Whatzit of Tokyo

Tokyo . . . reminds us that the rational is merely one system among others.

Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, 1970.

IS THERE ANY SIGN SYSTEM more naturalized, less apparently arbitrary, than that of the narrative film? We hold its truths to be self-evident, and this is why Yasujiro Ozu’s Woman of Tokyo, a silent made in 1933, looks to us as if it fell from the moon. Woman of Tokyo is a movie unlike any other—even Ozu’s. Only 47 minutes long, the film is a riot of subtly discordant formal devices.

Woman of Tokyo begins with a dolly shot from one tabletop to another, then cuts to a third; it ends with a sequence whose effect film scholar Donald Richie has aptly compared to “a parenthetical clause with no final parenthesis.”1 Two-character crosscutting is complicated by bizarre spatial jumps and weird eye-line matches. Paired in reverse angle shots, characters seem to look not

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