TOKYO STORY (1953)

  • Director: Yasujiro Ozu
  • Writers: Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, based on the screenplay Make Way for Tomorrow by Vina Delmar
  • Starring: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyoko Kagawa, Eijiro Tono, and Nobuo Nakamura
  • Accolades: Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 (#3), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 (#14)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), Stream with subscription on HBO Max and Criterion Channel, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV

Sight & Sound, the publication of the British Film Institute, has now been doing polls of the 100 greatest films every ten years for the past 60 years, and for the past few, it has included separate “Directors Polls.” The most recent version of this secondary poll, in 2012, named Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story the greatest film of all time. My theory about this is that successful directors tend to be older, and that’s why they picked this movie. Tokyo Story can, I think, be fairly secure in its position as the most successful piece of art ever produced on the theme of “my children are not grateful enough now that I’m old.”

Even after Rashomon provided the breakthrough for Japanese films in the West, Yasujiro Ozu’s movies were considered “too Japanese” for export. It would be a few decades before they really broke through on the international level, but they are now widely watched, and a handful of them, particularly his post-war run that included Tokyo Story, are now probably among the most critically-acclaimed movies all time. I’m not going to be a contrarian about this, but I do think that before a neophyte goes into an Ozu film, they should have an idea what they’re in for. He is aggressively minimalist, if I may use a somewhat contradictory phrase, sort of the Mondrian of filmmakers. Like in a Mondrian painting where we’re invited to really examine the color blue he’s chosen to use for the one spot of color, Ozu moves so slowly, gives us so little, that we’re invited to really see what’s there. 

Most of the “important” events of the plot tend to happen off-screen. The camera basically never moves during shots (this happens exactly once in Tokyo Story, which Roger Ebert called “a lot” for an Ozu film). Nobody ever talks over each other. He spends most of the movie in small rooms, shot without depth to make them look even smaller. His characters have a tendency not to actually look at each other. He has a tendency to start the shot before the characters walk into a room, then keep it there for a beat, even after they leave. Rather than use the usual scene transitions, he tends to use “pillow shots,” named after the “pillow words” used in Japanese poetry, shots entirely unrelated to the story that separate scenes, like smoke billowing from a factory, or a boat going down a river. Perhaps most characteristic of Ozu is his unique camera angle. Your standard American movie is shot, if you really look at it, from the point of view of a standing person of average height. Ozu’s movies are almost entirely shot from about three feet off the ground, aka the height of an average person while kneeling on a tatami mat, as would have been de rigueur in Japanese homes at this time. He keeps this up even when the characters themselves are standing. An American or European coming into a Ozu film without knowing about this may not realize what’s happening right away, but they’ll probably find that there’s something weird they can’t put their finger on. No wonder Ozu was considered “too Japanese.”

Despite this, Tokyo Story was actually (very) loosely based on a 1930s American movie, Make Way for Tomorrow, directed by Leo McCarey. It tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), who make their way to Tokyo to visit their several adult children. We realize gradually that they haven’t met their grandchildren since they were babies (though no one actually says this), and the grandchildren are entirely uninterested in them. Their children mean well, and do their best most of the time, but they have busy lives. One son is a doctor (So Yamamura), while their daughter (Haruko Sugimura) runs a business called “Ooh La La Hair Salon.” They all have to work, and the parents spend much of the time of their visit “upstairs resting.” In the evenings, they make pleasant small talk for a few minutes, then someone says “you must be tired,” and it’s time for bed. The daughter’s husband comes home from work one day with cakes he bought for them. “You shouldn’t have bought such expensive cakes,” she complains, “they won’t know the difference.” Meanwhile, the two of them eat the cakes.

The only one of the people the parents have come to visit who they really connect with is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of another son who was killed in World War II. Hara is now well known as appearing in many of Ozu’s better known films. She takes off from her office job to take them on a tour of Tokyo, and lets the mom stay with her after the daughter says she needs the attic for the day for a “hairdressers meeting.” At one point, the kids send the parents off to “Akami Hot Springs,” which seems like it would be a nice vacation, but the elderly parents seem uninterested in the happening nightlife, which just means they can’t sleep. They come back after one day, to the kids’ consternation. Of course, they didn’t come to Tokyo to do tourist stuff, they came to visit their family. They eventually decide to cut their visit short and head back home.

But not long after they return, the mother gets very sick, and the various children have to make the return journey to the fishing village of Onomichi where the parents live, where they join the youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), a teacher who still lives with her parents. They find her already in a coma, and she soon dies without waking up. After an inordinate amount of discussion of who brought their “mourning clothes,” they go to the buddhist funeral, where we finally get the whole family in one shot. Kyoko is distraught as she sees the other children cavalierly discussing which of their mother’s things each wants to take home, but Noriko tells her that it’s normal for kids and their parents to grow apart. Noriko stays longer than everyone else, but eventually she has to go back to work too. The father tells Noriko she should forget his dead son, remarry, and be happy. She cries a lot. The father’s neighbor comes by to express her condolences, and he says he thinks he’ll be lonely from now on.

It’s easy for me to get frustrated by this, and not just because of the resolutely unhurried pacing. Our sympathies are supposed to be with the elderly couple, but I think the movie knows they’re not blameless victims of feckless children. At any point they could speak up for themselves, but they never do. They’re too worried about being an imposition on their kids. They’re obviously unhappy with their grandchildren (with good reason), but the closest they’ll come to admitting that, even to each other, is elliptical conversations about how they did a particularly good job with their own children. As everyone waits in the train station for the parents to go back to Onomichi, the mom says some things like, “we live too far away, don’t come visit us, even if something should happen to me.” I honestly don’t know (and may not be meant to know) if this is meant as the passive aggressive BS I’ve seen from older people many times in my life, or if she really is that much of a shrinking violet. It’s frustrating, but I think it’s meant to be. Where the pathos of the film really connects with me tends to be more in the lives of the children. It’s a different place in a different time, but this is basically a movie about your parents coming to visit and you just watch TV with them instead of talking, then your mom dies.

It’s no wonder then, that Roger Ebert claims to have seen more audience members crying during Tokyo Story than during any other movie. It does, in fact, tap into universal truths ignored by Hollywood movies that are more concerned with entertaining us. Is it a basic job of a movie to be “entertaining?” I think it’s clear that Ozu didn’t think so. Perhaps a better metaphor than Mondrian would be that Ozu movies are like moving Japanese woodblock prints. They’re meant to be contemplated. Whether that’s something you’re up for as a viewer probably after a day at work yourself, I leave up to you.

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