In a poor, working class district of Tokyo, a woman named Chikako Shimamura (Yoshiko Okada) shares a modest apartment with her younger brother, Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa). Despite seemingly insurmountable economic hardship, Chikako has managed to make ends meet, working every day in her full-time employment as an office typist, and every evening on commissioned translations for a university professor. Her constant toil, filial devotion, and personal sacrifice afford Ryoichi the privilege of devoting himself completely to his studies without the financial concerns of eking out an everyday existence. Chikako manages the household affairs, pays for Ryoichi’s school tuition, and even provides him with an allowance to court a young woman named Harué (Kinuyo Tanaka), enabling him to invite her to the movies despite his lack of income (note Ozu’s homage to Ernst Lubitsch by showing a Lubitsch-directed vignette entitled The Clerk from If I Had a Million). However, Chikako’s character soon comes under scrutiny when a police inspector pays an unexpected visit to the office one day and summons the personnel manager to inquire about Chikako’s employment record. The nebulous and undisclosed nature of the investigation lead to speculation, and rumors begin to surface about Chikako’s disreputable conduct by working as a cabaret hostess in the red light district. In an attempt to mitigate the embarassment of the brewing scandal, the well-intentioned Harué decides to alert Chikako of the gossip, but instead, reveals the information to Ryoichi. Outraged and shamed by his sister’s tarnished reputation, Ryoichi rejects the selfless Chikako and leaves home.
Set in the austerity of depression-era Tokyo, A Woman of Tokyo presents the dilemma of moral responsibility, obligation, and perseverance in the increasing hopelessness of an economically polarized, modern Japan. Characteristic of his early films (such as Record of a Tenement Gentlemen), Yasujiro Ozu addresses contemporary social issues by examining the dissolution of family. Using domestic setting and confined, interior shots, Ozu illustrates the intrinsic interrelation between the individual and the environment: the opening image of Chikako by the kitchen sink that is paralleled in the shot of women washing their hands at the cabaret; the transitional shot of Chikako applying makeup at home that is repeated in the grooming of the hostesses; the close-up image of Chikako’s delicate footsteps upon returning home that is contrasted against Ryoichi’s awkward sandals as he wanders through the evening streets. By reflecting the dichotomy between personal integrity and economic necessity, Ozu creates a spare, compassionate, and poignant validation of duty, honor, and personal sacrifice in the face of social marginalization and pervasive despair.
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