Saturday, May 27, 2006

Tokyo-Ga (Wenders, 1985)

Tokyo-Ga is a film with no point; it is a search for something that may be lost. Wenders travels to Japan to discover the world portrayed in the films of Yasujiro Ozu. The result is an experience variably introspective, superficially concerned, philosophical, pessimistic, reverent, ironic, alienating, and inclusive.

Early in the film, Wenders remarks that he wishes one could film as one sees, just to observe without trying to prove anything. Wenders does just that in much of Tokyo-Ga: we watch children play baseball, adults watch baseball or play pinchinko, people swing golf clubs, craftsmen making wax food dishes, and trains come and go. Wenders rarely makes value judgements: he acknowledges that Ozu often portrayed the Japanese fixation on golf ironically, as most Japanese will never play on an actual golf course, but then marvels at how the sport has been boiled down to a perfection of movement, the standard goal of the sport (putting a ball in a hole) entirely forgotten in the act of swinging. The point of the game is gone, much like Wender's idealization of filming as one sees, and much like Tokyo as is portrayed in the film.

People sit in pinchinko parlours, alone in numbers, watching balls fall and hoping to win. The piles of pinchinko balls and the piles of golf balls are very similar, visually. Though these people are sitting next to eachother, they seem willfully isolated. Similarly, Wenders himself is isolated both by language and by the fact that he is holding a camera. At the beginning of the film he remarks that, if he had not made the film, he would probably remember his trip to Japan better, and we can see why: when you hold a camera, it is a wall. You are burdened with not only the need to observe, but the need to observe skillfully, meaningfully, cinematically. There is no assimilation, you are marked as an outsider looking in. The remarkable thing about Ozu's cinema, then, may be that it is so inclusive. One is very consciously on the outside looking in, but in an Ozu film the outside is a beautiful place to be.

The only thing holding Wenders' film together seems to be chronology. He spent an entire day watching men make fake food dishes from wax for display in front of restaurants, and this takes up a good chunk of the film's 91 minute running time. We watch, though, and we are forced to contemplate why. Then, we are forced to contemplate why we are forced to contemplate why. After all, why must everything have a point? Because it is a recorded image. But why must recorded images have a point? The film is very conscious of its actions, what the recording of images does to the images. They are no longer reality, in most cases, and the reason Wenders is in awe of Ozu is that his films, moreso than any other director, do seem real. However, there is only scant evidence of that reality left in Tokyo; it seems all has changed.

We do get a glimpse of that beauty, that simplicity, when Wenders interviews an actor and cameraman for Ozu. These are scenes ripe with nostalgia, as we can only look back to find what the Tokyo-Ga seeks. The only direct signs of Ozu's filmic beauty are anecdotal ones from the sets of Ozu films. The interview with the cameraman has a stunning emotional arc, and the power lies entirely within the words and face of the man speaking, and the camera's unflinching gaze. Wenders speaks the translations himself, and since Japanese seems to be a slower language (that is, it takes longer to say something in it than in English), there is always a pause before each series of statements in which we are watching a face and hearing a language we don't understand, and are forced to contemplate the image, to scour the surface for what lies beneath the surface. The essence of cinema, one could say.

Herzog shows up for a while, and gives a monologue about how finding potent, relevant images is nearly impossible in the modern world. This was in '85, and he's been doing a good job since then, but the proliferation of information and the nullifying of an image's power is a crucial concern for those crucially concerned with art and society. Chris Marker shows up... kind of (interesting side note is that Chris Marker directed an excellent, excellent documentary [titled A.K.] on another great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, the same year that Tokyo-Ga was made, on the set of Kurosawa's Ran). He doesn't show his face, though he is a creator of images himself. It's as if he wants to contribute to the zeitgeist by creating, but doesn't want to be a part of the zeitgeist himself. Though Herzog makes a rant about the non-potency of the image, he is seemingly powerless against his compulsion to create them himself. These men are part of the problem, if only in search of a solution. A fascinating dichotomy in a film full of fascinating dichotomies, digressions, observations, and insights.

Tokyo-Ga really is a unique creation. It is a film about Wenders' journey and insights concerning a man, not about the man himself. The man himself, though, was concerned with an entire culture. As such, the palette of the film is limitless, and it certainly takes advantage of its wide open space. The film meanders, and it's all the better for it.


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