Complicated Families in Post-War Japanese Film: Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Twilight’

At the time of their release, the films of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) did not have as wide a distribution or critical recognition in the west as they deserved. Ozu has since been recognised for the quiet genius of his work, and with restoration and reissue by the Criterion Collection, his films are now easily accessible to an international audience.  The view of Japanese distributors that Ozu’s work was ‘too Japanese’ for a western, particularly American, audience meant that his more obscure films beyond the acclaimed Tokyo Story (1953) have been overlooked.[1] This was a lost opportunity for western audiences to experience the breadth of Ozu’s unconventional film-storytelling style, his embrace of the ethos of theater and traditional Japanese art more than standard Hollywood conventions of film. Ozu combined his idiosyncratic style with traditional aesthetic influences to create fearless and intimate portrayals of Japanese life in the decades surrounding World War II. The subject matter of a number of Ozu’s later films, particularly Tokyo Twilight (1957), also reveal the complex and often corrosive impact of American occupation, where traditional Japanese ways of life struggled in contest with the western imposition of modernist, capitalist and thoroughly American political and cultural frameworks.

Where he was producing predominantly silent films prior to the mid-1930s, Ozu focused predominantly on the struggle of the individual to progress socially or economically against systemic financial and societal barriers. These ranged in genre from comedies to crime dramas. From the mid-1930s through until his death in the early 1960s, he had one main theme: the internal conflicts that broke down familial relationships. Significantly, the cultural dislocation and economic reconstruction suffered by most Japanese in the immediate postwar years, and the facade of western culture imposed upon a Confucian society, had a profound influence on internal family dynamics. In a film like Tokyo Twilight, we can see how Ozu observed this western influence on an intimate and everyday level, portraying the changes and challenges of Japanese society as a result of postwar occupation, when the Japanese sense of self was reconstructed under the magnifying gaze of American eyes to serve American interests.

Tokyo Twilight was restored and reissued by the Criterion Collection, in the Late Ozu box set which comprises five films made in last decade of his career: Early Spring (1956), Tokyo Twilight, Equinox Flower (1958), Late Autumn (1960) and The End of Summer (1961). It also streams in the United States via the Criterion Channel of the FilmStruck service. Unlike the more well-known Tokyo Story and other films given individual release, the films in this boxset do not contain any bonus footage that lend insights into their making and interpretation. In the English language, the work of film critic Donald Richie is historically one of the few authoritative sources on Ozu’s work. Even Richie, who was a guest on Ozu’s sets, never counted Tokyo Twilight as a great film, believing that the melodrama of the narrative held it back, although he acknowledges that such melodrama is still tame by Hollywood standards.[2]  With this in mind, a reexamination of Tokyo Twilight is long overdue. Even some brief critical attention here reveals the value and beauty of this film that has been mostly overlooked by western critics for more than 50 years.

Tokyo Twilight, a noir-influenced family drama, is Ozu’s bleakest film. However, the cynicism and nihilism of the typical western noir is replaced by a deep empathy and understanding for the fragility of humanity and the familial relationships needed to maintain our place in the world. The story follows the middle-class Sugiyama family as they struggle to maintain unity in the face of personal tragedy and social change. While Ozu frames his stories, at times quite literally, from a traditionally Japanese perspective, in Tokyo Twilight he did not shy from engaging with challenging contemporary themes of abortion or feminism, issues which are to some extent controversial even today. Ozu’s empathy for his subjects overcomes any cultural barriers of his so-called ‘too Japanese’ style for the western viewer. His gentle understanding for the characters makes the story accessible.

Ozu presented modern Japanese society as he saw it, without heavy-handed commentary, inflecting this modernity with traditional cultural forms and style. In his framing, he rejected much of the modern grammar of Hollywood film and embraced the classic theater and Japanese traditional arts. He provided visual and narrative space,  room for contemplation. Shots are framed in a theatrical manner, using the traditional home as a stage. The modern family environment sits neatly within the Japanese home and the embrace of wooden historical architectural forms. Actors gaze at the camera in straight-on shots that feel direct and intimate. When the camera is directed outward, the audience is shown the world that his characters would see in their public and private lives. Ozu gives us a window into Japanese stories, and then demands that the viewer infer the emotional state of his characters. This can be an unfamiliar request for a western film audience, as the onus for empathy is on the viewer, and we have to engage and interpret more subtle cues of action, word and mis en scene in order to understand.

