Friday, August 20, 2010

Then and Now, Tokyo in "I Was Born But ..."

One of the pleasures of looking at the old films is to admire the scenery of the past. When you look at the Keaton shorts, you are looking at the Los Angeles in making. When you see Italian Neo-realist films, you see Rome, Milan and other Italian cities before MacDonald invasion.

While watching "I Was Born But ... (1932)" by Yasujiro Ozu, I was asking myself, "Which railway is this, these obnoxious ever-present trams ?"  The film was shot at Kamata Studio, so this must be either Mekama-Line or Ikegami-Line. One of the key locations in the film, the railroad crossing, where the father and sons have little conversation every morning, was also mystery. How does it look like today ? So I did some research.




According to the cinematographer Atsuta, the railroad you see in the film was Ikegami-Line. Ikegami-Line began its service in 1922, and its main customer was the visitors to the nearby temple. But there was another railway nearby, Mekama-Line, which was to service the same customers. These two railroad companies were in fierce competition. According to Atsuta, the company operating the Ikegami-Line asked Shochiku to do some advertising by showing its new trams as much as possible in the films. 


But there are contradicting statements by others. Some claims it was Mekama-Line (Japanese site).

There is another clue. In the film, you can see the pole with Kanji standing nearby the crossing. It says "Midwife, Ito, Yaguchi". Yaguchi is the area near Kamata station. This places the general location of the kid's school, either Yaguchi Elementary School or Yaguchi Higashi Elementary School.


Let's say, it was Ikegami-Line, and the school must have been Yaguchi Higashi Elementary. Then, the closest point for the  railroad crossing is here. In the film, another railroad can be seen beyond the school. This must have been Mekama-Line. This is how it looks like today.



Another possibility is here. In this case, the trains you see in the film will be Mekama-Line. As for the crossing, this looks more probable, with the side road running parallel to the rails and the general location of Yaguchiwatari station coincides with the crossroad father parting with kids. This is how it looks like today.

We may not know the exact location of the railway crossing, the kid's school and two railroads running nearby. The detective work using the materials shown up in the film may not be fruitful. Ozu was notoriously careless about the continuity, so space relationship among locations is a mess.

But the exact location aside, the transformation of the place is staggering. The roads are paved completely, overhead spaces are filled with utility lines, and three to four stories buildings pushing each other to fit in the space they can find. Some might say, "ugly" or "drab looking", but this is the reality of Tokyo now.


When the war ended in 1945, Tokyo was in ruins. Then it was rebuild rather quickly. Without much civil planning, the landscape of the city became agglomerate of the 20th century consumerism. It has been said that Ozu, a native of Tokyo, was afraid to see the new landscape, and avoided to visit his old neighborhood. Did this transformation have an impact on his film? It is an interesting topic to consider. 

Relationship between war and "I was born but ..." is discussed here.


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