The film group is on holiday so I can come back to my three years old project. This is to consider the old woman in two classic films with the same story.
For there is no magic that will draw together in perfect understanding the aged and the young. There is a canyon between us and the painful gap is only bridged by the ancient words of a very wise man: Honor thy father and mother. (MWFT Title). … “I am very proud of my children. They leave me alone. They do not need me and I don’t need them.” These are quotes from Make Way For Tomorrow (1937) the film that inspired the classic Tokyo Story (1953) : “Honour your parents while they are still alive…. One cannot serve one’s parents beyond the grave”
Both films but specially Tokyo Story have been considered masterpieces. Both films have been studied and written about from many different points of view. Often the couples are described as ‘elderly’. I would like to concentrate on the way the old woman is represented, and the nature of the ‘gulf’, assuming that my readers know the films. The two films stated subject is the relationship between parents and adult children in a changing world. The separation of the ageing couple is not often commented on. To me an ‘elderly’ woman of 78 this element is beautifully expressed in both films.
For ease of reading MWT will stand for Make Way For Tomorrow, and TS for Tokyo Story. Lucy and Tomi are respectively the two old women. I will refer to the other characters by their roles rather than names.
Physical appearance: In both MWT and TS the couples are obviously “old”. In MWT and TS traditional signs of age are evident: in MWT Lucy has her grey hair in a bun and neat but out of fashion clothes. Although Beulah Bondi was only 49, her acting conveys the age of her character stated as being 70. In TS Tomi who is said to be 68 is played by Chieko Higashiyama who was 63 at the time. Her hair is pulled back in a bun. However it is not white. Her stance and demeanour signal ageing. She shows signs of illness and her death occurs at the end of the film. Both husbands also are obviously old.
Setting the scene: Leo McCarey establishes the different personalities of the family members, their complex relationships and the problem they have to face : namely the repossession of the family home. The opening scenes are remarkable in their conciseness and psychological depth. The old couple have three daughters and two sons who live a long way away. They ask their children to visit and help because the family home has been repossessed by the bank. In a private moment between Lucy and her elder son when she greets him at the door, the body language indicates a special relationship between mother and son. It is evident that they do not see each other often and that the grandchild the mother knew is now a young woman at college. There are no hints of close relationships between the mother and the two daughters and the joking younger son. The third daughter is talked about but not present at the family reunion. The solution accepted reluctantly by the couple is that Lucy will live temporarily with the elder son and her husband with the daughter who has an unemployed husband. Lucy and her husband do appear as separate with different temperaments. He may be reckless. She is more pragmatic.
In TS the establishing scenes are more serene but not less masterful. The ageing couple live with their younger daughter in their own home in the country. The daughter, a teacher, makes sure they have what they need before their trip to see their other children a son and daughter in Tokyo and a son in Osaka. There are some opening shots of young children going to school. Here Ozu sets the old couple in relation to two younger generations in a small village in the country with a sister living nearby (we learn later that the woman who passes by and comments on them having good children is the sister). The couple are sitting next to each other on the floor (Japanese style). They are packing for their visit. Ozu’s style of breaking the 180 degree rule gives the impression of a couple in harmony. In one shot it is the husband who is in the foreground and in another it is the wife who is prominent. Their gestures are nearly synchronous. A brief dialogue about losing and then finding a missing item conveys no tension. A smile of recognition would be the response of any old viewers .
The couples: In MWT as we have seen in the establishing sequences Lucy is wife and mother. She is supportive of her husband. In the opening scenes she is there standing next to her husband who sits comfortably in a big armchair that dwarfs him. He makes jokes about trivial matters but she does not express what she thinks of the situation apart from the aborted remark “Your father and I thought that no matter what happened , we’d always be – Oh never mind what we thought”. Lucy is aware of the situation, but remains non judgemental and accepts the separation solution offered by the shocked children: “it will be nice to live with the children“. One of the most emotional and cruel sequences is the one when Lucy shouts her loving concern to her husband over the phone. Her back is turned to the assembly of bridge players and the viewers but the distress of this separation is all too deeply perceived. Towards the end of the film when the couple review their past and relive their honeymoon, they appear as a very loving couple who had ‘happiness spread thin‘ over their whole lifetime. She is the more socially competent of the two in dealing with people who show them sympathy. When the husband admits some self-criticism ‘I am a failure‘, Lucy reassures him and blames herself for the callousness of their children towards them: ‘you don’t sow wheat and reap ashes‘. These sequences make the last ones of the final separation and goodbyes at the station all the more heartrending. Lucy is left, lost and distressed on her own not knowing where to look.
