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Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Tokyo Stories: Ozu and Pixar accepting the inevitable

Even before I ever watched Tokyo Story, I assumed the title Toy Story was referencing Yasujirō Ozu's 1953 film, though while writing this I could find no reference or allusion to it online. Having passed over such titles as To Infinity and Beyond and Toyz in the Hood, Pixar knocked two letters out of Ozu's classic familial study and had a winner. Toy Story is as much about the toy chest as Tokyo Story is the Japanese capital, and the films share much beyond a name; they both examine abandonment, disillusionment, loss and the changing dynamic of relationships.

Ozu's film follows an elderly couple who make a rare trip to Tokyo to visit their grown-up children who, busy with various mundanities, have little time for them. Only Noriko, their widowed daughter-in-law, makes an effort to entertain them, and the couple are forced to accept that their children have changed and that they cannot expect too much from them.



John Lasseter's 1995 Toy Story and its two sequels follow the relationship between Woody, a pullstring cowboy doll, and his owner, Andy. The toys' desires revolve around being loved and played with and the first film highlights the tension as Woody is supplanted in Andy's affections by Buzz Lightyear, a space-marine action figure. It explores themes of obsolescense, rejection and acceptance that carry into the following films and, arguably, define the trilogy. For the purposes of this piece, I will discuss the three films as one entity.


Both Ozu and Pixar's films share resolutely domestic settings. For all the hijinx of Woody and Buzz's capers, they take place primarily in Andy's house and neighbourhood. When they venture into the outside world they wind up at a day care centre, a petrol station forecourt and a toy store. It's through the eyes and diminutive stature of a toy that these places become prisons, jungles and Raiders of the Lost Ark­-esque warehouses. Ozu's camera shares this angle on the world. It famously remains static and low, observing impartially every character from the same point-of-view. The setting is similarly suburban, opening on a train passing through a sleepy neighbourhood with washing hanging on the lines. A nosey neighbour pops her head in the door and finds Shukichi and Tomi, the two elderly companions, preparing for a trip to the city to see their offspring. Unlike Woody and Buzz, they have watched their children grow and begin their own adventures, but both pairs have experienced rejection as their children need them less with the passing of time. On arriving in the city, the awkward smalltalk highlights the deterioration and redundancy of their relationship. The utility they once had has been lost and they now represent an inconvenience, taking up space and clashing with their childrens' routine and lifestyle. Their daughter, Shige, is embarrassed by their presence, lying to a client in her salon that they're "just friends from the country." Shukichi and Tomi still wish to please - they retire to bed readily at the suggestion they must be tired. They lie awake, but out of the way. Shukichi's genial grin mirrors those of Woody and Buzz when in the childrens' presence. Though rejected, he realises the importance of being there to support them, as does Woody ("What's important is that we're here for Andy when he needs us.") Relationships are outgrown and discarded, and loss of contact is a natural progression. Shukichi tells us of his surprise at how children change and that "a married daughter is like a stranger" but efforts to halt this change result only in heartbreak and loneliness.

Death has a lingering presence in these films. Old friends and toys are lost along the way. Few characters realise the importance of the time they have and value it accordingly, although they pay the notion lip service. Keizo, Shukichi and Tomi's youngest son, recites the advice "Be a good son while your parents are alive," but fails to heed it. He arrives too late to say goodbye to his dying mother and chooses baseball over keeping his grieving father company after the funeral. Only Noriko, Shukichi and Tomi's widowed daughter-in-law, dedicates time to them, perhaps viewing the opportunity as a chance to exercise her devotion to her dead husband. Though well-meaning, she has failed to move on in her own life, tied forever to his memory. Just as Woody resigns himself to a box in the attic, forever dedicated to a past relationship, Noriko has her tiny apartment and her dead love's photograph on the wall. She lies to Tomi, telling her "I'm happy," but Tomi worries that she "should have had a better life," urging her to move on. "You may be happy while you're still young," she says, "but as you become older you'll find it lonely." Noriko's effort to prevent the decay of relationship and memory is futile, as she admits when she tells Shukichi of her loneliness at the end.

