Ranking: #50/111

Director: Yasujirō Ozu (Japan)

Genre: Social & Psychological Drama

Tokyo Twilight is probably Yasujirō Ozu’s darkest family drama, but perhaps the one with the most emotional power. Set in mid-winter in post-war Tokyo, it tells the tragic story of two sisters, Takako and Akiko, who find their long-lost mother who abandoned them as children. The different ways in which the two daughters react to this trauma is fascinating, as will become clear later in this review. The youngest, more vulnerable, daughter, Akiko, who often feels unwanted, is a college student, while her elder sister, with her baby girl, is escaping an unhappy marriage. She finds her husband too moody. He drinks excessively, too. The world-weary father of the two sisters, Shukichi, is a banker in the city.

The overall tone of the film is sad and even pessimistic. This emotional “twilight” is echoed in the lamp-lit interiors, the shadowy settings of downtown Tokyo, with its dingy bars and smoke-filled mahjong parlours (mahjong is a game similar to poker), and in the wintry exterior shots. There are many nocturnes and the black-and-white photography, with a predominance of grey, has an uncharacteristic coldness to it. There are several shots of lonely plumes of smoke rising up from the city, adding to the sombre undertone. As always with an Ozu film, “slices of life” shots build up a social portrait of the city which is the living backdrop for the family drama which unfolds in the narrative.

The explosive emotional content of the film, especially the total alienation felt by Akiko, and her inability to be reconciled to her abandonment by her biological mother, is contained within a tight narrative structure. One would expect no less from such a classical filmmaker. Long after the movie is over, the audience can still hear the cries of Akiko’s heart (“Whose child am I?”, “I should never have been born” and “I only have my mother’s foul blood in my veins”)…

Ozu, who began his career as an assistant cameraman with Shochiku Films, one of Japan’s largest studios, quickly developed his own cinematic language, his own style of filming. Here’s how The Oxford History of World Cinema described the essence of his style: “His distinctive style was based on placing he camera at a low height and intricately intercutting objects with facial reactions.” (The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 420) While the film master’s most familiar trademarks are evident in Tokyo Twilight, there is stronger Film Noir feel to this tragedy than there is in his other works. Certainly, the movie is richly textured.

Ozu is so faithful to life! And he combines his technical brilliance with deep reserves of humanity. All of this makes him an artist for the ages.

To complicate an already complex family situation, Akiko becomes pregnant from her college boyfriend, Kenji.  Later, she has an encounter with her boyfriend which convinces her he doesn’t really love her. She then to seeks to have an abortion.  While going to a mahjong parlour in search of Kenji, Akiko comes across its manageress, Kisako, who seems to know all about her family.  When Takako is told about this, she puts two and two together and realises that Kisako must be their biological mother. Eventually, the whole truth spills out and Akiko finds out that Kisako had run away with another man. At that time, Akiko was only a toddler. When she next sees her boyfriend at a shop, they have a massive argument. When the troubled young woman storms out, she’s hit by a train at an intersection outside the shop.

Although she’s seriously hurt, she wishes to live and to start her life over again. Sadly, poignantly, she doesn’t get the second chance she so desperately wanted, succumbing to her injuries. Takako then confronts Kisako and blames her for her sister’s premature death. Kisako then decides to leave Tokyo.

Some things in life are irreparable.

In a muted form of redemption, in an otherwise bleak tragedy, Takako informs her father that she will return to her husband so they can try to make their marriage work. Having witnessed the emotional devastation experienced by Akiko, which led to tragedy, she doesn’t want her daughter to have a similar experience, growing up without knowing one of her parents and feeling unwanted.

Tokyo Twilight deals with several hard-hitting topics, such as parental abandonment of children, unwanted pregnancies, abortion and suicide. These were far-reaching issues which were difficult to address in the conservative social climate of the time. Ozu, like all true artists, was years ahead of his time, bravely depicting the real-life consequences of such issues in the lives of individuals, conveying great emotional depth in the process. The film attracted a lot of controversy after its release and it was only many years later when it finally received the recognition it deserved. It is now acknowledged as a masterpiece.

This is a powerful, heartfelt family drama whose emotional effects reverberate in the viewer’s mind long after the movie has ended. This is a work of the highest artistic integrity, showing Ozu in the prime of his creative powers.