“Tokyo Twilight” - Yasujiro Ozu (1957)

Yasujiro Ozu’s last black-and-white film, Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo Boshoku, 1957), was one of his darkest works – even more downbeat than his preceding effort, Early Spring (1956). This was the case despite the fact that, unlike his usual examinations of family life from a multi-generational perspective, these two films focused mainly on young people, who we might expect to be more enthusiastic and upbeat than their elders.  In Tokyo Twilight, though, the viewer is presented with the story of two adult daughters of a middle-aged banker who are very unsatisfied with their respective circumstances.  How this story is told is what makes it interesting.

As with most all of Ozu’s films, the pace is leisurely, tracking the everyday life of ordinary middle-class people going through their mundane activities.  Scenes are entered into without much framing or contextual setup, and slow disclosure is used concerning the relationships that exist among the characters.  It can take a few minutes to discover the existing relationships among the characters in a given scene.

The four principal players in the film are

  • Shukichi Sugiyama (played by Chishû Ryû) is the middle-aged banker and father of two daughters. The always sympathetic Chishû Ryû was a longtime Ozu favorite and appeared in 52 of Ozu’s 54 films.
  • Takako Numata (Setsuko Hara), the older daughter of Shukichi, is married to a professor and has a two-year-old daughter.
  • Akiko Sugiyama (Ineko Arima) is the younger and unmarried daughter of Shukichi.
  • Kisako Soma (Isuzu Yamada), a middle-aged woman, is introduced as the proprietor of a Tokyo mahjong gambling parlor.
The story of Tokyo Twilight unfolds as essentially a series of short conversations – more than 26 scenes, none more than six minutes in length. But the psychological atmosphere surrounding these conversations has a cumulative, almost noirish, effect that sustains interest throughout the drama.  These episodic, usually gloomy, conversations are woven together into a narrative that gradually moves through roughly four phases.
1.  Shukichi and his daughters
In the early scenes, the viewer is introduced to a middle-aged banker, Shukichi Sugiyama, and it seems possible that the film will be about him.  But in fact this tale turns out be entirely about women and the difficulties they were faced with in contemporary Japanese family life.  Shukichi has two adult daughters: Akiko, college-aged and still single, and her older sister Takako, who is married.  The absence of their mother is not explained at this point, but she will appear later.

Takako has a troubled marriage and has just left her husband and taken her two-year-old daughter to come and live with Shukichi. The word is that her husband, Professor Numata, is selfish, abusive, and a borderline alcoholic. Shukichi goes to Numata’s home to talk politely about the situation, but the professor proves to be detached and evasive, and nothing comes of their meeting.

On another occasion, when Shukichi has lunch in town with his sister, he learns that his younger daughter had asked the woman, without telling her father, to loan her a substantial sum of money, 5,000 yen.  So Shukichi now has two worries: Takako’s marriage problem and why Akiko needs money. The two daughters are quite different, though, and this is reflected in their external mannerisms.  Takako is traditionally attendant to her father and wears traditional clothing, while Akiko wears Western clothing, acts nonchalant, and smokes cigarettes.

2.  Akiko’s problem
It would seem that the story will now cover these two issues with equal weight, but that turns out not to be the case.  The rest of the film really revolves around Akiko, who is movingly portrayed by one of Ozu’s most beautiful performers, Ineko Arima. 

Akiko is trying to track down her elusive boyfriend Kenji so that she can talk to him, and she visits his flat, some bars, and a mahjong parlor in search of him. At the mahjong parlor the lady proprietor, Kisako, takes a warm interest in Akiko and tells her that she knew her family years ago when they lived in another town, Ushigome. 

Eventually Akiko runs into Kenji and confronts him with the news that we already suspected: she’s pregnant. Kenji is clearly irresponsible and even suggests to her that he may not be the father.  He runs off and tells her to wait for him later on that evening, at 9:30pm, at a cocktail lounge so that they can discuss things further.  Akiko dutifully goes there and waits, but Kenji fails to show up. 

Then, in a sequence that I found curious, Akiko gets arrested by a plainclothes policeman and taken into custody.  For what crime?  The cop tells her that, “a girl shouldn’t stay out late alone for any reason.”  This incident, which seemingly has little to do with the main story, is connected with an important theme in the film: the dubious and confused roles that women were (variously) understood to have in Japanese society. 