In TS. the characteristics of an ageing couple are subtly exposed and recognised. Apart from being separated for one night the couple are seen together throughout. The couple seem to act in unison and share thoughts and impressions. Visually they are always in the same frame, sitting in a diagonal across the screen or facing the camera. When walking she follows him. Because they do not need their children’s help there is no narrative stress and Ozu concentrates on details: losing objects and finding them again, forgetting the umbrella behind more than once, the dizzy spells, the remarks about change, the alienation from their adult children and young people at the resort, the desire to go back home, the thank yous for being looked after in spite of being so busy. All are recognisable common experiences of an old couple anywhere. Ozu’s couple also articulate what could well be the feelings of the couple in MWT but is not expressed: how children change, how children never come up to their parents’ expectations, how when they get married they become different persons. But the couple also articulate how lucky they are to have children who are better than average. But it is during the one night separation that the deeper aspect of Tomi are revealed. While the husband is out drinking with friends who are expressing their disappointment about the achievement of their sons, Tomi is being looked after by her daughter-in-law. (see later)
Relationships between the old woman and her adult children: In MWT Lucy’s only close relationship is with her older son with whom she is to live temporarily. Lucy as wife and mother does not understand the fact that her daughter-in-law needs to earn a living and tries to be part of the bridge lesson. This is the source of the painful comic mixed with pathos of the bridge scenes. Lucy tries to contribute to the household but is perceived as interfering. The daughter-in-law sees her as the reason for her teenage daughter straying and cruelly blames Lucy for the situation. Lucy forgives her insensitive outburst. The relationship with her rich daughter who fails to keep her promise of harbouring the old couple is only expressed in a letter and the impression is that Lucy has been bullied into going into a retirement home. The depth of Lucy’s loving relationship with her son is demonstrated by her preempting his announcing the decision to send her to a retirement home. She realises that this decision, forced on him by his wife, pains him and she spares him this by pretending that it is her own decision. To protect her husband from the pain she asks her son never to divulge the fact that she will be in a home.
Tomi is not seen as communicating with her children in any close way as she is always seen and heard as part of the couple. Their communication with the children remains in the domain of politeness and decency. They thank them time and again and show that they understand that they are very busy. When they are expelled from the daughter’s house they do not want to disturb the son but separate. Tomi will go to Noriko (widowed daughter-in-law) and the husband will go and visit friends. The scenes between Noriko and Tomi are a beautiful example of the representation of a warm and caring relationship between a young and an old woman. The closeness is not based on family ties but on the sharing of common experiences. Both women have suffered from the alcoholism of their husband and both have lost a loved one. Noriko massages Tomi’s back and a physical bond is immediately established which permits Tomi to be personal and tell Noriko that she should marry again, that she will feel lonely when old and on her own. When the two women are in bed in the dark, we can hear Tomi cry. In a film where personal emotions are held in check this light touch expresses the grief of losing a loved one.
Grandmother : The grandchild in MWT is a young woman at college with a life of her own who has to share a room with Lucy. The relationship here is a complex one. It ranges from her resentment of this intrusion in her private life to collusion with Lucy about the existence of a boyfriend, and a rapprochement between the two. Lucy and her granddaughter exchange views about men and women relationships. But she is devastated to learn that the boyfriend is married and confesses her collusion. This leads for Lucy being blamed for this transgression and the decision to send Lucy to a retirement home.
In TS the grandchildren are young. The same resentment about sharing space with their grandparents is evident. But the younger of the children is persuaded by Tomi to go and play out with her. This is the occasion for Ozu to express the private thoughts of Tomi about getting older: “I wonder where I will be when you grow up … by the time you are a doctor”.
The gulf : in both films what Mc Carey calls the painful gulf between the generations is due to a changing world, the big city busy life as opposed to the quiet of the country where relationships are easier. In both films the question of shared space is a source of conflicts. In both films the question of divided loyalties are evident. In both films a major element is the changing role of the woman in the family. In both films the old woman reflects on her future in the presence of her grandchild. Also in both films the husband has male friends to confide in. But in MWT Lucy is on her own while Tomi gets the comfort of her daughter in law.
Both films stress the difficulty of obeying one of the ten commandments : “Honour thy father and thy mother”. In completely different film styles both films consider the gap between the generations as unbridgeable and the transgression inevitable.
In both films the women are represented with subtle psychological depth. In both films the theme of loss and departures are evident. In both films the woman is strongly herself but also part in a loving relationship.
I have attempted to point to the other strand present in the two films, a strand emotionally very strong but little considered by commentators: the pain of the inevitable separation of the couple. Whereas the intergenerational conflict is obviously articulated in the two films, the pain of the final separation of the couple is treated very differently. In TS the death of Tomi and its effect on the different members of the family is exposed. In MWT the old woman is left on her own with only the prospect of a retirement home.
I find it remarkable that these two classic films are still very relevant today (see blog on Make Way For Tomorrow – June 2013) but rarely quoted in studies of ageing and the cinema. As usual I feel frustrated not to be able to note all the significant details of these two classic films. For me the images of Tomi and her husband forever packing their belongings and Lucy on the station platform, are probably the most powerful of old women in films.