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An Analysis of Cinematography in Ozu's "Tokyo Story": Pillow Shots and Symmetry

I love writing and I have a BA in sociology and English and comparative literary studies from Occidental College.

Here we examine and analyze "Tokyo Story."

Here we examine and analyze "Tokyo Story."

The History of Tokyo Story

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) made the film, Tokyo Story, in 1953. Although it was released over half a century ago, its style and cultural significance is timeless. The film’s popularity is attributed to its unique style, themes, and camera position. Every shot in this film is intricately planned and positioned in order to fully capture Ozu’s intent. This essay will examine the numerous film techniques used to make Tokyo Story and their significance to the viewers experience. Finally, this paper will examine the ways in which the historical period (post-WWII Japan) influenced this film’s production.

Throughout Tokyo Story and many of his other films, Ozu keeps the camera in a specific position:

“In the mature Ozu picture[,] the camera is always in the same position, three feet off the floor, the viewpoint of the person sitting in a Japanese room. It rarely pans (turns its head) or dollies (follows its subjects). The only punctuation is the straight cut…Ozu saying it reminded him of a roll of toilet paper.”[1]

The camera’s low position allows the viewer to feel like they are in the room with Ozu’s characters. Because most of the film is in interior spaces, the viewer is a part of these intimate settings, creating the illusion that they are in the scene also.

The intimacy between the viewer and the characters in Ozu’s film is exaggerated through low camera height and also through another technique. In important scenes, Ozu positions the camera directly in front of his character so that they are speaking and looking directly at the camera. Although they are not speaking to the viewer, Ozu is creating the illusion that the viewer, through the camera, is in the room with his character.

As esteemed film critic Roger Ebert explains in his review of the film, Ozu places a teapot in certain frames as a director’s mark. This teapot is found in many scenes, whether it is tucked in a corner, or in the center of the frame.[2] The teapot is a symbol of Ozu’s intricate scene composition; it is his way of showing that each shot is specifically staged with intent. By placing this object in various interior scenes, Ozu illustrates that nothing he does is by accident; every shot is carefully choreographed and composed to show the importance of space in his film.

Another way in which Ozu illustrates the intricacies of his film is through the lack of camera movement. With one exception, as Ebert points out, the camera does not move; it remains still throughout the movie. The exception to this is a single scene where the elderly couple is sitting on a wall looking over the ocean. The camera moves from a brick wall and pans over to the image of the couple. This movement shows the vastness of the exterior space. The static camera forces the viewer to absorb the setting in each frame. This is Ozu’s way of showing the viewer that beauty is found when standing still.

Japan after WWII became modernized in a way that changed the value systems of its inhabitants: “…the postwar generation in most industrial societies was leading to a gradual shift from “Materialist” values (emphasizing economic and physical security above all) toward “Postmaterialist” priorities (emphasizing self-expression and the quality of life).”[3] Ozu wants to encourage the latter and focus on the change in family structure during this time period. In a modern world, people move so fast, like the train, that they may not take the time to notice the beauty of our world.

Another technique Ozu uses to show that modernization causes people to move at a quicker pace and miss the natural beauty of our world is through the lengths of frames. When a scene begins, the camera stays in one position while characters enter, causing the viewer to take in the setting of each frame. After the characters leave the scene, the camera lingers in the same position for a couple seconds. This causes the viewer to stop and think about what occurred, instead of cutting to the next one and possibly forgetting what took place in the previous scene.

Although Tokyo Story is generally consistent in time and space, Ozu breaks from this continuity in order to focus the viewers’ attention on important scenes:

“…in one scene, the two oldest children discuss sending their parents on a trip to Atami. This is followed by a shot of people on a seawall, then by a shot of the sea seen from an interior, then a shot down the length of a hallway, and, finally, a shot of the old couple in a hotel….we understand that Ozu has eliminated scenes in which the parents are told about the trip, are put on a train to Atami, and arrive at the resort.”[4]

This “ellipsis”[5] in particular illustrates that Ozu wants his viewer to focus on the important parts of this film. After an active scene, Ozu will show still life shots of places without human figures. This allows the viewer to absorb what they have just watched take place in the previous scene and prepare for the next. This style is very different from that of modern Hollywood films, which cut between scenes rapidly, giving the viewer little time to reflect on previous scenes while they are adjusting to a new time and place.

