Here we have all the cinematic and political questions raised by The Lady and the Beard answered by Tokyo Chorus. As fumbling and weak-willed as that previous film truly was, this feature is clear and eloquent in its message. But this is no simple manifesto on the merits of workplace solidarity. That’s all here. But Ozu, as always, breaks his message down and places it squarely onto the family. Tokyo Chorus goes all in against the capitalist continuation of the right of kings and spells out Ozu’s questioning why, if we reject a governmental monarchy, do we allow it into the workplace? The father, proud of himself for standing up to his boss in defending the unfair firing of a co-worker, still comes home to inflict the same hierarchical corporal rule upon his children. His wife states this in the simplest terms possible: “Daddy was wrong.”
The film also opens up its world and interrogates its own methods. It forces us to think about fundamental acts of right and wrong and ask ourselves why we assign certain intentions or actions into either camp. While it lets us get away (correctly) with labeling the boss The Bad Guy, it doesn’t let the father off the hook, either. Even the son isn’t immune to this. Ozu compares the bonuses the insurance agents receive to a new scooter the father gives to his son. He’d promised him a new bike but, having just been fired for nearly staging a revolt in the workplace, he’s left with only the meager bonus and no immediate paycheck to look forward to. So the scooter will just have to do. But that’s a broken promise, and his son lets him know it. It would be easy enough to read this simply as the kid being a little brat. He is, and has been shown to be before now. But Ozu wants to look a little closer at this situation. We’re not supposed to take any of this for granted and just say “that’s not important.” We get all the information we need to decide whether or not to do anything with this, but he wants to be sure we’re paying attention. The little things matter. The son doesn’t have the same understanding that his father does (or that we do) about this whole money situation. All he sees is some crappy scooter he doesn’t want and that he’ll be made fun of for riding. The father likewise doesn’t actually know all the ins and outs of the insurance disaster that just befell his coworker, only that he had a run of bad luck that cost the company money and the boss can’t let it keep happening. Even the official reasoning for the firing (“He’s gotten too old to work here”) is a complete mess. But we’re given more of this story, and our sympathies automatically lie with the workers, so we’re prepared to look at the boss and see the same asshole the father does when he finally leaves for the last time.
The son didn’t do anything wrong. All he knows is the world he’s presented with, and his limited grasp on the whole thing needs to be taken into account. The scene that has the father finally spank his son in frustration is jolting, because it’s directly connected to his suddenly being isolated from his peers in the same way the scooter will isolate his son from his friends. The surface level differences, while obviously worlds apart, don’t seem too important to Ozu. He wants us to latch onto these connections and go with him, he’s leading us down a side route to try and determine why one of these is more meaningful than the other. The father certainly thought he was justified in delivering the spanking, and even looks annoyed when he’s called out by his wife. The brother and sister arguing about bikes and paper balloons also feels like a direct line from the scene between the salesmen back at the office. Everyone wants to get a good bonus, and no one wants to rock the boat too much by coming to their coworker’s defense along with the father. Where Ozu draws the line is in his leaving the fight between the kids hanging just a little. He doesn’t dig too far into that – it’s just meant to highlight the childish and disconnected nature of the workplace. But he acknowledges that just because wanting new toys isn’t exactly on the same level as the threat of not providing for your family, it’s important to them. To the kids, it’s the most important thing in the world right at that moment. Ozu would often inject his own little fairness doctrines into these stories, giving each side the benefit of the doubt. He’s always willing to at least hear everyone out. It’s where he chooses to focus his attention that makes all the difference. He sides with the workers and he sides with the kids.
Ozu never had a family of his own. He spent most of his life drinking and watching and making movies. So he had to retain some of that childlike quality (in the best possible sense) to really see these kids for who they were and really capture the size and scope of their world. This would come more to the forefront of his work later on, but even here his ability to live inside just about any one of his characters and make us see through their eyes is remarkable.
The plot involving the reunion between the father and his old school teacher is less fully-formed but still continues this questioning of just how far workplace solidarity can go within a top-down system. It’s yet another instance of a gift tied to a promise, only this time the structure turns almost completely metaphorical. The question of how the family deals with class struggle and differing ideas of living a life of dignity come completely upfront, no longer just details to be inferred. Ozu really impresses upon us questions of how we value the work we do and what it means to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The film still keeps this grounded in the household, as the comic business of struggling to hand out flyers while carrying two enormous flags down a busy sidewalk become a domestic dispute that threatens to blow up the parents’ marriage at the worst possible time. They’re broke with a sick baby at home and all they can do is argue about how bad it looks that they’ve been forced to walk up and down the hot summer streets just for the opportunity to earn a living sometime in the vague distant future. It almost feels needlessly cruel of the film to up the ante so much so quickly, but it tells us a lot about how Ozu views these struggles and how they can invade and infect every moment of our lives. Nothing comes easy, and earning anything in this life can sometimes feel like a herculean task.
Tokyo Chorus seems to wrap up a little too neatly, but Ozu spins everything just enough to make it all feel that these little glimpses and vignettes with the family have been heartfelt. Again, everything matters. It’s a collection of short stories that just happen to flow into one another as a long narrative. Or maybe that’s a little over-analytical. The film breaks up just about every little detail into its own little self-contained unit, so that each scene feels like it could flow out into its own complete movie. The insurance office, the kids, the marriage, even the schoolyard and restaurant reunion segments that bookend the film are filled with their own internal logic and drama. If anything, Tokyo Chorus is a family album. We can look at it and stop and linger on this or that moment and live out each little picture or we can let it keep going and arrive at the end. But there’s no big climax, no real revelation, other than Ozu reminding us that all we have is each other. His title cards hint at this as well, giving us almost laughably irrelevant time markers like “Several Months Go By” or “Four or Five Years Later.” The story simply continues on, like recalling a memory from years ago that naturally leads up to the present. Or doesn’t.
Tying the story’s conclusion back to the beginning for no real purpose is a wild choice for a movie as occasionally devastating as Tokyo Chorus turns out to be. We catch up with characters we’d forgotten about and don’t really have anything invested in. We never really knew them in the first place. But it’s just another little branch of the story. Our main characters remember them, so we get them back in the end. It wouldn’t surprise me if Coppola had this scene in mind when he was coming up with his ending for The Godfather Part II. In that scene, we cut abruptly to a moment before the first film began. It gets some narrative housekeeping out of the way but is mostly serving to show us a moment when things were better. In Coppola’s film, things are at their absolute lowest point, so Michael Corleone retreats back to a memory of how life used to be before all the evil that would befall and consume him had taken hold (it’s telling, though, that this is also the moment everything changed – it was his last happy memory). In Ozu’s film, we aren’t dissociating into a simpler life, but instead ending the film on a happy, upbeat note instead of following everybody outside where things will go back to the way they were. A common thread throughout all of Ozu’s work would be the insistence on happy endings not because that’s the end of the story, but because that’s how he wants us to remember his characters. These are all people who deserve a happy ending. So why would he let us leave them any other way?