The Absent Present of Tokyo Story
-on the mythology of the before and the after-

text by Yoshitsugu Horike


In the latter part of this century, Japanese films have won a significant measure of popularity throughout the world. It was in the early fifties that Japanese cinema gained international preeminence, with many of our films winning prizes at prestigious international festivals. At the same time, it must be admitted that part of this success was due to a rather simple fascination with the exotic, a fascination that was satisfied by such historical films as Ugetsu (Mizoguchi) and Rashomon (Kurosawa). Because of this over evaluation in the exotic, Europe and America tend to neglect the work of Ozu Yasujiro until the seventies.

from a scene of Tokyo Story From the point of view of a modern critic, this neglect must have seemed predictable. After all, Ozu was one of the directors who initiated what we might call the first Golden Age of Japanese film. His first films, without sound and heavily influenced by Hollywood films of the period, were distinctly non-exotic. However, since he established himself long before the fifties internationalism, he later felt no need to cater to the exoticism of western critics. Such innovations as the cut-back/reverse shot sequence were uniquely Ozu's and resisted any quick iconic-cultural identification, American or Japanese. It was only later, after a long of period of misunderstanding and re-acquaintance, that his rather personal and subtle style become widely admired. So peculiar and personal a style it is that it fully deserves the appellation, Ozuism.

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It is true that today Tokyo Story is as respected and well known as Ugetsu and Rashomon. But it is admire, I think, because of this unique style, this Ozuism. It is a style that permeates the film and overflows it. Indeed, it is as if this style itself becomes the norm and subject of the film.

Ozuism has provoked both positive and negative reactions. The young Turks of the sixties (including Oshima and Imamura) saw Ozuism as a form of passivity and acquiescence in the face of a feudalistic and conservative society. They needed another style to create films, a style that resists, that is uneasy and uncooperative. In contrast to this evaluation, many others, critics and filmmakers (really the list is too long) unhesitatingly praised his films, in particular Tokyo Story, as great. Ironically, this greatness rested in large part on that very combination of stylistic elements (Ozuism) that Oshima and Imamaura rejected. It seems then that Tokyo Story is the perfect site to unpack what this complex style is exactly. Indeed, it is perhaps a style so well entrenched in our habit of understanding his films that it is has all the force of a powerful and living myth.

But a myth can be an exotic object too, and in its exoticism hides the real object from our gaze, filters and abstracts it and so distorts it. To experience the real object, the concrete event in Ozu, his vivid sense of life, we need to break with those rather abstract formulations that have blinded us for so long. Quite simply we need to look and look hard. Yet in watching Tokyo Story, such a break seems nearly impossible to perform. And surprisingly, the reason for this difficulty is not because of the typicality of the film or even, at bottom, because of Ozuism.

The format of the nega-sheets for Tokyo Story is as follows: Each sheet (19.0~23.1) is divided into two halves. In the upper half five rows are 'cut out' of the sheet and strips of films are inserted in the openings. On the lower half of the sheet, shooting data for each of the shots is recorded under the corresponding strip of that shot (fig.2).

We have 154 sheets as the nega-sheets of the film, and these contain a total of 769 strips. Strip numbers, which were basically order by scene sequence and shot sequence (joined by Ò-Ó) were written down on the first frame of each strip in red ink. Differences between the existing print and the nega-sheets can be categorized into the following types.

The following is a list of the information written on the nega-sheet. The comments refer to fig.2

The date when the corresponding shot was taken.

Weather, Light:
Notes on the weather in the scene and the 'time of the light' (day or night).

f-stop number. Yuharu Atsuta didn't like to increase the f-stop number while shooting under artificial light at the studio.

The angle(degrees) of the shutters. This limits the amount of light that a film is exposed to, and is connected to the f-stop number.

Certain filters are used to cut down on excessive light or for adjusting the tones and contrasts in a shot. In this example, no filters were used because the shots were done with artificially lighting.

This space was for recording whether or not a diffusion filter was used. this filter is used for making line between light and shadow vague. This blurring gradually increases from A to D. If Ozu required it Atsuta used A or B during the shooting of Tokyo Story.

Type of lens used. As is well known, Ozu usually chose 50mm lens because he regarded it as closest to the ordinary human field of vision. However, he occasionally approved of the use of 40mm lens if the shooting conditions warranted it.

