Single parents are as typical of Yasujirô Ozu’s oeuvre as static camerawork, young women being urged to marry and the ubiquitous presence of Chishû Ryû — often playing a single father himself. By and large, these are widows and widowers, as seen in such films as The Only Son (1936), There Was a Father (1942), Late Spring (1949), Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962), among others. Less common is a parent raising a child or children alone while the absent parent lives on elsewhere. It happens in A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and its remake, Floating Weeds (1959), and also in The End of Summer (1961); in all of those cases, the mother is the responsible one and the father is her former lover rather than her former husband. Rarer still — unique, even, for Ozu — is the situation found in his 1957 film Tokyo Twilight.
Upon arriving home one evening, Tokyo banker Shûkichi Sugiyama (Chishû Ryû) is surprised to find his married daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) there, along with her two-year-old daughter, Michiko. (This is the fourth of six movies that Hara made with Ozu and, notably, the only one in which her character is neither single nor widowed.) When it becomes apparent that they plan to spend the night, Shûkichi starts asking whether Takako is having trouble with her husband, Yasuo Numata (Kinzô Shin), a professor. Although she’s evasive at first, and even requests that her father leave her alone, she eventually admits that all is not well in her marriage. Her husband has been coming home drunk frequently of late, and everything seems to irritate him. “He takes it out on poor Michiko,” she says, and concludes that “he’s just neurotic.” If he can’t or won’t change, she feels she has no choice but to leave him.
Shûkichi’s younger daughter, Akiko (Ineko Arima), has problems of her own. A student of English shorthand, she appears to prefer bars and mahjong parlors to classrooms or offices; in fact, she’s fallen in with something of a bad crowd, so much so that a noodle shop owner (Kamatari Fujiwara) refers to her as “that little delinquent.” While that seems unduly harsh, at least based on what the viewer sees of her, it is true that she’s facing an unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and it’s all but impossible for her to track down the father, Kenji Kimura (Masami Taura). At last, she manages to confront him, though it does her no good. “I wonder if it’s even mine,” he says, infuriating her. He tells her that they can meet later that evening to discuss it, then stands her up.
To complicate the family’s situation even further, Takako and Shûkichi learn that the girls’ mother, Kisako (Isuzu Yamada), is living in Tokyo again. Many years earlier, she abandoned her husband and children — the two daughters and a now-deceased son — for another man, who subsequently died abroad in a prison camp. After his death, she married again, and she and her current husband (Nobuo Nakamura) run a mahjong parlor that Akiko visits with some of her friends. Akiko was only three when her mother left and has no recollection of her, nor has she ever learned what exactly happened between her parents. Takako prefers to keep it that way, so when she finds out that Kisako has been talking to Akiko and asking her about her family, claiming to be an old neighbor, she goes down to the mahjong parlor herself to ensure that her sister remains ignorant. “Don’t tell Akiko you’re her mother,” she says. “She doesn’t remember anything about you. The pictures were all burned. She doesn’t even know what you look like. This is no time to tell her you’re her mother.”
If the picture burning is any indication, Kisako’s family was devastated by her departure, and neither she nor the film itself ever offers any good excuse or justification for it — no complaints that Shûkichi was a bad husband, no suggestion that the other man coerced her into running off with him. Somehow, though, she’s a strangely sympathetic figure. Her family may vilify her, but Ozu doesn’t, allowing her to be fully human instead of a caricature. Much credit must also go to Isuzu Yamada’s performance; her Kisako is a gentle, rather demure woman, yet capable of childlike joy when she thinks that Takako has come to the mahjong parlor on a friendly visit, and of deep disappointment when she realizes that the past won’t be overcome so easily. In truth, that’s no surprise to her. “Even if I admitted that I did wrong, none of you would ever forgive me,” she says. It may be too little, too late, but she clearly regrets severing ties with her children and hopes against hope that her relationships with them can be repaired.
However, even if Kisako’s ex-husband and children were to welcome her back with open arms, that would hardly undo the ramifications of her long absence. It’s striking, for example, how quickly and cheerfully Takako settles into the housewife role upon returning to her father’s home; by the time he comes in a few hours after her arrival, she’s sent his maid away, donned an apron, and is waiting to take his briefcase and offer him dinner. Undoubtedly, she played this part for many years after her mother left, up until she married and moved to her own house. This was probably necessary, but as a later scene reveals, her sense of filial duty proved costly. After visiting Numata, who doesn’t seem especially eager for Takako and Michiko to return to him, Shûkichi apologizes to his daughter. “I should have let you marry Sato. You seemed to like him,” he says. “It doesn’t matter now, Father,” she replies, but he won’t drop the subject, and insists that he pressured her into marry Numata. “I’ll check the bath,” she says, hurrying out of the room.
Takako’s obedience has resulted in unhappiness; Akiko’s disobedience has resulted in unhappiness as well. To some degree, Shûkichi blames himself for his younger daughter’s misbehavior, admitting that he spoiled her in order to make up for the mother’s love that she lacked. Of course, he might have done the same thing if his wife had died, just as Takako likely would have taken her mother’s place no matter what the reason for her absence. (A kind of alternate version can be seen in Ozu’s Late Spring, in which Chishû Ryû plays a widower and Setsuko Hara his doting daughter.) What’s different in these circumstances is the emotional damage that comes with being abandoned, and Kisako’s return to Tokyo reopens old wounds for Shûkichi and Takako and inflicts new ones on Akiko, who inevitably learns the truth. She feels unwanted; she blames her mother’s “foul blood” for her own failings; she even questions her paternity in a scene that echoes her earlier conversation with Kenji. The past lives on in the present.
Tokyo Twilight, though not without a few light moments, is one of Ozu’s bleakest films, right down to its winter setting. (It’s also his final film shot in black and white.) Even when Takako decides to return to her husband because she thinks Michiko should be raised by both of her parents, it doesn’t feel like a particularly hopeful ending, much less a happy one. Perhaps she and Numata can make their marriage work, but there’s no guarantee, and no indication whatsoever that he’s changed or intends to put more effort into it. The only comfort is that Takako abandoning her own child is unimaginable.
During Shûkichi’s visit to Numata’s house, Numata says, “Love between parent and child is the most primitive instinct of all.” The fact that this statement is coming from a man who reportedly takes out his irritation on his young daughter and just described her as “a nuisance” casts doubt on it immediately; the uncertainty lingers for the rest of the film.