run than ignoring or lying about them, that the ending suggests that two-parent households are what kids really need is a touch out of character. I know that this wasn’t made at a time when unconventional families were as accepted as they are now, but for a narrative that acknowledges the complexity in so many of the areas it covers, pointing so easily to this notion as a solution to the obstacles in it comes off as weak.

Also, while I’ve no issue with how Tokyo Twilight focuses mostly on how Takako and Akiko react to the fallout of discovering what they do, the film’s perspective could’ve been more well-rounded. It feels that despite the vital role he played in past events we come to learn about, Shukichi is nudged off to the side an awful lot, particularly during scenes where his voice might’ve either cleared things up or cracked open another can of worms. Ryu’s performance as a patriarch struggling to make things work is quietly effective, but including more of him into the story could very well have deepened the experience. The same can be said for Yamada as the mystery woman whose appearance throws a wrench into everything; she compensates for her scant screen time with a tenderly subtle turn, yet one can’t help but imagine what wonders expanding her role beyond that of just a catalyst would possibly have wrought. But conjecture be damned, Tokyo Twilight is still powerful stuff, conquering its almost impossibly morose proceedings to emerge as one of Ozu’s most down-to-earth works. His famous stationary style of photography gets us up close and personal with the characters, allowing us to glimpse their faces as they attempt to disguise the flurry of emotions they’re going through. The visual gaze that found warmth and beauty in mundane settings has been employed to stir up feelings of loneliness and isolation to equally potent effect here; the shot of a toddler walking towards a woman who just underwent an abortion is haunting stuff. The score too has been suppressed to a certain degree, lest the silence our ensemble has voluntarily plunged itself into be interrupted. Hara and Arima are excellent as the two daughters, responding to the changes in their characters’ lives differently but through performances just as gut-wrenching as one another.

I wouldn’t recommend Tokyo Twilight to anyone new to the wonderful world of Ozu. It’s a movie to take in after one has become acclimated to the way he works, to witness the compassion with which he addresses his stories and be blown away by how he moves from lighter fare to more sorrowful stuff without betraying his sensibilities. Tokyo Twilight earns in spades whatever buttons it pushes and heartstrings it effortlessly tugs on.