Over the course of his career, Ozu created and mastered his own idiosyncratic film grammar. Ozu’s classic perspective was the intimate ‘tatami shot.’ The level of the camera approximates the point of view of kneeling on a tatami mat, the traditional way that Japanese interact at home. There are also static shots without people, life, or obvious connection to the narrative, called commonly called ‘pillow shots’, which provide space for audience contemplation.[3] From a purely practical perspective, they allow the audience to see the physical environment of his characters. This potentially offers up another avenue for empathy, where we may assume that physical environment informs and shapes character. The still shots are like a deep breath, contemplative and reflective, sometimes pretty, and other times starkly realist and industrial.

(A close-up ‘tatami shot’ of Chishu Ryu as Shukichi Sugiyama.)

The opening shots of Tokyo Twilight take the audience from the outer, general view of late-1950s Tokyo into the personal environs and lives of the characters. In the film’s first still shot we see commercial buildings, power lines, and one lonesome street light illuminating the early dusk; in the second shot, a freight train passes, symbolic of the transfer of goods and ideas from the outside. Trains are a recurring motif in Ozu’s pictures, often acting as symbols of literal and metaphorical progress and movement. The version of Tokyo in Tokyo Twilight is not the anonymous mega-city of today, but rather a collection of intimate neighborhoods with interconnected lives and stories. The larger city of Tokyo and its recent history forms a narrative backdrop and brings with it wider meanings that were obvious to his domestic audience. These two opening scenes are the wide view of Tokyo, more than a decade since reconstruction began, and a city still in progress, a place and a people in flux, dislocated and often alone.

(A pillow shot from Tokyo Twilight: the barren depth of winter)

After these establishing images, we meet the first of the film’s three main protagonists: the Sugiyama patriarch, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). He sits down in a bar in the Ginza neighborhood; clean, neat, upscale, modernized. The middle-aged woman who owns this bar, working with her young adult daughter, states, “As soon as I get to know you people, the head office calls you back.” The theme of dislocation is established early here, a counterpoint to the gentle nostalgia with which she serves her customers a light meal of salted sea cucumber from her provincial home town. Shukichi learns from the proprietor that his son-in-law, Professor Numata, was recently a drunk patron: this hearsay is the first hint we have of the internal disharmony of the family. The Professor’s hat has been left behind, and good conduct apparently unceremoniously abandoned with it.

Shukichi returns through darkness to the comfort of his home, greeting his elder daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) and her sleeping toddler. These everyday rituals of family life are presented as a stabilizing factor that will form a contrast to the coarseness and poor conduct of youth in later scenes. Through the deft dialogue of Ozu and his longtime script collaborator Kogo Nada, these greater conflicts are suggested with the light touch of naturalistic conversation and unspoken tensions.

Ozu and Nada also hint at the wider context of the historical milieu, suggesting the source of this familial and social dislocation. In this scene, Shukichi tells Takako that he read her husband’s article entitled “Resistance to Freedom.” Tokyo in 1957 was several years removed from the initial shock of reconstruction and the concerted imposition of western systems and American values and consumerism, promoted as progress and modernity: a deliberate campaign and mission of American occupation. The title of Numata’s article is a clever criticism of his country’s failure to question that joint mission of American and Japanese authorities to reframe an acceptance of the American commercialism as social and political progress. American occupation forms an unstated backdrop to the story of Tokyo Twilight and other late Ozu’s films. Japan was refashioned to American standards of how a state should act, the process assisted by the dissemination of American consumer goods, lifestyles, and popular culture, synthesized into Japanese culture. Ozu’s Tokyo reveals the cost and consequences of such dislocation. Ozu uses these subtle hints within his realist version of Tokyo to question the outcome and the social cost.

