What are they eating ?

In “Tokyo no korasu (1931)”, the little daughter gets sick from eating “Mizumanju”. This is Mizumanju/Kuzumanju.

Mizumanju (via Chunichi Web)
Recipe is here.
As you can see, its soothing appearance and chilled preparation are very inviting in a hot summer day. And the girl must have begged for it.

Late Autumn (1960)

In “Late Autumn (1960)”, Mamiya (Shin Saburi) takes Akiko (Setsuko Hara) and, later Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa), to lunch. They go to the place with the sign “う”.
What are they eating ? This is what they are eating.

Unaju (via Wikipedia)
This is Unagi (Japanese eel). This was one of the Ozu’s favorite Japanese cuisine. Here is the recipe. The sign “う” is the first letter of “うなぎ”, ‘eels’ in Japanese and audience would know it is a restaurant for this particular cuisine. According to Sho Kida, this restaurant in the film has a real life counterpart in Nihonbashi. Eel Cuisine Restaurant ‘Hashimoto’ was listed in the Ozu’s notebook and still caters to connoisseurs in Tokyo. This place has an “う” sign in front of the entrance.
Eels farming has a long history in Japan since late 19th century and by the time of this film, most of the eels available in the market were from the farming. Usually, farmed eels are much cheaper and high-end restaurants distinguish themselves by serving only “natural” eels. I think the place in the film might have been one of them. Recently, eels are farmed in China in large scale and their price tag is unbelievably cheap. At the same time, several occasion of antibiotics contamination brought deep distrust against Chinese eels. Time has changed.

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Then and Now, and In Between (Part 4)

This is the conclusion of 4-part series.

How to Delete the Past

Textbook used in a Japanese elementary school after WWII

The war devastation made people realize that Japan had not been as modernized as they had thought. It became embarrassingly clear that Japan had had no chance of winning the war. Compared to their sorry state of material shortage, food shortage and poor industrialization, United States had everything they wanted and more (at least they thought so). Japan had a lot to catch up. Accelerate industrialization and modernization. Forget about anything old.

In July 1945, most of Japanese seriously believed they should fight against incoming Americans with bamboo spears, even it meant suicide of the whole nation. After August 1945, it was apparent to anyone’s eye that tremendous degree of psychological, social and economical metamorphosis was required. Then, Japan became a nation of “amnesiacs”. They have to delete the past. The change was possible only through total annihilation of the past. In schools, large parts of texts in textbooks were painted black. Not only it was to show that anything had been taught was wrong, but had to be erased. Reference to sacrifice, emperor,or any other code of ethics of war-time era were no longer mentioned in classrooms.

Such a drastic change would require new plannings, visions and dreams. However, in many cases, such as Tokyo urban planning as we have seen in the previous part, the sense of immediate survival just killed dreams and visions, inevitably leading to a chaos. Chaotic city landscape was only the representation of this chaotic collective psyche.

In “Tokyo Story”, Ozu carefully selected his exterior scenes to show us artifacts from prewar era while brutal contamination of the city was in progress elsewhere. Since the city completely lost its unity in space, one had to look for unity in time. “Absence of Tokyo” was a carefully crafted view. If the city has lost its identity, was there anything to show ?

Words of Ethereal

One aspect of “Tokyo Story” which would escape non-Japanese speaking audience’s attention is the use of Japanese dialect.

Hirayama elders speak “Onomichi-ben“, dialect of Onomichi city, another location in “Tokyo Story”. But Koichi, Shige and Keizo, three children of Hirayama, do not speak in this dialect anymore, even when they are talking to their parents. Koichi and Shige speak in Standard Japanese (1). Keizo speaks in Osaka dialect, where he now lives (2). As in any language, a mother would feel slight disappointment if a son speaks in a different tongue than he grew up with. It is as if children forget where they are from. They painted their past in black, deleting the speech they grew up with.

The fact Hirayamas in Tokyo speak this Standard Japanese emphasize their rootlessness. “Standard” means omnipresence and absence at the same time. They exist everywhere but nowhere. They are everybody and nobody.

In one of the round-table talks for Sankei, a weekly journal, Ozu said “I hate (rural) intonation leaked into Standard Japanese (spoken by ‘hicks’ in Tokyo) (3)”. In these words, you might sense his antagonism toward pretentiousness of people who are not born in Tokyo. From time to time, you can find his remarks were filled with barely concealed pride as an Eddoko.

