THE FIRST-TAKE CLUB
Filling in those filmic blind spots, one person at a time
#15 DAVID BADDIEL ON TOKYO STORY
THIS MONTH’S FIRST Take Club inductee is David Baddiel, comedian, author, and man who had managed to avoid seeing a Japanese classic that placed 231st on our 301 Greatest Movies Of All Time list back in 2014…
When I was 17, my favourite film was Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. Not because it moved me, or made me laugh, or punch the air with joy. It was my favourite film because I was a twat, and genuinely thought cold, unengaging art films were what I liked.
What I thought I didn’t like — and this was the point I was no doubt trying to make to the various arty girls who were not getting off with me anyway — was Hollywood pap.
Then, for a laugh, I went to see E.T.. To sneer, and to demonstrate, through sneering, how untouched I was going to be by the syrupy sentimentalism the film was no doubt designed to provoke in a less discerning viewer. And I’ve never cried so much in my life. My face wasn’t just wet with tears, it was awash with them. Steven Spielberg had burst a dam in my heart.
Since then, that’s all I’ve really wanted from films: to make me cry. As a result I have, in general, avoided arthouse movies. Okay, I love Charlie Kaufman (even Synecdoche, New York); but he’s funny, and the other emotional response I do like film to invoke is laughter. But your proper, Old-school Arthousers — Antonioni, Fellini, Eisenstein, Tarkovsky — on being offered
a chance to watch their films, I prefer to annoy cineastes by saying, “I’d rather watch Horrible
Bosses 2.” Which, by the way, is a great movie. One movie which is always, as football pundits say, there or thereabouts on these lists is Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story. It’s Arthouse, with a capital A. It’s black-and-white. It’s subtitled. It was made over 60 years ago. It’s incredibly slow. Every shot is framed to within an inch of its life. And most importantly, you can buy from Cambridge Film Handbooks a book of essays on the film, with titles like ‘Travel Toward And Away: Furusato And Journey In Tokyo Story’.
Initially, everything about Tokyo Story confirmed my prejudices. Most dialogue is shot full on, face directly to camera. Which means, to the modern eye, watching Tokyo Story is a bit like watching a very unfunny episode of Peep Show. But then, suddenly, I was hooked. Because
Tokyo Story is not, in fact, an art film. Its emotional and narrative palette is extremely simple, which means you do the thing that art films most want you not to do: engage. There is nothing Brechtian about it. An aged couple come from their small town to visit their adult children in Tokyo. The children, though, are too busy to look after them. The parents go home and then — spoiler — the mum dies.
It’s a morality tale. It’s almost a kids’ movie. Its map of good and bad is childlike. The parents are absurdly sweet and innocent. The children are cold and unfeeling, apart from their angelic daughter-in-law, Noriko, the young widow of their son, killed in the war. The dialogue is so straightforward as to be almost blank.
What this does is invest a very ordinary story with something like the power of myth. John Updike said that the job of art was “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and this is what
Tokyo Story does. And that story relates to all of us, particularly those of us who are no longer 17, and are coming to realise that that story, even more than the one about having an alien mate, is the one which truly matters. It can, I noticed as I turned away from the screen, make you cry.
TOKYO STORY IS OUT NOW ON DVD AND BLU-RAY. DAVID BADDIEL’S NEW CHILDREN’S BOOK, BIRTHDAY BOY, IS OUT ON 7 SEPTEMBER