An admirer of the works of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Wim Wenders travelled to Tokyo – the setting of almost all of Ozu’s films – in the Spring of 1983 to make a documentary about the director. His intention in Tokyo-Ga was not however to examine Ozu’s works or uncover unknown autobiographical information about him – neither of which he realises, quite correctly, could possibly add to the brilliance already evident in his films – but to try and understand better the world and universal truths about families and human relationships that the director so incisively, obsessively and repetitively depicted in his films. If these truths are truly universal, does this world depicted so vividly in Ozu’s films still exist in modern-day Tokyo?
If that was indeed all that Wenders was setting out to examine in the documentary, Tokyo-Ga would have to be considered a complete failure. Walking around Tokyo in a kind of daze – the director confesses as much in his narration – Wenders completely fails to interact in any meaningful way with the regular people of the city. Like many documentary makers before him and many after him, he is more dazzled and seduced in a superficial Lost In Translation way by the bright neon lights and bars of Shinjuku, the Pachinko parlours, the cherry blossom festivals, the image of Japan as a producer of high-tech electrical goods and bewildered by the unusual soulless leisure pursuits of the Japanese salaryman. Wenders’ camera gazes with fascination, and at inordinate length, at commuters reading manga on crowded subway trains, people robotically whacking golf balls on inner-city driving ranges, a factory that meticulously recreates ultra-realistic inedible wax imitations of restaurant dishes, and he observes youths in the park bizarrely attempting to express their individuality by conforming to an alternative 1950s US Rockabilly look. These are all clichéd and superficial images of the Japanese that really tell us nothing about real people, and far less how they connect with the lives depicted in the films of Yasujiro Ozu.
Running into Werner Herzog at the top of the Tokyo Tower – where else? - the fellow German director who has travelled to the most remote and inhospitable locations in the world to make his films bemoans the impossibility in this modern society - in Tokyo more than anywhere - of being able to dig beneath the surface and find any kind of pure truth. Wenders similarly fails to get past the image, and if we are to take these postcard and touristy images he films of Tokyo as being the reality, we would have to consider that the world depicted in Ozu’s films no longer exists, and that is patently untrue. Fortunately, whether by design or accident, Wenders does stumble on the universal truths in Ozu’s works and rather than going to Tokyo to look for it, it seems that he doesn’t need to look any further than himself.
In addition to his clear, pertinent and personal observations in the narration about what Ozu’s work means to him, Tokyo-Ga is also redeemed by a couple of informative and deeply moving interviews with the most famous face of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, the actor Chishu Ryu, and with the cinematographer on nearly all the director’s films, Yuharu Atsuta. For this alone – particularly for any fan of Ozu’s work - Tokyo-Ga is worth its running time in gold. The interviews reveal some fine observations on Ozu’s methods of working with actors and filming with his static low-angles, but that is not their principal strength. Flicking through an original annotated screenplay that Yuharu Atsuta has lent him, Wenders can’t comprehend a word or even the title of the film it is from, but even if he could read it, it’s unlikely that this would illuminate Ozu’s work one bit either. Rather it is in the personal reminiscences of these two men on Ozu himself and how he touched their lives that the real truth comes through. Here, Wenders touches on the simplicity and purity of emotions and human relationships and, bookended as the documentary is by the complementary opening and closing scenes of Ozu’s most powerful work, Tokyo Story, the deeply moving impact of what Ozu was able to achieve is fully realised.
Tokyo-Ga is released in the UK by Anchor Bay. The DVD is only available as part of their 10-disc Wim Wenders Collection boxset (although in the US, it is included in full as an extra feature on the Criterion Collection release of Ozu’s Late Spring). The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
The picture quality on this edition of Tokyo-Ga is reasonably good, though in some scenes it very much has the feel of a rough-and-ready documentary, filmed as it is on 16mm for handheld portability. Colours are clear however, and even night-time scenes of Shinjuku neon and Tokyo roads come across quite vividly. There are few problems with the transfer, though some macro-blocking may occasionally be visible for anyone looking for it. In practice, it doesn’t cause any real problems.
As standard on these Anchor Bay Wim Wenders Collection releases, we have the original Dolby Digital 2.0 mix and a pointless Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Actually, there is little really to differentiate between them, the DD 2.0 mix being picked up on my amplifier as Pro Logic Surround. The clarity on both tracks is reasonably good, and even though Wenders does have a tendency to intone dully on his English narration, he can be clearly understood. The fabulous music score – another memorable aspect of the documentary – also comes across rather well.
English subtitles are optional, but they are only partial for the Japanese language Tokyo Story sections at the start and end of the film. They are placed at the top of the screen since the copy Wenders uses in his documentary also has fixed French subtitles. Werner Herzog’s interview in German is also subtitled. There are no hard of hearing subtitles however for Wim Wenders’ English narration, nor for the interviews with Chishu Ryu and Yuharu Atsuta, which are translated in voice-over by Wenders.
There are no extra features on the disc.
As a documentary Tokyo-Ga is over-long and filled with irrelevancies, failing to establish any meaningful connection between modern-day Tokyo with the one depicted in the films of Yasujiro Ozu. When Wenders focuses on the underlying principles of Ozu’s work however, and when he interviews Chishu Ryu and Yuharu Atsuta, he finds Ozu’s truth in people rather than in places and surface impressions. This is not a major revelation by any means, but Wenders shows the viewer rather than telling them, and in doing so says more about the power of Ozu’s films than any academic study or criticism can. The film is well presented on this Anchor Bay edition, which is only available as part of the Wim Wenders Collection.