The narrative crux of Toy Story is surmised in the second film with Jessie's flashback montage, the most explicit example of the breakup anxiety that permeates the trilogy, distilled to two and a half minutes. We witness her owner, Emily, inevitably grow up and away from her, then rediscover and discard her as an adult, leaving her in a box on the roadside. We see for the first time a painful and final ending, not merely the prolonged hiatus of a box in the attic. Jessie tells us "you never forget kids like Emily or Andy...but they forget you," and the whole trilogy hangs on the acceptance of this fact. Woody dearly wants to be involved in his kid's life and we see him clutching the telephone with Andy on the line, desperate to be noticed and relevant, but unable to communicate due to strict social rules. These rules are broken only with friends or in extreme circumstances (eg. to frighten Sid into 'playing nice'). Shukichi is similarly unable to speak with his children, only with his friends - his wife and the men he drinks with when he is turned out of his daughter's house. Neither protagonist is capable of expressing their feelings and are forced to watch their children grow distant. The parent/toy analogy is evident when Andy's mum sees his empty room and breaks down telling him "It's just I wish I could always be with you." Woody does eventually accept the inevitable, partly when he rejects 'immortality' (ironically a lifetime encased in glass in a Tokyo museum) and realises "life's only worth living if you're being loved by a kid," and, ultimately, when he himself faces the end of his relationship in the third film.

In Tokyo Story, this transience is captured with the image of Tomi walking on the hill as her grandson plays in the grass. The scene recalls the dance with Death from The Seventh Seal. Tomi, dressed in black, is silhouetted against the sky and we are shown the generation gap and the progress of time. She wonders if she'll still be there when the child grows up. Protagonists in both films know and even spout the 'life is short' truisms and clichés. Andy's mum reminds us "toys don't last forever". Woody's romanticism is countered by Potato Head's gruff cynicism and the pragmatism of Hamm ("Let's see how much we're going for on ebay.") Stinky Pete confronts Woody with reality when he asks "How long will it last, Woody? Do you really think Andy's going to take you to college, or on his honeymoon?" Even Buzz, having gone through his own journey of self-discovery in the first film ("You are a child's plaything!"), accepts the end is coming. Woody slowly learns that he can't delay the inevitable - he "can't stop Andy from growing up, but [he] wouldn't miss it for the world."

Woody consoles himself that "when it all ends, I'll still have ol' Buzz Lightyear to keep me company." Tokyo Story mirrors this buddy sentiment with Shukichi and Tomi, though Ozu takes their relationship to its inexorable human conclusion, a place where Pixar can't bear to go. Death splits the partnership and exposes Shukichi to a loneliness that Woody will never encounter. Though Pixar do explore the notion in the recycling plant scene when the toys face (and accept) a fiery end, even here they are together. Rejection is one thing, but beloved characters never face adversity alone. Even the troubled Lotso is consigned to his fate on a trucker's front grille with some comic relief for company. Pixar addresses themes of loneliness in several of their films but the overriding message is one of hope and salvation through friendship. Wall-E begins as a lone figure in a desolate landscape, but his is an initial state that is resolved by the end of the film. It is also our introduction to the character - we don't have a three-film emotional investment in him. Likewise, as affecting as Up's opening montage is, we're familiar with Carl for only a few minutes before he is widowed, and he soon finds himself with company, whether he likes it or not.


Noriko's final exchange with Kyoko, Shukichi and Tomi's youngest and unmarried daughter, shows romanticism giving way to wisdom and acceptance. Disgusted with her older siblings' behaviour, Kyoko complains about their selfishness. Noriko explains "they have to look after their own lives...children become like that, gradually." "Isn't life disappointing!" Kyoko exclaims. "Yes," comes the reply.

Ultimately, however, Woody's faith and devotion earns him a 'second' life with Bonnie. The final shots of Tokyo Story and Toy Story 3 both echo their respective beginnings and alude to life going on, with the train once again rolling through the suburbs, neighbours still calling by and the clouds hanging in the sky as they did on the wallpaper in the first Toy Story, but Shukichi experiences solitude and indifference where Woody goes forth to new adventures with the old gang. As Shukichi's neighbour and family insist on reminding him, "you will be lonely."



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