It had been nearly 10 years since Douglas MacArthur had acted as Supreme Allied Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. In essence, MacArthur was acting head of state and head of Japanese government, reframing Emperor Hirohito as a subordinate, and attempting to culturally subsume Japan beneath America. Little of this change in the mass culture, particularly of the youth in Takako’s generation, would be have been possible without a method for wider transmission: as in the west, the young people of Japan in the middle of the twentieth century came of age during the rise of mass commercialized media. This was complicated and amplified by the presence of American military bases and the influence of occupation on institutions and popular media. This is the context of Ozu’s world, Tokyo Twilight, and postwar Japan as a whole. It is no surprise that film was a powerful media force for enacting the pro-western agenda. As such, the purity of Ozu’s creations and his ability to function under the auspices of one of Japan’s largest studios, Shochiku, shows the forms of quiet resistance and critique available to him through film.

In this context, the character of Professor Numata is used to explore Japanese attitudes towards American occupation and its legacy. Professor Numata is a rare type in Ozu’s postwar films: a Japanese dissenter. While dysfunctional, his character is not inserted merely to function as a familial disappointment. Takako calls him “neurotic,” but Numata is also someone who is iconic of an element of protest in Japanese society. This aspect of Japanese culture was little known or taught in the west in Ozu’s time. In the conversation with Shukichi, Numata laments the rush among his intellectual colleagues to translate books into Japanese, a subtle reminder of the primacy of non-Japanese sources. It would have made the film even more interesting if Ozu had developed Numata as much as other characters in the family.

Beyond the dissension of Numata, Ozu presents his critiques of western influence through the settings and character of the youth. The young adults of the film make up the apres-guerre generation, the first to be consumers of mass media. Some of the coarsest dialogue in Tokyo Twilight is exhibited in scenes with the most westernized atmosphere, such as the bars in upscale neighborhoods, rebuilt to reflect western fashions and values, both a cultural imposition and a lifestyle embraced by an apparently feckless youth of the 1950s.

In this context, where the sale of western-style democracy was married to caoitalist consumption, the younger daughter of the Sugiyama family, Akiko (Ineko Arima), is shown to be the most vulnerable. Ozu’s subtlety about the political scene is shaped by the diplomacy of his traditional Japanese character, albeit with a sense of helplessness here. Typically, Ozu’s polite characters embrace the everyday niceties expected of them, a main theme of Good Morning, for example. In Tokyo Twilight, the younger generation are mostly stripped bare of these social rituals, exposing the coarseness and the breakdown of relationships and respect between classmates and supposed friends, which in turn threatens familial kinship. Akiko cannot bear the weight of the anomie around her, and her dehumanization by others and their gaze ultimately contributes to her suicide.

The synthesis of Japanese society with an American way of life, particularly influences of modernism and consumerist capitalism, is most starkly represented in the bar scenes. In a telling scene, Akiko and Kenji, her schoolmate and lover, meet at a typical western-style establishment, Étoile (star), where a movie poster for the Hollywood noir Foreign Intrigue, starring Robert Mitchum, hangs on the wall in the background. Shots of the anonymous characters, expressionless, lonely, are telling connections between the anomie of Japanese society and the effects of westernization. The name of the bar in itself is ironic for the false facade of these individuals. As a realist, Ozu took inspiration from life as he saw it, and the reality of 1950s Tokyo was characterized by massive social and cultural upheaval, and a city ecosystem that was physically changed.

Ozu treats the matter of Akiko’s pregnancy out of wedlock with progressive sensitivity. She personifies a new generation of suffering and loneliness in an atmosphere of dislocation, victimized by the cynicism of her peers and the indifference of the state. The omnipresent, hurtful gaze of her society is symbolized in a recurring scene: a billboard advertising eyeglasses, peering eyes magnified and reminiscent perhaps of those famous eyes of T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. In the eyes of others, Akiko is stereotyped as simply another loose young woman. The coarsest character of the film, Noboru, part of a flock of Akiko’s feckless acquaintances, makes reference to Akiko as a mere panpan girl: those young Japanese prostitutes who gathered near American military bases, considering themselves liberated in western modernity.[4] In one scene an anonymous character reads a newspaper with the headline, ‘Anti-prostitution Laws Enacted,’ showing Ozu’s awareness and engagement with these wider effects of westernisation. Ozu leaves the audience in no doubt that Akiko is not a panpan girl, and that Noboru’s characterization is slander.