But at the same time, as he might have not admitted it, Ozu was a part ‘hick’ in Tokyo. He had spent most of his adolescence in Matsuoka, a rural city in Mie. And it needs a ‘hick’ to understand their psychology. A pure Eddoko would never come up with a line like “Oh, they are my acquaintance,” when Shige speaks of her parents. Many of his films deal with these people immigrated to Tokyo from rural Japan. Sometimes, their dreams were brutally incarcerated. Ozu observes this through his stationary lens with deep sympathy.

City of Strangers

Tokyo Story

In his diary, “Danchotei Nichijo“, January 18, 1932, Kafu Nagai described the stroll around Horikiri station, near the Arakawa River. And after the long hours of wandering, he took the train back to Ginza and saw a blind beggar with a girl helping him.

… in this world, there will be a person who will give a helping hand to a beggar, So I would not worry about coming years of my old age. I wonder, even when I was in my dying bed, there might be someone who would reach me and prepare medicine for me … (4)

It is known that Yasujiro Ozu was reading this Kafu Nagai’s dairy during the production of “Tokyo Story”, and quite captivated by it. The Horikiri station is the one you see in the beginning of Tokyo section in the film. It is as described in the diary, sunk a little bit lower than the river bank (5). The scenery was obscured by the banks, only chimneys and electric poles could be seen.

Tokyo is the city of strangers. Or any metropolis is. Isolation and despair in the city have been the core of many literature, art and cinema. Strangers may look at you, talk to you, or ignore you. They may laugh at you, yell at you, or spit at you. The last thing you would expect from strangers is the helping hand when you need it. Or is it ?

One of the recurring theme in Ozu ‘s films is “parents and children as strangers”.

Children grow out of parents. They stop speaking mother’s accents, forget how to spend time with parents and too busy to spare time with them. This separation happens in every generation, which Ozu called “more like reincarnation”. Imagine when Koichi’s children, these two little brothers, grow up. The same story will unfold. The story was, is and will be told again and again. from generation to generation. In earlier centuries, when a large family with a few generations lived under the same roof, this transformation was not so obvious. But modernization divided the families into the smallest unit possible and made this rite of passage more visible and painful.

But there may be someone who would reach you and prepare medicine for you. And this someone can be a total stranger. It may be your wife or husband, who had been a stranger before you met. It may be your friend or neighbor. The fact that Koichi is a neighborhood doctor is quite revealing. We become somewhat overcritical about him after watching his relationship with his parents, but he is giving a helping hand to strangers in the neighborhood. Yes, it is his profession, but he is reaching and preparing medicine for a total stranger.

In this sense, Noriko, a total stranger to Hirayamas, becomes a vague blur. She is not only a stranger to Hirayamas, but also to us. Does she have a family back home? Where was she from? Did she also delete the past as other Hirayamas have done? Only thing we know about her is this; She lost a stranger who would have prepared medicine for her.

And this turned out to be a story of ethereal strangers in an ethereal city. The city and people in it do not have past and future, only a lost identity. Tokyo becomes every city and no city.

And Finally, Onomichi

Onomichi, Tokyo Story

Onomichi, a small city roughly 80km east of Hiroshima, was not bombed during the war (Nearby shipyard was bombed twice). So the scenery you see in the film is the prewar city landscape survived. This is where Hirayama elders live.

Here, neighbors peek in your house through the window and have some conversation. The sense of community is valued.
Probably a large part of contemporary Japanese audiences noticed this prewar landscape (unconsciously). Rows of tiled roofs, absence of concrete buildings, and uniform architectural designs. If you compare this scenery with the photos of early 20th century Tokyo in Part 1, you realize there is a cunning resemblance between the two.

This may well be a doppelganger of Tokyo. Tokyo without the earthquake, without the war. Tokyo with identity. Last frames of the film are the projection of the city that never will be. Ozu might have longed for it in vain. It maybe a nostalgia for the city that never existed.


(1) Old Tokyo natives from downtown, Eddoko, speak “Edo-ben“, or Edo-dialect. Another form of Tokyo “dialect” is called “Yamanote-kotoba“, which has become the basis for Standard Japanese used in formal oral communication such as national broadcasting.

(2) Ozu was not satisfied with Shiro Osaka’s command of Osaka-ben. Osaka, who was actually not from Osaka, had a hard time to give authenticity. However, Hirayama elders’ (Higashiyama and Ryu) command of Onomichi-ben is no better.

(3) “Introduction to Director Yasujiro Ozu, 40 Q & A”, Sho Kida, 2003

(4) Again, I must apologize for my poor translation. The original Japanese text is as follows;


(5) There is a speculation that the station in the film is not the actual Horikiri station but another one just like described in the diary, and Ozu might have disguised this station as Horikiri station.

