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Family Values

Paired retrospectives at Castro Theatre and Pacific Film Archive reveal the subtle family dynamics of Japanese master director Yasujiro Ozu

By Richard von Busack

You know that line of Tolstoy's from Anna Karenina that's become such a cliché: "All happy families are alike ..." Is it true? In the films of master director Yasujiro Ozu, his families--wrongly called "specifically Japanese" by the Ozu expert Donald Ritchie--you can see unhappy families that are like ones you've known, the pressures brought to bear by parents we've disappointed or who have disappointed us.

A dozen of Ozu's films are playing in retrospective Castro Theatre Nov. 14-20; the series continues Nov. 23-Dec. 21 with 37 films at the Pacific Film Archives at UC-Berkeley.

Ozu's work shames the easy answers and sweet reconciliations in American films, even lauded ones like Pieces of April. It must have been advance planning to import Ozu's work during the holiday season, when the stress of dealing with families is so acute.

Ozu (1903-63) worked with an enormous range of subject matters, from silent-film comedy to even a few gangster stories. Still, his 1953 Tokyo Story (playing at the Castro Nov. 14-15 and at the PFA the day after Thanksgiving) deserves the spot it's frequently landed on the lists of best movies ever made.

If its reputation has slipped in recent years, it's because Tokyo Story is rarely revived, and the film suffers from reduction on home videotape. Ozu's camera, crouched in the corner of various lower-middle-class houses, loses its depth of field on the small screen.

Tokyo Story tells of a pair of elderly parents, Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama, who take an overnight train trip to Tokyo for a summer vacation for what seems like the first and the last time in their lives. They've come to see their children and grandchildren.

While the film is about Tokyo in the mid-1950s, it might as well be New York in the 1960s--and it's certainly about San Francisco in 2003. The Hirayama's children have little time or space. The demands of their jobs are keen, and there's barely futon-room for the elders.

There's no easy answer for the estrangement between the older and younger Hirayhamis. The father, Shukishi (Chishu Ryu), used to be a bit of a drinker, and the most hostile daughter--a catty hairdresser--is still fuming over the nights when she was a child and her dad brought his drunken friends over.

The mother, Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), is stout and a little obtuse. When it finally comes to the old parents being split up for a night because of lack of space in their children's homes, Tomi ends up imposing on her daughter-in-law, Noriko (the lovely Setsuko Hara), an overworked secretary who lost her husband in the war.

As the two share a small room, the mother's attempts to be compassionate are a little clumsy. We're left to guess exactly how much the dead husband meant to Noriko, to suss out what the young widow means by an enigmatic line ("I'm quite a selfish person, actually"). Being Japanese, she's more than usually sensitive to the possibility of being patronized or belittled. Being Japanese, the more embarrassed Noriko is, the more she smiles.

The Castro Theater's end of the retrospective is the post-World War II part of Ozu's career. The big picture in Tokyo Story is of a traditional Japan, smashed by the war, reforming itself into the shape it bears today. But Ozu's magic really lies in capturing the little picture that tells it all gently and with humor.

Observe the glum and (and funny) drinking party between three old men at a morguelike saki bar, or some hideo-comic scenes at a resort full of party-hearties (it's like a motel at the Jersey Shore on Memorial Day weekend) where the aged parents have been stashed by their children. One watches, in the elder's grave faces, their fear of showing ingratitude even to each other, even though they can't get a lick of sleep. We don't even have to catch their reaction to the scandalous, slangy gossip of the cleaning women mopping up after the night's excess.

But there are also scenes of genuine loss, as in the indelible scene where Tomi tries to catch the attention of her grandchild as he plays on top of a railroad levee. It's a forecast of her eventual death, an accurate prediction that the boy will never know her.

Ozu has never really been a director for American export. For some reason, Western filmgoers aren't keen on Japanese films without swords in them. But Tokyo Story alone reveals Ozu as one of the true masters of cinema, and I can't wait to see how he treats the range of topics in this once-in-a-lifetime retrospective: childhood comedies, gangsters with fedoras, stories of wandering actors, the return of soldiers. Even the titles of these films are slightly intoxicating (I Was Born, but ..., The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice).

For details: The PFA site is www.bampfa.berkeley.edu; the Castro, as always, is www.castrotheatre.com.

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