(Akiko, gazed upon.)

Akiko personifies the lonely consequences of progress without continuity of values. In a scene near Tokyo harbor, Ozu shows the audience the view from Akiko’s eyes: smokestacks, industry, the high cost of modernity. This scene is suggestive of a documentary film that would be made six years later by experimental director Naoya Yoshida, simply entitled Tokyo. Like Ozu’s portrayal of Akiko, Yoshida’s film shows a young woman trying to survive in postwar Tokyo. Both films share a motif of smokestacks: ubiquitous and suffocating, a symbol of the city as both a challenge to humanity’s existence and its measure of supposed progress. Yoshida’s young female character narrates: “Tokyo, unplanned and full of construction sites, is no place for a human being to live. Only a robot with no sense could live in this rough, coarse, harsh, and dusty city that doesn’t have any blue skies.”[5]

In contrast, the elder daughter Takako perseveres and takes the role of maternal diplomat in the absence of her and Akiko’s mother. Both sisters are forced to live in the two worlds: expected to conform to both the traditions of their parents and the commercial westernized reality of the peers. Takako retains more perspective on life than her sister, and hence more grounding, refusing to play the role of victim of her mother’s abandonment and her academic husband’s alcoholism and dysfunction. Her strength amidst social and familial decay is heroic. Through her, Ozu communicated his faith in the postwar generation to restore Japanese society to some semblance of its former order and stability. The revelation of Takako and Akiko’s mother’s return to Tokyo was considered by Richie as unlikely and contrived. He nonetheless found it compelling for the choices that Takako makes, which distinguished it from familiar Hollywood clichés. The circular nature of Ozu’s narratives plays out, and in the end, Takako returns to her husband. A spiral in the future of the narrative is suggested, as we are led to imagine that will Takako ensure her daughter does not suffer as her sister did, and that she has taken hard lessons from Akiko’s death.

The character of the delinquent mother, Kikuko Soma (Isuzu Yamada), also shows a backstory that is often not seen in Ozu’s works. If she were more dynamic, the narrative would have forced Shukichi to also tell his side of their separation. Ozu never used flashback scenes. Rather, his characters always live in the present and the narratives are linear. Sometimes, as in Akiko’s fatal collision, major events of the story were not shown, or a merely represented using still shots. While it is natural and expected that one sympathizes with Kikuko’s desire for a relationship with her children, the unresolved tension and disappointment is another facet of life that is to be accepted with resignation. This tension is further enforced by the sense of physical dislocation that Takako feels in the neighborhood of her mother, Gotando, with its unpaved roads and seedy bars. Ozu reveals through dialogue between Kikuko and Akiko that the Sugiyama home is in the Zoshigaya district of Tokyo. In contrast to Gotanda, Zoshigaya stands for traditional values, with its historical aesthetics and wooden structures. While not in the film, a shrine in this neighborhood stands dedicated to the Kishimojin, a demon who before conversion to Buddhism abducted children, and after enlightenment became a deity who kept mothers and their children safe. Knowing Ozu’s love of irony, the potential for such an allusion is significant, and is one that Ozu’s Tokyo audience would probably have been aware of.

