Despite the locality that its title may imply, Tokyo Story is a universal story about parents growing older and facing loneliness. There is an increasing gap between them and their children. Despite the love among these family members, legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu explores this quiet tragedy with great sympathy. He is a filmmaker so simple in his storytelling and yet so profound about life.
- Director: Yasujiro Ozu
- Writer: Yasujiro Ozu, Kogo Noda
- Cast: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyoko Kagawa, Eijiro Tono, Nobuo Nakamura
Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) are an elderly couple who visit their grown up children in Tokyo. But their visit is bittersweet, as they soon realize that their children have busy lives and view them as somewhat of a burden. Koichi (So Yamamura), their eldest son, is a married doctor with children of his own. Shige (Haruko Sugimura), their eldest daughter, is a married hairdresser with no kids. Facing the end of their lives is all the more tragic when children drift away.
This is a great film. Not only because it pulls the heartstrings, but also because of its compact story structure and its non-invasive storytelling style doesn’t force anything upon its viewers. From scene to scene, we catch glimpses of quiet establishing shots. In one scene for instance, while Shukichi and Tomi are clearly of a more traditional era, Ozu cuts away to brief wide shots of local modern construction taking place. Without reading too much into these types of shots, there are many similar subtleties throughout, essentially functioning as an environmental cushion to the hard reality taking place indoors. Ebert points out in his review that these are “pillow shots”, separating his scenes with brief, evocative images from everyday life. In this way, Ozu brings a poetic quality to the pacing of his film, one that if not always fully understood, but is always felt. On a purely aesthetic level Ozu consistently splices together images with frames that hint at the surrounding world, providing foreground that seems to remind us that while there is a world around us, we never fully leave the immediate world in which we live.
Without being overly-sentimental and without abusing filmmaking techniques, Ozu created a tender film filled with subtleties. With minimal editing, just as Leo McCarey did with his Make Way for Tomorrow, Ozu provides the sense that we’re objectively viewing the dynamics of this family. Similar to McCarey, Ozu doesn’t beat us over the head with a message. He picks his spots. He allows his characters to breathe and occasionally deliver lines of dialogue that pack a punch. Consider how Shige reacts when Tomi and Sukichi return from going sight-seeing around town. Responding to one of her clients at the hair salon, Shige refers to her parents as being “friends from the countryside”. When finally speaking to her parents, Shige immediately tells them they should have stayed away longer. In a particularly moving scene, Sukichi advises Noriko, her widowed daughter-in-law, to remarry. Despite her own loneliness, Sukicho’s compassionate attitude towards Noriko conveys much about her character. Though this may sound like an attempt at sentimentality, Ozu never sucks too much from these moments. Instead, the story casually moves along.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
I am in agreement with Ebert’s assessment that Tokyo Story steers clear of “sentimental triggers and contrived emotion.” It is a unique opportunity to take a step back and take inventory of our relationships to those we love. This film is indeed about “our families, our natures, our flaws and our clumsy search for love and meaning.” As Ebert’s reviews often did, this is one that contemplates human existence in a way that encourages introspection and champions a director’s ability to reflect humanity back to us. What are hiding from? What are we avoiding with the distracting purposes that we often attach to our lives? While it is one thing for a film to inspire such questions, it is always refreshing to read a review that pays as much attention to such subject matter as it does to a film’s artistic achievements. And with Tokyo Story, there is plenty to admire on an artistic level. As Ebert points out, “every single shot is intended to have a perfect composition of its own”. Ozu is not only a painter of life itself, he is a profound storyteller of human dynamics.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Tokyo Story? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story this week, he now has 355 under his belt and less than 8 films left to go.