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In the city
A UK region 2 DVD review of TOKYO-GA from Anchor Bay's Wim Wenders Collection by Slarek

In 1985, German director Wim Wenders, a huge admirer of the cinema of Ozu Yasujiro (find me a major European director who isn't), decided to visit Japan in search of the Tokyo of Ozu's films. In a city on the cutting edge of changing times, how much of the Tokyo of previous decades would remain? Visiting Japan for the first time would also offer him the chance to speak to two of Ozu's long-term collaborators about working with the director and hopefully reveal something of his approach and methods.

I cannot, simply cannot, take a detached and objective view of Tokyo-Ga. As a confirmed Japanophile and Ozu fan, I watched the film through the eyes of a fellow passenger and revelled in details that may well go unnoticed or be considered insignificant by others. I still vividly remember and treasure my first visit to Japan and can't help but get a small thrill when I watch others discover the unique wonder of the country for the first time. But too often in the past we have been palmed off with a whistle-stop tour of the aspects considered peculiar by the western visitor, which we were encouraged to regard through amused and mocking eyes. More recently, British TV has taken a more considered and less frivolous approach that I have personally welcomed – a particularly enjoyable example had TV chef Rick Stein embark on his first visit to the country to research his preparations for a meal for the Japanese Ambassador, one that saw him delight at every aspect of eating there, a culinary journey of discovery that fills me with empathic joy every time I watch it (that I also have a serious thing for Japanese cuisine only adds to the buzz here).

Such a sympathetic approach was rare when Wenders embarked on his inaugural visit back in 1985, and initially it might seem that the director, who is seeing the city through a newcomer's eyes, was fascinated by the very same things that every reporter with a movie or video camera seems drawn to. Thus we visit the Pachinko parlours and golf driving ranges and watch the rock 'n' roll teens strutting their stuff in Yoyogi Park. But where so many before and after have observed these same locations with almost comical bemusement, Wenders approaches each with an open mind, a sympathetic eye, and a determination to share and understand the experience. He thus muses on the almost comforting trance that a few hours spent in front of a Pachinko machine can induce, the beauty of movement that proves more important than accuracy on the driving range, and the significance of camaraderie and sense of belonging that marks the rituals of the dancing teenagers. His willingness to linger at each location for longer than most reporters normally would enables him to get past the common public perception and reveal something new in the seemingly familiar, as with the 'nail man' who meticulously checks each of the Pachinko machines after the parlour has closed, or the male rockabilly teenagers making rare bodily contact in order to learn new dance steps.

Particularly fascinating is the visit to one of the workshops responsible for constructing the wax food models used by restaurants to display their wares. If you've ever been to Japan you'll have doubtless been struck by this culturally unique method of promoting the menu within, with every dish on offer displayed in the window as astonishingly lifelike wax models. It's a disarmingly effective way of pulling you into a restaurant, whose usually delicious cuisine will look almost exactly like the model in the window that first charmed your taste buds, something you can rarely say of the photographs in western menus or on the backlit displays above fast food counters. Whether this sequence constitutes even a partial answer to Wenders' original question is debatable, but it's a captivating inclusion nonetheless.

A high point for Ozu fans has to be the extended interviews with Ryu Chishu, one of the director's most-used actors, and regular cinematographer Atsuta Yuuharu. Both men are touchingly humble and even self-effacing about their own achievements, crediting Ozu with the creativity and suggesting that they merely did the best they could for a great artist. Atsuta in particular supplies some intriguing information about Ozu's approach to cinematography, and movingly recalls his close friendship with the director, whose death has left a hole in his life that moves him to tears and prompts him to ask Wenders and his crew to leave him to his thoughts.

Wenders clearly detects a steadily increasing American influence on the country, a cultural globalisation that is being partially embraced rather than fought against. He observes an irony in TVs that are made in Japan to enable the world to watch American images, but aborts a planned visit to the Tokyo Disneyworld at the last minute, uninterested in witnessing an example of manufactured America on Japanese soil. This struck a particular chord with me – two years ago I had exactly the same response when taken to Universal City in Osaka, whose surrounding arcade of mock Americana was hideous and incongruous enough to dissuade me from entering the park itself. That it was raining as heavily then as it is when Wenders does his about-face only served to cement my sense of empathy.

In Wenders' observations there is the suggestion that the Japan depicted in Ozu's films, where family and community were of paramount importance, is slowly disappearing, the modern engagement with the Pachinko machine and the golf driving range being seemingly solitary rather than communal activities. While Ozu's old collaborators are observed in their traditional houses, architectural symbols of a Japan of old, Tokyo City has become a concrete industrial sprawl, something Wenders' friend and fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog looks down on from Tokyo Tower and despairs at. But it is important to remember that Wenders' observations are still those of a curious first-time visitor – dig beneath these examples of surface escapism and the traditional values of Ozu's Tokyo are, at least in my experience, as solid as they ever were. Only the sets are changing.

Then again, perhaps the dilution of Japanese culture is not increasing at the rate that Wenders suspects. Twenty years after Tokyo-Ga was made, I still recognise the Japan depicted here as the one I only recently visited. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the film is that it is almost impossible to date from its content alone, the only real giveaway being a brief sequence of kids playing arcade games, where the crude graphics of Atari's Pole Position have long since been replaced by machines that require you to dance, play drums or, in games whose popularity appears peculiar to Japan, go fishing.

It's clear that not everyone will respond to Tokyo-Ga with my level of enthusiasm, but for those less familiar with modern Japanese culture I would still recommend it over any of the recent crop of American features films that have used the country as a backdrop that is too often employed for the American leads to observe that things there aren't like they are back home. And for those who do know the country then it comes wholeheartedly recommended, and I find myself in complete agreement with the IMBb reviewer who states simply, "Anyone in love with Japan should see this film."

sound and vision

Shot on 16mm and thus correctly framed at 1.33:1, there is visible but not intrusive grain throughout and a slightly lower level of detail than you'd get with 35mm, but otherwise the transfer is up to the standard set by the other discs in Anchor Bay's set, the colour and contrast being particularly impressive on the neon signs of the night shots.

The usual options of Dolby 2.0 mono of 5.1 surround are here, and as with the other discs there is not much to chose between them. The AC3 encoding throws the music a little wider, but this is not a remix, and it all boils down to personal preference or a coin flip.

extra features

Nothing here. Again, the US release had a commentary, but...


I have no doubt that some will complain about the unhurried pace of Wenders' documentary, but it's that very quality of sitting back and watching an activity for longer than you would normally expect that makes Tokyo-Ga so fascinating and insightful. I realise I'm talking from a biased viewpoint here, but frankly couldn't care. This is a fine documentary made by a filmmaker who takes the time to understand and appreciate his subject, and in the process he tells us almost as much about himself as he does about Japan's vibrant capital.

The Wim Wenders Collection

USA / West Germany 1985
80 mins
Wim Wenders

DVD details
region 2
1.33:1 OAR
Dolby 2.0 mono
Dolby 5.1 surround
English / Japanese / German
Anchor Bay
release date
26 March 2007
review posted
25 March 2007

The Wim Wenders Collection
The Scarlet Letter
The Wrong Move
The American Friend
Lightning Over Water
Room 666
Paris, Texas
Notebook on Cities and Clothes
A Trick of the Light

See all of Slarek's reviews