This 1941 film was director Yasujiro Ozu’s first popular success in Japan and an early example of the sort of bittersweet generational conflict that preoccupied him in later years. Although it doesn’t approach the depth of Tokyo Story (1953) or An Autumn Afternoon (1962), there’s enough foreshadowing of his later cinematic style and philosophical attitude to make Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family essential viewing for those enamored of the director’s singular style.
The movie begins with the celebration of the 69th birthday of the patriarch of the prosperous Toda family, with all his progeny and their spouses present. That evening the father falls ill and soon dies leaving behind so many business-related debts that his children are forced to sell the family house. The question then becomes, who will take care of the widowed mother?
The Toda clan has a well-developed sense of familial duty, but they’re self-absorbed in the modern manner and don’t necessarily want this old woman — who brings in tow one of her unmarried daughters and a servant — mucking up their lifestyles. And so she’s shunted from one couple to another until she’s finally installed in an empty beachfront property the family owns. It’s up to a prodigal son, who spends most of the movie away in China, to return and upbraid his siblings for their selfish behavior. He himself has problems that lead to one of the most cryptic endings in the Ozu canon.
What’s missing in this early look at the old feudal order clashing with modern sensibilities is the crushing sadness and pervasive resignation of later films, the postwar ones where the dichotomy between the old and the new becomes more pronounced.
Ozu’s approach is a mix of the modern and the conservative. His trademark shots are of inanimate objects such as arranged flowerpots and slanting staircases that seem stylishly abstract while at the same time suggest an order and harmony more desired than achieved. The placidity of his camera work, the low-angled shots of people sitting in recurring arranged compositions, are assured constructs that gently mock the emotional foibles of his characters.
Toda is a drama on the verge of satire, yet its more corrosive possibilities are reined in by the director’s sense of decorum. It would be a few years yet before his balancing of the humor and sadness of his character’s lives would seem profound.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, May 10, at 7:30 p.m.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.