In 1931, Yasujiro Ozu was just four years into his career, yet he had already made 21 films. Those early films drew on typical Hollywood genres – gangster films, comedies, melodramas – yet he was always interested in relationships and domestic life. His 22nd film, Tokyo Chorus, is a clear link between his earlier films and those of his later career which would cement him as one of the greatest directors of all time, like Tokyo Story or Late Spring.
Tokyo Chorus begins as a full-on comedy, with a group of students goofing off as their teacher tries to get them neatly in lines. After a scene filled with sight gags and physical comedy, the movie jumps forwards a number of years, and we see that the main character, Shinji, is now working at an insurance company. There is a jump in time, but we are left wondering whether the character has changed much since his youth, even though now he has a job, a wife, and three children, including a newborn. The rejection of authority he had for his teacher is now directed towards his boss – we see him stand up to him to defend another employee is a confrontation that devolves into a shoving match and gets him fired. This leads Shinji on an unfortunate path filled with financial burdens, the illness of his daughter, and tension with his wife.
The film defiantly does not stick to one genre – the events of the plot are certainly dramatic, bordering on melodrama at times, but the overall tone of the film is that of a comedy. There are hardly any scenes that do not have at least one sight gag. Shinji’s son, who at times is a source of stress – demanding a bicycle or pestering his sister – is also a constant source of comedy. The film is firmly planted in reality, not completely tragic or completely comedic. One of the most memorable scenes shows the family playing a game of patty-cake in a circle. The two children are laughing and having fun, but we see the two parents trying their hardest not to cry or look sad in front of their children, having just sold almost all of their clothing in order to pay the bills.
At the center of this tale is a complex look at the idea of honor and respect. Shinji is not afraid to stand up and disrespect his boss in order to defend what is right, but he also has too much honor to accept a job that he thinks is beneath him. He would do anything and take any job to be able to support his family, but he doesn’t necessarily want his family to find out about it. It is a much more complicated look at a culture that is usually associated with constant respect, especially among Western audiences.
Ozu not only hones in on the thematic and tonal style he would have for the rest of his career but also demonstrates masterful direction and shot composition. He employs low camera angles and close ups on faces that make the characters seem larger than life and elevates the events of the story. He fills the background with motion, which contrasts the mostly static characters talking in the foreground. Tokihiko Okada and Emiko Yagumo, the actors who play the central husband and wife, have performances that are perfectly pitched, hiding their emotional turmoil just under the surface, always on the brink of breaking down.
Nothing in the film seems dated or inapplicable to today. Any of the conversations between coworkers, a husband and wife, or a father and children could be included in a film from 2015. It’s set in Japan, yet it could have been anywhere or any year with just a few changes. Ozu takes a very specific story about one family’s struggles in 1931 Japan and is able to turn it into a lasting and universal film about honor, sacrifice, and family.