Takako rushes to the police station to take Akiko home.  Akiko, now seriously depressed and feeling abandoned by everyone including her now frowning father, moans to Takako that she should never have been born because she wasn’t wanted.

3.  Akiko and Kisako
From Akiko’s comments and other sources, Takako figures out that the mahjong parlor woman, Kisako, is actually their long lost mother who had abandoned the family and run off with another man many years ago when they were children.  Kisako is now married to a different man and had only recently come to Tokyo.  Filled with revulsion for her errant mother, Takako goes to confront Kisako, hatefully tells her off, and orders her not to reveal her identity to Akiko.

Meanwhile Akiko, having managed to borrow money from another source, goes to a clinic and goes through the anguish of getting an abortion (Japan had legalized induced abortions in 1948, but it was probably an ongoing subject of controversy for Japanese society [1]). While Akiko is off having her abortion, Shukichi is taking time off from work to visit his favorite pachinko parlor [2].

Later when Akiko learns that Takako had gone to the mahjong parlor, she mistakenly fears that Takako had learned about her pregnancy and abortion (which was still a secret to the rest of her family), so she confronts Takako about why she had gone there.  Takako responds angrily what she had intended to keep secret: that the mahjong parlor owner is their mother.  Akiko then goes to Kisako and expresses her own hatred for having been abandoned, even questioning her mother as to who her real father might be.

4.  Separations
Akiko finally runs into the elusive and uncaring Kenji at a noodle shop, but the encounter so upsets the girl that she bursts into tears and runs distractedly out into the street. In a classic instance of Ozu’s ellipsis, the scene shifts to a hospital ward, and it is revealed that the distraught girl had been hit by a trolley.  With her father and sister at her bedside, she now swears that she doesn’t want to die; she wants to start everything over.  But it is too late, and the most important character in the film is  gone, just like that.

Takako goes to Kisako and hatefully tells her that Akiko’s death is ultimately the fault of her runaway mother.  Faced with such venomous rejection from her old relatives, Kisako agrees to go away with her husband and live in another city.  Before leaving, she gives an offering for Akiko to Takako and tells her that she is leaving on the evening train to Hokkaido.  She hopes that her only daughter will break down and see her off at the train station.  Ozu stretches out the anticipation of this possibility as if it might really happen, but Takako doesn’t budge. Kisako departs presumably never to see her daughter again.

In the final scene, Takako tells her father that she intends to return to her husband and try and make their marriage work.  She says she is doing this for her daughter, because a child should not grow up without the presence of both parents around her.

So finally, Akiko, Kisako, Shukichi, and Takako have gone off in different directions without any solace or grace.
In case you might think that the Tokyo Twilight ends on a relatively positive note, let me assure you that it does not.  Takako’s closing vow to return to her husband is not an act of love, but more an expression of anger over the fact that she and Akiko were raised without a mother’s love.  This is an implicit criticism of Shukichi, too, since it implies that his fatherly love just wasn’t enough, by itself.

Like many of Ozu’s films, Tokyo Twilight has a theme concerning Japanese family life. But the tone here is more tragic than heartwarming. The underlying problem, the true theme of the film, is the difficult position that women have trying to operate in a disrupted social structure that offers them little support. The three principal women, Takako, Kisako, and Akiko, face these circumstances in their own fashions:

  • Takako, the traditional girl, often offers ingratiating smiles, but they seem forced. She remains bitter about her husband and bitter about her mother’s abandonment. 
  • Kisako appears to be very benign throughout the film.  She acknowledges that she had erred in the past, and when she is condemned by her own daughters in the present, she accepts the verdicts stoically. There is something in her countenance that suggests warmth and compassion.  But still she is made to suffer.
  • Akiko, the modern girl, is condemned by everyone for having fallen in love with a man and succumbed to his embraces.  Everyone she meets think that she is just a tramp, but she, too, appears to be a sincere and compassionate person.  Interestingly, she almost never smiles in the entire film – somewhat unusual in a culture where smiles are almost required by protocol.  And yet she comes across as the most open, unguarded person of them all – the one most ready to commit totally to love.
All three of these women, each faced with trying circumstances, really just want to love, but they are denied.  In fact they should not only not be condemned, but be loved in return.   That is what Ozu is showing us here.

  1. Ozu’s previous film, Early Spring, had also alluded to the issue of abortion in one of the minor subplots.
  2. The first commercial parlor for pachinko, a sort of pinball slot-machine, was opened in Japan in 1948, so they were a relatively new way to waste time.

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