Copyrighted materials, if any, on this web page are included as “fair use”. These are used for the purpose of research, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). 

Then and Now, and In Between (Part 3)

(This is part 3 of 4-parts series. Part 1, Part 2)

Tokyo aerial view, 1945 (via Wikipedia)

Bombing of Tokyo

Through 1944 to 1945, Tokyo was bombed more than 100 times. Especially, the bombing on March 10, 1945 was the most devastating. Incendiary bombs burned the whole city to the ground. Fukagawa, Ozu’s birthplace has been bombed most heavily and destroyed completely.
After the war, shabby looking shacks gave immediate shelters to those who survived the bombing or came back from the war zones. These shacks became the symbols of Tokyo rebuilding.

Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, the  Occupation Forces in Japan, reassigned the buildings and streets to meet their efficiency. On the other hand, they were quite indifferent toward the rebuilding of Japanese cities, especially Tokyo. Hideaki Ishikawa, the Head of Urban Planning Office of Tokyo, proposed a quite ambitious plan for Tokyo rebuilding. His proposals included several 100-m wide main streets intersecting metropolitan areas, large areas of parks and greens and rearrangement of residential areas and commercial areas. But this proposal was ignored by SCAP and Seiichiro Yasui, the Mayor of Tokyo at the time. SCAP contemptuously called it “the plan of the victor”, and Yasui was determined to discard the plan. The plan demanded the immense budget and Yasui said “What Tokyo needs now is not the grandiose plan but the place for people to live”. His assessment was probably right at the time, considering the fact that the whole city was covered with shacks made of scraps and debris by 1947.

Furthermore, in 1949, SCAP demanded tight budget control (Dodge Line), which resulted in further shift-down in implementation of the plan. Because of economic turmoil and material and food shortage, there were thousands of black markets all over the city. City Office was determined to shut down these black markets. Another problem was enormous amounts of debris of concrete and other materials from bombing. They dumped debris and junk into the rivers and moats running through Tokyo to provide more land for city development. As a result, Tokyo was no longer the city of water it used to be.

Urban planning of Tokyo after the war miserably failed.

“Tokyo Story” and Absence of Tokyo

Tokyo Story

When Shukichi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi Hirayama (Chieko Higashiyama), the aging father and mother, found themselves homeless in the middle of Tokyo, they looked out from the bridge, gazed the vast scenery of Tokyo, and were overwhelmed by the myriad of the metropolis. But we, the viewers, never have a chance to see what Hirayamas saw. It is well known that this bridge was in Ueno and Hirayamas were looking down on Ueno Railway Station. In another scene, Noriko shows Hirayamas the panoramas of Tokyo from the staircase of the tall building (Matsuya Deparment Store in Ginza). And again, we are not allowed to share the view Hirayamas and Noriko saw. And there was a short insert of the view of Tokyo, acting as a bridge to the next scene.

Yoshishige Yoshida called it “Absence of Tokyo”. Tokyo is not as visible, or hidden from our eyes. But it is not completely hidden. Apparently, Ozu was very careful about choosing the exterior shots in “Tokyo Story”.

Chimneys. That was the Senju Power Plant (Tokyo Electric Power Company), famous for its “Monster Chimneys”. It survived the bombing during the war, somehow.

Chimneys of the Senju Power Plant, 1954 (Wikipedia)


Tokyo Story

The Senju Bridge. Tomi talks to her grandchild on the river bank about his future and hers. The bridge can be seen in their background. The Senju Bridge was built in 1927 and survived the bombing.

Wako Building. You can see it at the end of Hato bus tour. This is one of few buildings in  Ginza, which survived the bombing.

Tokyo Story

Matsuya Building. From the exterior staircase of this building, Hirayamas and Noriko look over the panorama of Tokyo. This is the another building which survived the war. The building had been used as a PX until August 1952. After the renovation, it reopened as a department store on May 20, 1953, just a few months before the Tokyo Story shooting.

Tokyo Story

It seems that many of the pivotal architectures in “Tokyo Story” are the ones which survived the bombings during the war. This is, as if Ozu was looking for a continuous narrative which had not been tampered by the destruction of the war. The year was 1952. On April 28 of that year, Treaty of San Fransisco was enacted. Japan had become a responsible independent nation again.

Next is the last part of the series, concluding the discussion of Hirayamas and role of strangers in Tokyo.

Copyrighted materials, if any, on this web page are included as “fair use”. These are used for the purpose of research, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).