Tokyo Story (1953)
  • Directed by: Yasujirō Ozu.
  • Written by: Kogo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu.
  • Starring: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, So Yamamura, Haruko Sugimura, Kyoko Kagawa, Shiro Osaka, Kuniko Miyake, Eijirô Tôno.
  • Rated: Unrated.

"Isn’t life disappointing?" "Yes, it is." Perhaps I should not, but I find it ironic that some of the most beautiful and truthful words in the history of cinema are not uttered in English, but Japanese. It is a tribute to the great power of director and co-writer Yasujirō Ozu that a 1953 black and white Japanese film has the power to make me laugh and cry.

Tokyo Story promotional posterThe story and filmmaking are simple. An elderly couple named Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) live simplistic lives with their youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), in Onomichi, Japan. They decide to take a trip to Tokyo to visit with their other sons and daughters, which Tomi hints at one point could be their last. Their eldest son, Koichi (So Yamamura), works as a doctor, while their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) works as a hairdresser. Both are married and have long since forgotten their parents. The couple’s youngest son, Keizo (Shiro Osaka), lives in Osaka.

Ozu contrasts the indifference of Koichi and Shige to the love and graciousness they experience in the hands of their daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), whose husband went missing and presumed dead in World War II. Noriko takes days off of work to show her in-laws (whom she does not refer to by name, but as ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’) the sights of Tokyo. Koichi and Shige mean well, but place their work at a higher importance than their family. When they realize they have no time to show their parents around, they pay for the parents to go on a cheap trip to a hot springs in Atami.

The style of direction is slow as well. The camera is stable throughout the film. If he would like to show a reaction or a close up, he cuts. If he would like to show someone walking away, he cuts. Ozu never moves the camera. Likewise, he keeps the camera low to the ground. The large majority of the scenes in Tokyo Story are of people talking or sitting silently on tatami mats. Ozu the storyteller takes his time.

His conversations often contain irrelevant minutiae, or one character brings a problem to the foreground only to be quickly resolved by another character in the same conversation. I questioned this writing occasionally, but it is naturalistic and flows easily. If you listen (or in this case read) closely, you’ll notice there is much hidden behind the words. One of the children says that Shukichi and Tomi do not expect expensive sweets before eating the sweets herself. She really means that they are not worth the trouble or the money, and the comment is more powerful than if she would have said her parents are not worth the trouble or the money.

Tokyo Story deals with disappointment, loss, and regret. Shukichi and Tomi are disappointed with their lackluster trip and with their children. A drunk Shukichi tells an old friend (Eijirô Tôno) that he expected Koichi to be more than a neighborhood pediatrician. Tomi says she remembers that Koichi used to be such a nice boy and that Shige wasn’t always so mean. Throughout, Shukichi tells himself that he should not expect so much from his children, hoping he will one day believe himself.

In what we’ll call the film’s ‘climax’ (though Ozu’s films seems averse to any modern narrative structure) Tomi passes away. I am sorry for spoiling the ending if you have not yet seen the film, but I must do so to properly discuss the film. The loss affects each of the family members in different ways. Shige wishes she spent more time with her mother in life. Kyoko is furious that her siblings leave so soon after the funeral, but Noriko tells her that all children drift apart from their parents, and that one day Kyoko will too. It is not cynical and it is not sad. It is simply the truth. ☆☆☆

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