In Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning, well-placed farts stand in for the limits of language.
In 1953, two years after my mother was born in Japan, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story was released. I remember watching it sometime in the early 2000s, alone, just after my grandmother’s death and thirty years after the film’s eventual American premiere. (It was long assumed to have been “too Japanese” for foreign audiences.) Watching it again a few weeks ago, I realized that on the first go I had absorbed almost none of the plot. Only on second viewing did I remember anything—and then only because I recognized the speech patterns of a certain character, a grandfather who comes with his wife to visit his children. His verbal tics brought not just the plot but the film’s patient and peculiar beauty back to me in a rush.
Tokyo Story is laden with nonspeech; it punctuates the conversation of the grandparents, rendering their observations and questions melancholic, tentative. The grandfather in particular indulges in almost incessant hmms and sighs, each seeming to remark, worryingly, on the fragility and formality of the space in which parents and their adult children must meet. How exactly do our lives emerge from the lives of the people who made us and from the lives of the people who made them? And when do we break from them? And what if new ways of life—new cultures and socioeconomic organization and forms of modernity—intercede, as they always do? I’ve never learned Japanese, nor has my mother. The expectation that she would, today, visit me in my home for more than an hour strikes me as faintly ridiculous. When she was alive, my grandmother never saw the inside of one of my apartments—perhaps a good thing, given the company I kept. Read More