The distance between the camera and the focal object. The number indicates the distance in feet which the first assistant cameraman used to focus the shot. If there are two or more focal objects, he focused on the average distance of the objects from the camera(but with a slight bias in favor of the closer object if neither Ozu or Atsuta made no specific demand on what they wanted him to focus on.)

Noted if the film was new stock or stock that had been partially used-up in shooting.

The length of time that the film stayed in the developing solution. An experienced cameraman adjusts the time according to the tonal effects that he and the director want to achieve.


To see Tokyo Story directly, vividly, concretely is difficult for much the same reason that it is difficult to see his first work, The Sword of Penitence. Although most of Ozu's oeuvre of fifty eight films is available for viewing, the first eighteen that he made have long been missing. The life in these films is closed to us, dead. But, you object, we can see Tokyo Story; indeed most of us have seen it more than once. Yes, but have you seen its real images? The trueth of the matter is that there are no original prints of the film, all of them having been destroyed by a fire which broke out in the processing lab. All that remained at the time were positive prints that had been prepared for export. What we know today as Tokyo Story was a compilation of internegative prints made from the export copies. In short, the surviving Tokyo Story is a forth generation copy, a copy of a copy of a copy...very far indeed from the authenticity and vividness of the original.

Generally in Japan, what is released for theatrical distribution are second generation copies. Given this habit, a sensitive cameraman will shoot his film guided by his sense of what the film will look like as a second generation print. Unfortunately, in the case of Tokyo Story, the intention of the cameraman is lost. Yuharu Atsuta was Ozu's cameraman for each of his Shochiku productions since 1941. It is not an exaggeration to say that his sense of composition and texture are one with Ozu's. Sadly then, whatever nuances that the two intended for Tokyo Story have been compromised by the loss of the originals. To give you an example of what has been lost, consider the element of contrast. In Ozu's other work, the prints manifest a fine gradation of tones that balances a variety of contrasts between black and white areas of the image. In Tokyo Story, the film grains are blunted and exaggerated, thereby coarsening the images and the experience.


Fortunatel, a few years ago a major discovery was made: fragments of the original print of Tokyo Story turned up in the estate of Atsuta, Ozu's cameraman. Atsuta decided at his death in 1992 to will a large archive of material related to his work with Ozu and other film makers to the University of Tokyo for storage and analysis. This material covered nearly all of his work with Ozu, and included a collection of nega-sheets.

These nega-sheets seemed, at first, to be comprised of five strips of film which reordered the last few frame of every shot. These strips were cut whole from the original print of all the takes that Ozu accepted. The sheets also included the frames of each shot in sequences and underneath each strip data relating to the making of the shot. Before analyzing the sheets we at the University of Tokyo supposed that the nega-sheets conserved the totality of film strips and accompanying data of Tokyo Story.

Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case. In our comparative analysis(strip to shot identification) we found that not all of the strips in our possession corresponded to shots in the existing print of Tokyo Story. On the other hand, we identified scenes in Tokyo Story which do not match any of the frames on our nega-sheet. These irregularities in correspondence must mean that the nega-sheets were made before Ozu finished the final editing of the film.

Few films in Japan utilize nega-sheets as part of its production process. They take time and money to make but do not contribute in any direct way to the income of the studio. It was a luxury, one that a studio bestows on a privileged director, one like Ozu. Interestingly the purpose behind the nega-sheets was historical and pedagogical: It was an additional means of documenting a film, and it was a tool that could be used to train the second assistant cameraman on the process of shooting. It also had an economic benefit in giving lower income staff some extra work and pay.


Shochiku was desperate to distribute Tokyo Story by a certain date, but the capacity of its own printing labs were limited. In order to meet the demand for thirty positive prints, the studio sent out the original to a small lab which caugt fire while utilizing it to make copies. Because of this, the nega-sheets, although generally faithful to the overall structure and movement of Tokyo Story, do not correspond to the existing version with absolute exactitude. It could not have captured those last minute modifications -additions and omissions- which Ozu may have made to the final version.

Yet this failure of correspondence is far from a defect. Rather it allows us analyze the film genealogically, as a series of generational traces. Indeed, with some imagination we can construct various optional models of the film and set it against both the existing version as well as the original scenario. In short, the nega-sheet are traces of Ozu's own process of experimentation and selection.

