TOKYO STORY (1953)
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
One of the great Japanese film classics, but not for everyone.
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Cast: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Sô Yamamura
So what can be said about Tokyo Story that hasn’t already been stated countless times before? Next to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai it is the most famous film to ever come out of Japan. Tokyo Story has received the masterpiece stamp from all corners of the world. However, some understanding of Japanese history is required to fully appreciate its many nuances.
First attempt at Tokyo Story left yours truly feeling numb. The slow churning narrative and down-to-earth topic matter felt very drab, especially for someone who (at the time) was not familiar with Japanese drama films. It would take many years and several re-watches to understand Tokyo Story's subtle reflections of postwar Japanese society.
I think my initial mistake - probably like many aspiring Ozu fans before me - was to start with Tokyo Story as an introduction to the director’s works. Having seen many of Ozu’s earlier films thereafter, I now appreciate the tone and message of Tokyo Story on a different level.
I would suggest several Ozu’s films as a necessary prerequisites to fully understand this film. If you watch I Was Born But… (1932) and Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) you will clearly see how Ozu honed his style before reaching his potential with films like Tokyo Story and Good Morning (1959).
Tokyo Story has been argued by some to be a partial remake of Brothers and Sister of the Toda Family. This is somewhat misleading though, as Tokyo Story has just as much in common with I Was Born But… and Good Morning. An insolent couple of brothers, family intrigues and melodramatic emphasis are central in all three films.
It has also been argued that Ozu counteracted American filmmaking traditions in the post-war era. Film researcher Donald Richie argued that the opposing of other film traditions in itself made Ozu modernist, which negates the notion of Ozu being the most Japanese of all directors.
Instead, Richie goes forth and describes Ozu as tackling modern topics with a Japanese accent. The argument appears apt, since it accounts for several sides of Ozu’s filmmaking. The cinematography might very well be inherently Japanese in nature, but the story and connotations were products of their time.
Tokyo Story stands out in the Ozu canon because of its emphasis on the elderly couple (grandparents) and the generational differences they experience in a rapidly developing post-war society.
When this elderly couple - and parents of five siblings - visit their offspring in Tokyo, their elder daughter and son hardly takes time to be with them. Instead, the elderly couple is cared for by Noriko, the widow left by their late son who was killed in WWII. Noriko is the only one treating the old couple the way parents should be treated by their children.
The tone of the movie is perhaps as serious as Ozu ever got. It culminates with scenes from a funeral, followed by a family gathering in the childhood home. Again the elder siblings are aching to get back to their busy lives. Their mourning seems more for show than actual emotional distress.
(Spoiler alert!) Particularly the elder sister is depicted as a conniving shrew, when asking for her mother’s clothes only a day after her passing. At this point the younger sister is distraught, but she never confronts her elder siblings. (Spoiler end) In contrast to Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family the confronting of negligent siblings never comes, which arguably is closer to reality in many cases.
Between the lines
Japan experienced a growth spurt in the post-war era unlike any other country in history. Following the massive WWII destruction, Tokyo rapidly evolved into one of the biggest industrial hubs on the planet. Naturally this development took its toll.
Changing times is of course something we all have to tackle at some point in our lives, which possibly explains the timeless nature of Tokyo Story to some extent. Still, the shift in Japanese family values in the post-war era hit the aging population especially hard, as the generational gap grew in a tempo equal to that of the social upraise.
Much of Tokyo Story's accolades are due to its cinematography, which Ozu had thoroughly tuned to personal perfection by 1953. The abundance of static camera shots, the constant low camera angles and the director’s signature pillow shots are all central pieces of the narrative build-up.
Ozu’s use of empty space - meaning shots without any point of reference, such as actors, purpose or location - is argued to parallel Japanese traditional art. Richie and fellow researcher Kathe Geist compares Ozu’s style to Japanese paintings, in which the audience is invited to interpret the meaning themselves.
The idea that that the storytelling leaves a lot of room for interpretation might also explain some of Tokyo Story’s timeless appeal. It has certainly been interpreted more than most other Japanese films, or any films for that matter. The plenitude of angles from which it has been approached also underlines that there is more to the film than meets the eye.
As for recommending Tokyo Story, it is definitely one to watch. The film does require certain understanding of both Ozu and Japanese history to be fully appreciated though. If you are new to Ozu, I Was Born But… or Good Morning are recommended to watch before Tokyo Story. Both these are more humorous in tone and lighter in their approach to serious matters.
With some prior knowledge Tokyo Story serves well as a main course from chef Ozu. It might leave a dreary first impression, but its many layers make it grow over time. The tiny nuances and details make the dialogue-driven story worthy of the label so often given the film; a central pillar in movie making history.
There exists quite a few versions of this film, but the only ones that really does it justice are the releases from Criterion and BFI. The Criterion version is loaded with great extra material, including a two hour long documentary about Ozu. The BFI edition also includes the Ozu-film Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family. Both versions easily earn the JCA stamp of approval.