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Wim Wenders travels to Japan in search of the Tokyo seen in the films of Yasujirô Ozu. Ozu's own Tokyo Story (1953) is a helpful (but not mandatory) pre-requisite to seeing Tokyo-Ga (1985). Written by
This game induces a kind of hypnosis. Winning is hardly important. But, time passes, you lose touch with yourself for a while, you merge with the machine, and perhaps, you forget, what you always wanted to forget.
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I'm not much attuned to Wenders or Ozu (whom Wenders hopes to rediscover with this). But I am very much attuned to Japan and their entire cosmology - their cultural images form one of the most sophisticated readings of the world. Their tea-house and the creative process that surrounds it is one of my three most valuable narratives (meant loosely).
It is with Ozu that Wenders is blessed with a unique entry into that entire cosmology. Sure, he comes to Japan consciously looking for that entry, but he is so busy looking for it in the most superficial way that he completely misses. Where is Ozu's Japan? Obviously gone, with time and modernity. The sprawling megapolis refutes the quiet, provincial life of Ozu's cinema, but that's hardly worth the insight.
That uniquely fortunate entry which Wenders misses, Ozu transmits from beyond the grave. It is actually inscribed on his gravestone, where in place of any other signifier we find the ideogram for "Mu", meaning "not" or "nothing", which is at the heart of the koan on emptiness - known as the "MU!" koan - so important in the teachings of the Rinzai Zen school.
Wenders being so utterly a stranger in all of this, so deeply embedded in his Western worldview, he starts rattling off a painfully flaccid diatribe on our perception of reality, as shaped by cinema and otherwise. Pontificating, banal notions that 'everything we see is ours', which is another example that filmmakers, however talented with images, are usually very poor commentators on their chosen field.
He is so completely out-of-tune with the importance of Ozu's gravestone lesson - which should have been his portal of understanding of the Japanese world - that he concludes said diatribe with the notion that cinema now is empty, "mu", whereas in Ozu's films it teemed with life and truth. The idea that emptiness is the true essence of form, and that by extension Ozu's ethos flows from that assurance, completely escapes him.
Had he understood that, he could have perhaps unlocked the meaning of the images of Japanese life he captures; the group of teenagers in a park drenched in the fashions and sounds of 50's America, or the food artists preparing from wax, in tremendous detail of shape and color, exact replicas of dishes to be displayed in a restaurant's window-shop. It is all about this concentrated, joyous work in form, as flowing from an empty-centeredness. So even though the kids dressed in rockabilly attire appear to be rebelling against everything that is culturally Japanese, the very expression of that rebellion - the precise, concentrated movements, the infatuation with movement itself - brings them at the heart of it.
But Wenders being Wenders, when faced with the players in an arcade parlor quietly lost in their noisy game of pachinko, he can only think that they are subsumed automaton-like by the machine. All these are merely the scenes of some indecipherable cultural gap for him.
So the essay on cinematic reality is really poor, and he even chances to meet Chris Marker on a small bar called "La Jetee", then working on Sans Soleil about similar stuff. With the hindsight of what Soleil would grow to be, this seems even smaller. Elsewhere he is reunited so far from Germany with Herzog, in suit and tie himself so far removed from his jungles. He goes on about his own thing about pure images, which in his films always flow out from the physical landscape. So it's natural that he thinks those images are impossible to find in the artifice of modern Tokyo - yet I posit that the fascinating work of the food artists constructing replicas of tofu and icecream is exactly the pure image. But not Wagnerian enough for Herzog.
What is left, and what is usually really good with Wenders, is the beauty of images tied into space. Here the electric night of the big city. He's at least attuned to the visible fabric, with a natural eye for how to synthesize it into a pervasive mood, even when he's pretty daft about the mechanisms invisible to the eye that control it. As a filmmaker he looks wonderfully, but doesn't really see.
So the stuff about Ozu don't interest me overmuch and I haven't commented on that, but everyone who is a fan should see the interview with Ozu's longtime cameraman. He reveals precious tidbits of the working ethos that informs his work. We see him enact how he setup those tatami shots for Ozu.
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