(Takako in Gotanda)

Like many Ozu patriarchs, Shukichi is observant of older traditions but unaware of the realities of making them work for his daughters within the new dynamics of society. The family patriarch of Ozu’s films is often the personification of irony, as in Equinox Flower as well as Tokyo Twilight. In a long scene at the Sugiyama home after he visits his wayward son-in-law, Shukichi contemplates in silence. As the audience, we must infer his unspoken thoughts, and fill in that silence with our own understanding of Shukichi’s position. Ozu’s aesthetics embraced a traditional reverence for the seasons. It is natural that Tokyo Twilight is set in the deepest cold of winter. In this home scene, it is past sunset and snowing heavily. The lack of ambient room noise is an audio representation of what the Japanese call mu: a nothingness or void. This relative silence, a realistic recreation of the dampening effect of heavy snowfall, heightens the diegetic sound of Takako preparing her father’s bath. We feel the palpable tension of that room. We sense what the characters sense, hearing what they hear, seeing what they see, perhaps even imagining we feel the textures of the home and its environment. Ozu takes away, much as an audio engineer uses subtractive equalization to enhance a musical track. In the end, the film’s focus on Shukichi’s contemplations emphasizes his centrality, revealing the silent, naturalistic way he comes to understand the reality of Takako’s conflict with her husband.

Film critic Robin Wood believes the ‘delinquent mother’ and ‘the delinquent younger daughter’ are the characters of Tokyo Twilight who demand most of the sympathy of the audience.[6] However, Donald Richie offers a more macro perspective on the works of Ozu as a whole, rather than viewing Tokyo Twilight in isolation, and I believe we may give his critique more credence on issues of interpretation. As such, I argue that Ozu does ask the audience to sympathise with these female characters so much as he does with Shukichi and other patriarchs of his films, played on multiple occasions by Ryu, as this figure is nearer to the real-life Ozu and his views. While Wood sees Takako as an unsympathetic character, the central decision in her life is whether or not to go back to her husband. In a Hollywood picture, a character in Takako’s position would have left her husband and shared an emotional reunion with her mother. Takako’s moral development in the film is shown by her decision to place her daughter foremost. As she is dying, Akiko states, “I want to start my life over again from the beginning.” Akiko and Kikuko, however, are beyond starting over: Takako’s daughter Michiko is the beginning of the cycle of life and the cycle of Ozu’s story.

In the end, the audience of Tokyo Twilight is left unsure of Takako’s fate. However, we may infer that she will not allow herself to repeat the same mistakes, the same dysfunction, that led to her motherless upbringing and the suicide of her sister. Tokyo Twilight ultimately expresses a shared human hope that we are capable of moving forward from tragedy. Equinox Flower, the film that followed Tokyo Twilight, is something of an answer to the open questions and unresolved ambivalence of the earlier film. While there is no tidy Hollywood ‘happily ever after’ in the world of Ozu, there is the satisfaction of the portrayal of daughters of Equinox Flower living full lives and choosing their own husbands. In a sense, Ozu’s view represents a grand compromise, potentially a synthesis, between the ideas of preserving our most valued traditions and the impulse of the younger generation to be catalysts of change.

Ozu’s stories and style, although concerned with issues of Japanese identity, were not ‘too Japanese’ but perhaps had too much of an observational realism for western audiences of the time. Ozu reveals a truly human state of being simultaneously inconsistent and honest, and he was both a traditionalist and a revolutionary. The simplicity and honesty of Ozu’s portrayal of these everyday worlds and characters gives us access to an empathy beyond cultural difference. From audiences, ‘Ozu asks an amount of trust and goodwill uncommon among directors,’ that the viewer will put themselves into the emotional context of his characters and understand their trials and feelings.’[7] For those in the west, Ozu asks more of us: watching a film like Tokyo Twilight means confronting the damage that the imposition of western power and values can have on society at its most intimate level: the family.


[2] Donald Richie. Ozu, (University of California Press, 1974), p. 241.

[3] Leigh Singer. “The enigmatic ‘pillow shots’ of Yasujiro Ozu,” British Film Institute.  (

[4] John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).

[5] Tokyo is available in educational settings, but its commercial state is unknown by this author. I am indebted to Professor Shunya Yoshimi of the University of Tokyo for teaching it in his course, ‘Visualizing Postwar Tokyo.’

[6] Robin Wood. “Notes Toward A Reading Of Tokyo Twilight,” CineAction, Issue 63, 2004.

[7] Richie, p. 24