In Tokyo Story, Ozu uses still life shots to transition between scenes in different places; he also uses this technique to allow time to pass in between scenes, letting the viewer adjust to the new setting. In between the scenes where the elderly couple is in Onomichi and their arrival in Tokyo, there are three shots, which illustrate their transition. “The first is a shot of smoke stacks….This is a recurring image of Tokyo in the film”[6]. This shot could be of Tokyo, or of Osaka. Ozu does not make it clear to his viewers. The next shot is similarly ambiguous; it is of a railroad crossing and power lines. Again, this image could be of Tokyo; yet, it is not obvious to the viewer. The third shot, however, solidifies the fact that the location is Tokyo. It shows the doctor’s office with a sign indicating that the scene is in Tokyo. These breaks, or “pillow shots”[7] as Noel Burch refers to them as, allow the viewer to prepare for the next scene. The slow-pace of Tokyo Story also adds to this effect.

The cinematography is fairly static in Tokyo Story, leaving the movement to the actors. Ozu uses simple shots with no camera movement to allow the viewer to concentrate on the characters and what they are saying. He resists using scene transitions like dissolves or fades and only uses clean cuts in between frames. This allows the viewer to concentrate on the characters. Even so, he does not make his characters outspoken in any way[8]; often, silence holds more meaning than speech. It is the time in-between scenes with characters that allow Ozu’s viewers to appreciate what they just saw and prepare for what is to come next. Ozu does not let his characters be interrupted or speaking before the viewer can see them. This technique further emphasizes the intimate connection between the viewer and the characters, causing the viewer to feel as if they are part of the scene.

Ozu’s use of static cinematography in Tokyo Story creates a bond between the viewer and the film’s characters. Ozu’s overall intent is to show that in a fast-paced, modernized world, one may forget about the beauty of simplicity. Through various techniques, he creates a bond between the viewer, the setting and his characters—a bond that allows the viewer to see the importance of intimate relationships. He shows that if we take the time to stop, think and listen, we can understand more about others, our setting and the world around us.

[1] Richie, Donald. “Introduction.” Yasujiro Ozu and Kogo Noda. Tokyo Story: the Ozu/Noda Screenplay. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge, 2003. Print, 8.

[2]Ebert, Roger. "Tokyo Story." Movie Reviews, Essays and the Movie Answer Man from Film Critic Roger Ebert. 9 Nov. 2003. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.

[3] Inglehart, Ronald. Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1997. Print, 4.

[4] Desser, David. Ozu's Tokyo Story. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print, 6.

[5] An “elipses” is when a film moves forward in time and space without showing what happens in between.

[6] Desser, David. Ozu's Tokyo Story. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print, 10.

[7]Burch, Noël, Theory of Film Practice, New York, 1973.

[8] Ebert, Roger. "Tokyo Story." Movie Reviews, Essays and the Movie Answer Man from Film Critic Roger Ebert. 9 Nov. 2003. Web. 16 Mar. 2011., 1.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


cinemafan from India on October 12, 2012:

Nice Article, brittany. This article brings to light all the traits that make Ozu's films unique, and how they contribute to the overall meditative tone of the film. For many years, it was believed that 'Citizen Kane', great film that it is, was the first in film history to show the ceilings of sets. But the discovery of Ozu's films have proven that wrong. Do check out my article on 'Ugetsu' by Mizoguchi, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and a person whose style is in total contrast to that of Ozu's.

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on November 05, 2011:

Yes! Thank you so much for contributing, Michael. I agree. The camera is almost as part of the scene as one of the actors. Ozu was such a genius.

MichaelStonehill on November 05, 2011:

You are correct in your observations. In American cinematography, a character is usually percieved either from the right side or the left side, and even when it is percieved from the middle, it is usually consider to be unprofessional if the actor looks to the camera, unless it may be understood as a look to another character (by the psychological effects of the 180-degree system). In Ozu's cinema, the camera becomes another spectator in the scene whose position is not fixed. Thus, when a character speaks directly to the camera, it actually speaks to another character, whose position has to be found emotionally and not geometrically.

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on November 05, 2011:

I totally agree, Michael. I think the 360 degree view also makes the viewer feel like they are part of the scene, which Ozu loves to do. Often, the characters speak directly into the camera, which is different than American television, but is also seen in some British comedies of the current time.

MichaelStonehill on November 05, 2011:

The eastern way of perception is quite different from the western way. In contrast to Holloywood's 180-degree system which makes a clear distinction between actors and audience, Ozu used a 360-degree system which encourages the audience to try to pursuit seeing from the unique point of view of each character, combining into a simple unity which is beyond individual perception.

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on October 31, 2011:

Derdriu, I would love to write a similar analysis of the cinematography in "An Autumn Afternoon." Ozu has always been one of the most influential filmakers on my life. Thank you for your kind words and I look forward to writing more. - Brittany

Derdriu on October 31, 2011:

BrittanyTodd: Thank you for such a direct, eloquent, insightful analysis of such a profound film as "Tokyo Story" by one of my favorite filmmakers, Yasujiro Ozu. Do you have the time to do likewise with "An Autumn Afternoon"?

Voted up and all else too,