One example of this is a shot of an ocean dock during the day. The dock is largely covered by a shadow of its round roof, and along side of the dock are people who seem to be waiting for a boat.(1-2) The shooting data in the nega-sheet indicates that the shot was meant to be the second of the film. However, it is missing in the existing print. On the other hand, there is a sketch of the same dock-in-shadow shot on the first page of the scenario that was used by Ozu during the shooting of the film (fig.1). The sketch was clearly meant to guide Ozu's sense of shot continuity while filming.

Note the word ÒomitÓ written in black ink over the red cross. This probably means that the shot had already been taken and already deselected. Yet in the interval it was recorder on the nega-sheet, perhaps with the intention of being used. That it was omitted and why it was omitted can then be analyze in relationship to other inclusions and exclusions that eventually resulted in the film as we know it. These last words are not casual: It may be that the original print, the print that was destroyed, actually incorporated this missing shot.


From my point of view, the one and only truth of Tokyo Story exist in the interval between the nega-sheets and the existing prints. Thus, as I mentioned above, we can only talk about Tokyo Story as a film of possibility, a film of options. This is what I meant by the title of my essay, for what is absent here is an invisible present that exists after the nega-sheets but before the version that we have before us. Of course, I do not want the mythology of the lost film to replace the mythology of Ozuism. What I want instead is for us to see the nega-sheets, the existing print of Tokyo Story and the absent but true, original film within a structure of triangulation: Out of patient and unprejudiced viewings and reviewings, out of a relentless but sensitive give and take between the three points of our attention, something like the real Tokyo Story, and in effect the real Ozu, will emerge.

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1. Strips which are in excess of the shots in the existing print(43 strips).

~a dock11-2
~the consulting room of the Hirayamas89-1
~the kitchen of the Hirayamas89-2
~Ryž on the bus(43)60-5
~Ryž on the bus(43)60-5
~the outside of the bus(44)64
~the observatory of the department store(45)65-“ª
~the beauty parlor(54)74-1
~the ocean and a headland(56)
~the ocean and a headland(57)(?)
~the ocean, a headland and an island(58)77#
~the ocean(59)
~Ryž (61)82-6
~the mules(62)85‚Ì“ª
~Ryž and Higashiyama(62)85-1
~Ryž (63)85-6
~a hill(64)86#
~a hill(64)
~the veranda of the hotel(65)
~a room in the hotel(67)91#
~the ocean(67)91‚̐K
~a cape(68)91-K
~a client of the beauty parlor(68)92-1
~a paper lantern(77)
~a paper lantern(77)
~a paper lantern(77)97#
~Ryž and Tono(82)
~Ryž (83)
~Ryž in the waiting room(100)112-18
~the crowd in the waiting room(100)112-19
~the signboard for the next train(100)112-21
~steel frames of the building(100)111
~(616)a dock(122)144-1
~(616)a dock(123)144-1
~(616)a dock(123)144-1
~(616)a dock(123)144-1
~(616)a dock(123)144-1
~(616)a dock(123)144-1
~street lights(124)144-2
~a stone wall(129)#148
~a stone wall(129)#148
~tombs and the sky(135)153#
~tombs(135)153b 23A

2. Shots which have no corresponding strip in the nega-sheets.

51Miyake and the elder child~~
77Miyake and Sugimura~~
123the shopsign of the beauty parlor~~
177the younger child~~
179the younger child~~
215the view through the front window~~
229the view from the observatory~~
294the ocean and an island~~
331the veranda of the hotel~~
416the backs of the three males~~
503the timetable at the waiting room~~
759the sea viewed from over the rail~~

3. Strips which corresponds to two different shots that are nevertheless nearly identifical in composition.

347E349Ryž (71)93-5E7
356E358Ryž (72)93-14E16
374E376the copier(76)96-7E9
378E380the copier(76)96-11E13
386E388the copier(78)98-4E6
403E405Ryž (81)101-4E6
407E409Ryž (82)101-8E10
418E420the mistress(84)101-19E21
419E421the backs of Ryž and Tono(84)101-20E22E24

4. Shots which have two different corresponding strips(from the head and tail of the shot).

641Ryž and Tono(130)149-3“ª

5. Strips which were lost from the nega-sheets.

312Ryž (63)

Note: If there are two or more strips which correspond to a single shot in the existing print, for the sake of convenience I refer to one of them as 'corresponding' and count the other as 'excess'. However, I did count here all six strips of shot #616 in the existing print as not 'corresponding'; because they are discussed in this essay.

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