You know, I have no clue how to address what I feel is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. I really don’t. I’m not skilled enough with my English vocabulary to feel I can actively address the beauty that comes through in Ozu Yasujiro’s work, much less the movie I feel is his masterpiece.
It’s the same I would feel about any movie I feel is competently made in any way, whether I liked it or disliked it. Ozu has taken the same amount of care with Tokyo Story as he has with every single one of his films, to a point where you know the distinct signature of every element that can differentiate a work like Late Spring to Ugetsu and help you tell the difference from Ozu and all the other great filmmakers, Japanese or otherwise. When you watch enough Ozu, you know he’s the guy with the level shots from the seated level, the camera joining the family on the tatami floor like its a member too. Paced cuts from close-up to close-up only taken as necessity for knowing how each character feels about the moment at hand. Some of these close-ups featuring very tired smiles while the words from the crescent lips betray the attempts at pleasantry. All of these composed in industry grade 1.37:1, like a little picture box. And he wasn’t as varied with his cast as most directors try to be.
But familiarities are not as damning when done right by a filmmaker and Ozu was damn well the best filmmaker to make something to an audience seem more like a home than a bore. He didn’t base himselves on adventures like Kurosawa Akira or the uncanny like Mizoguchi Kenji. He was based in very personal tales. Very well cushioned in Japanese custom and tradition. On families and friends and localized societies rather than the great big world that Kurosawa hoped for or the beyond that Mizoguchi gave us a look into.
This contentment is what makes Ozu the hardest to approach objectively for me as a reviewer, but Tokyo Story‘s 51st anniversary was a few days ago and as such, as a complete fan of Ozu, I feel compelled to comment on something. So I will comment on the subjective experience of how Tokyo Story makes me feel as a viewer and hope it comes off as best as possible.
The story in the title is quite frankly a simple plot frame in which the complexities come from the characters within themselves. The two people we follow – Elderly couple Hirayama Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) and Shikuchi (Ryu Chishu) are about to take a trip they finally have a chance to make: to visit their many successful children in Kyoto and Tokyo. They bid the one daughter to stay with them in their little town, Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko), farewell and head to meet with Koichi (Yamamura So), Shige (Sugimura Haruko), and even their daughter-in-law Noriko (legendary Ozu collaborator Hara Setsuko), wife to their late son Shoji. Ironically, the first son they meet on the way to Tokyo, Keizo (Osaka Shiro), who is stationed in Kyoto, is the last person we meet on their way back.
When Tomi and Shikuchi make it to Tokyo, it’s at first somewhat warm and accommodating. The accommodation doesn’t deliberately falter, but the warmness weakens gently but still noticeably. Koichi and Shige have clearly made their own lives in the new city and have found it a lot more of a burden to make time for their visiting relatives. Noriko is the one person who takes it in stride to simply spend time with Tomi and Shikuchi. As a result of this, the relations turn embarrassing and sometimes extremely hard to handle. It never gets unpleasant (Not to say the movie is undramatic, but its more meditative than most pictures that come around), but it gets to be more and more of a challenge for the younger generation to entertain their elderly guests and the parents get more and more aware of this.
It’s a story inspired by Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, regrettably one of my larger classic film gaps that I look to fix as soon as possible (my familiarity with McCarey is instead in his Marx brother vehicle Duck Soup, which always cracks me up). However, from what I understand Ozu hadn’t seen the original when he made Tokyo Story either (and given his death a little over a decade after this film was made, I have no clue whether or not he eventually did)… the co-screenwriter Nada Kogo had made himself familiar with the film and, we are to understan, included the emotive elements of the similarly elderly-focused tale into this Japanese reciprocal of the experience.
But you don’t need to know about the source to feel how much of a dissection of family and how it separates and grows in different contortions Tokyo Story becomes, just as much as it is a tale made to get your sympathy for the two sides of the story. And it is indeed a tale without any complete blame – at least that is how I read it constantly. There’s a reason why, even despite the brilliantly nuanced performances of Ryu and Chieko, the majority of the strife seems to be expressed on the part of dynamic turns by Yamamura and Sugimura. Yes, it sucks that the children do not have as much time and energy to take care of the older Hirayamas’ whim, but that’s exactly it. They DON’T have time. And the film makes certain to showcase that their neglect is a matter of force rather than simple wishes to laze about.
Both Koichi and Shige are married, as the film takes the time to point out, and we especially get an introduction to Koichi’s family with two children that would maybe come off as obnoxious to anybody extremely impatient with sudden or stubborn behavior, very broad expressions, but they are children. They are in need of care and nuture and Koichi’s job as a doctor is just as demanding. Shige as well gets the rotten end of the stick having a particular scene where she receives her father drunk after a night on the town and, after a brief moment of monologuing her frustrations to the unaware Shukichi, takes her time to provide what she can to allow her father a comfortable sleep without disturbing him.
But in the end, this is the first time the elder Hirayamas get to see how their children and grand-children have done for themselves and they barely get to spend anytime at all. In fact, they are practically disposed of, sent to Noriko (who makes the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist from the younger generation, with Hara and Chieko having an especially telling scene late in the film) or a resort with great haste at points.
All generations get the short end of the stick, lives are derailed by the responsibilities that suddenly occur with the Hirayamas’ arrival. It is with this sensitivity that Ozu is known for that Tokyo Story becomes more of a heart-touching movie, there is little solution to the matter at hand when so many interests conflict but we just want everyone to be happy or satisfied by the end of the film. No fistfights, no giant explosions, no lawsuits, no angry arguments even, just a need for simple sophisticated interaction with the people we love most and how sometimes even that can just about leave some bruises in a family. And despite the blatantly Japanese stylization that stamps the nationality and basis of the film more than anything, we recognize this as a universal situation. It’s not that the concept of families being inconvenienced by being a family is just a Japanese thing, but simply that, to carry the theme, it had to be given a spot to call home first.
Which anyway, Japan’s architecture in Tokyo Story is most accommodating for the settling of a ne’er-do-well environment of happy little homes and trees, a nice gracious community of harmony, industrialized to make itself look like a more Westernized spot that even a small Americana from the 60s could become, that allows the subtle dissonance in the family to just bleed into the storytelling without being balls-out jarring like David Lynch. No, this is a far damn sight from David Lynch. It’s when things go too right.
It’s not a particularly judgmental film or even largely resentful, thankfully, but it is a great big sigh of a picture. Ozu’s awareness to present the touching story without bias but also without hiding any of the truths of the scenario from the audience. It is a film that wears its heart on its sleeves and doesn’t entirely have any answers, but never acted like it did and that’s quite a feat for Ozu to do without coming off as an incomplete storyteller. No, Ozu was a master because he saw all of humanity and life’s struggles through to the bitter end and Tokyo Story is the magnum opus, the most able and potent of all of Ozu’s tales to talk about the true human condition.
There have been filmmakers since who have been close to as humanist as Ozu is, but none can match him. Ever. He’s just as replaceable as a parent to any of us, however faulty all will be.