Wim Wenders' deeply personal documentary Tokyo-Ga concerns the impact of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and the gradual disappearance of Ozu's Tokyo. As Wenders explains in his self-delivered narration, "Ozu's films deal with the slow deterioration of the Japanese family and thereby with the deterioration of the national identity."
Wenders' camera catches more of the changes in the landscape than the people, but he finds symbolic value in the bustling city's pursuits: a disspiriting pachinko parlor, walled-in golf ranges, and a factory that produces wax foods for restaurant displays. Under Wenders' eye, each takes on a strange beauty even as it suggests a soul-draining, pointless perpetuity that is, in character, the opposite of Ozu's gentle intimacy.
Though Tokyo-Ga's prime influence remains effectively absent from the screen (except in clips from his films), Wenders explores Ozu's character by speaking to two key players: actor Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta. Both men describe being proud to serve Ozu, and their sincerity is apparent.
Ryu gives all credit, for his performances and his career, to Master Ozu, and Atsuta explains why we passed over advancement and greater salaries to stick by his director. Ryu takes Wenders to see Ozu's grave (marked with the character for "emptiness" or "nothing"), and Atsuta gingerly displays a prized gift from Ozu: a custom stopwatch used by the director meticulously to time his shots. As he explains why he retired soon after Ozu's death, Atsuta breaks down in tears.
Wenders bops around Tokyo with the assurance of a skilled filmmaker, and emerges with an understated but certainly curious sociological postcard of '80s Tokyo. Friends Chris Marker and Werner Herzog pop up, the latter noting, with practiced German rue, that "there are so few images left" for filmmakers in the ravaged Tokyo landscape or, indeed, anywhere. In turn, Wenders reflects on Ozu's model: "just to look, without wanting to prove anything."
Maybe, but Wenders' sequence of the club devoted to dancing to '50s and '60s oldies in denim, leather, Chuck Taylors, and poodle skirts speaks volumes about Western influence and the sketchy cultural translation that has ever cut two ways.
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