Monday, 5 May 2008

[21] Tokyo-Ga (dir. Wim Wenders, 1985)

Yesterday evening I watched Wim Wenders' 1985 film Tokyo-Ga, a documentary on both the real-life capital of Japan, and the representation of the country and its culture in the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

As the film ended, and I went for a walk in the warm Sunday evening, I wondered what kind of film Tokyo-Ga is. Almost every synopsis or review I have read about the film describes it as a documentary on Ozu, mixed in with footage from 1980s Tokyo. Nevertheless, the actual discussion of Ozu's films, and interviews with colleagues such as actor Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta only make up a small proportion of the film's 90 minute running time. However, the mixture and variation at the heart of Wenders' film is beguiling and wonderful. It is part travelogue, part musing on universalisms, cultural imprerialism, art, popular culture, modern life, memory and identity, part diary, and part documentary on one of Japan's greatest directors.

The result is much more in the style of the so-called 'visual essay' than a traditional film. It is beautifully shot. Two particular highlights involve Wenders meeting two friends: Werner Herzog and Chris Marker (in the bar named after La Jetee, no less!). Herzog brings his usual charisma and energy to the piece, with a tirade against the lack of pure or transparent imagery in the modern world, concluding that the solution would be to film on Mars or Jupiter - or Skylab. This scene perhaps most extremely articulates the modern world's descent into consumerism and decadence (other scenes include trips to Pachinko Parlours, driving ranges and the proliferation of American television). However, whereas Herzog vows to climb mountains and go to great, exotic lengths to create what he feels to be the pure, natural aesthetic - Wenders finds these moments amongst the supposedly-damning modern world, in children playing baseball, teenagers dancing to rock-and-roll tracks and other flashes of beauty.

Wenders' opening narration includes an eloquent description of the disparity between memory and photography:

'Anyway, Ozu's work does not need my praise, and such a sacred treasure of the cinema can only reside in the realm of the imagination. And so, my trip to Tokyo was in no way a pilgrimage. I was curious as to whether I could still track down something from this time, whether there was still anything left of his work - images, perhaps, or even people. Or whether so much would have changed in Tokyo in the 20 years since Ozu's death, that there would be nothing left to find. I don't have the slightest recollection, I just don't remember any more. I know I was in Tokyo. I know it was the spring of '83. I know. I had a camera with me, and I shot footage. These images now exist and they have become my memory. But I can't help thinking, if I had been there without the camera, I'd now be able to better remember.'

One thing that struck me, is the fact that this film was created in opposition to a distinct period of time (Ozu's creative life, 1930s-1960s), from the viewpoint of another distinct period (Wenders' trip to Japan, 1983). Wenders constantly refers to the passing of time between Ozu's death and 'the present'. I couldn't help but think about the further passing of time between this film's gestation period, and this present time, 2008. Maybe the chain should be perpetuated, by going to Tokyo today, and noting the further differences.

In a perfect world, I could use this in my exam on Memory, Space and Place in Literature and Film. Sadly, the exam questions are restrictive, and I must focus on exactly what the tutor wants.

1 comment:

Dee said...

Wim and his sister Donata... wonderful people. Met them where I work.