TOKYO STORY | REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: May 1, 2022
A Film Researcher’s Honest Review of Tokyo Story
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Cast: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Sô Yamamura
Related Films: I Was Born But…, Tokyo Chorus, Good Morning, Yearning, Still Walking
Introducing Tokyo Story
Tokyo Story would not be my first choice if you asked me to recommend a Japanese film. It is long-winded, slow-moving, rigid, bleak, and takes for granted that its viewers are familiar with the underpinnings of post-war Japanese society.
From the perspective of film research and film history, Tokyo Story is one of the most significant Japanese films ever made. But unless you are familiar with Japanese history or classic Japanese films, chances are you’ll be bored out of your mind.
In other words, Tokyo Story is mandatory for experienced Japanese film fans and art house cinephiles. However, it is not recommended as an introduction to Ozu or Japanese film. Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Film if you are new to Japanese cinema, or read on to better grasp how to approach Ozu’s works.
How I Came to Enjoy Tokyo Story
I was in my early twenties when I first saw Tokyo Story, and I found it mind-numbingly drab. The slow churning narrative and down-to-earth topic matter were as far from my favorite Japanese films as you could come. (At the time, I was diving headfirst into the filmographies of Sion Sono, Katsuhito Ishii, and Shunji Iwai.)
A decade would pass before I gave Tokyo Story another try in my early thirties. At this point, I had studied Japanese culture and history at the University in Oslo. The slow pace and uneventful story still put me off, but at least I found the reflections on post-war Japanese society interesting.
Another decade later, I was digging into Japanese film studies. I had seen many of Ozu’s earlier films, which made me appreciate the tone and message of Tokyo Story on a different level. Finally, I understood the genius in his cinematography, grasped the messages between the lines, and sympathized with the characters.
Therefore, to anyone about to get started on Ozu, I recommend I Was Born But… (1932) or Late Spring (1949). Both these films have high entertainment value while showcasing how Ozu honed his craft before reaching his potential with Tokyo Story.
Why is Tokyo Story One of the Greatest Films of All Time?
This chapter is lengthy and therefore divided into four sections. Alternatively, you can skip this theoretical bit and jump straight to the short synopsis and continued honest review of Tokyo Story.
1. The Storytelling in Tokyo Story
A common answer to why Tokyo Story is great is that it reflected the ailments of post-war Japanese society more poignant than any film before it. The story was told from the aging population’s point of view, which was rare. Their disappointment in the post-war generation is unmistakable.
Jasper Sharp, who wrote the BFA feature for the 4K Blu-ray release of Tokyo Story, argues that the middle-class family life and the characters’ behavior are universal. According to Sharp, Ozu's storytelling has instantly recognizable transparency.
But was it the story and the characters in Tokyo Story that earned Ozu the label of the most Japanese movie director of all time? It might have contributed, but his approach to filmmaking, particularly his cinematography, was a lot more sensational than his topics of choice.
2. The Film Style in Tokyo Story
Ozu had a clear vision for his film style. Some have called it mechanical, others traditionalist, or even old-fashioned. His film style paralleled Japanese aesthetic ideas that can be traced back to old wood prints and scroll paintings, but his topics were modern. It was an unusual combo that made the world take notice.
Ozu is perhaps most famous for his «pillow shots», or use of empty space and focus on objects that are seemingly insignificant to the narrative. He is also noted as the proprietor of the «tatami shot», which places the camera at floor level and films the actors from a low angle.
These stylistic traits of Ozu were original in the context of filmmaking. But just like the placement of his characters and the slow camera movements, they also parallel Japanese arts like scroll paintings, Kabuki, and Shimpa theater.
Ozu made a textbook example of what Japanese cinema could be, and he did it better than anyone before him. He made a film that was unmistakably his, unmistakably Japanese, and he did it by refining a very specific vision.
3. Ozu’s Original Vision
By meticulously employing his film style, Ozu, like a master painter, made a timeless piece of art. In the process, he underlined tendencies in Japanese film that I would argue to be inherently Japanese. Ozu might not have been seeking to do so but achieved it nonetheless when striving to perfect his vision.
In a way, Ozu was inventive, even though the pieces of his filmmaking might have been derived. The juxtaposition of modern storytelling and traditional framing of images was wholly original. Film researcher Yoshitsugu Horike argues that Ozu’s style was so personal that it can only be described as «Ozuism».
Kiju Yoshida, who wrote the book «Ozu’s Anti Cinema», said that Ozu rejected grand narratives and the artifice of cinema. Yoshida argued that Ozu did not lean on traditional Japanese aesthetics, but criticized traditional cinematic dramaturgy. The main point was to study the human condition from alternative angles.
Yoshida’s thoughts about Ozu align with Horike’s notion about Ozuism. (Note that Yoshida’s book has been much debated amongst film researchers.) His sentiment further underlines that Ozu was one-of-a-kind, and that his films don’t represent Japanese film style in general, but rather Ozu’s personal vision.
That said, even though Ozu did not seek to conform Japanese film tendencies, or take inspiration from Japanese traditional aesthetics, he did it anyway. He, like any other filmmaker, was shaped by his own culture and the world around him.
His vision was clear, but it is unlikely that the parallel between his ideas and Japanese traditional aesthetics was a coincidence. Ozu’s style is certainly personal, which supports the idea of Ozuism, but his filmmaking still fits within the framework of Japanese film tendencies.
4. The International Resonance of Tokyo Story
Some have claimed that Ozu counteracted American filmmaking traditions in the post-war era. Film researcher Donald Richie argued that Ozu’s opposing of other film traditions made him a modernist. If so, Richie’s argument seems to negate the notion that Ozu is the most Japanese of all directors.
That said, no one would ever mistake Tokyo Story for Hollywood cinema. It is an epitome of Japanese film style. There were certainly Japanese film directors who chased traditional Japanese aesthetics more consciously, but Ozu made them his own, which resonated with audiences around the globe.
Richie said that Ozu tackled modern topics with a Japanese accent. The argument appears apt, since it accounts for the several sides of Ozu’s filmmaking. Even though the cinematography were inherently Japanese in nature, the story and its connotations were products of their time.
Ozu’s film style is part of a Japanese film paradigm that has yet to be acknowledged in film history. At its core is slow moving or static images, in which empty space or natural phenomena express emotions. The atmosphere is just as vital to the story as its characters, and the audience are given ample time to absorb this fact.
Compared to Hollywood cinema, Japanese film tendencies appear somber, rigid, austere, and minimal. Perhaps «austerism» would be a good name for the Japanese film paradigm. Personally, I like to call it «cinimalism», and to think of Mizoguchi, Naruse, and Ozu as its founding (i.e., perfecting) fathers.
Tokyo Story Nutshell-Synopsis
Tokyo Story stands out in the Ozu canon because of its emphasis on the view of the elderly couple. As such, the film offered an unusual articulation of the generational differences that occurred in the rapidly developing post-war society.
When the elderly couple - and parents of five siblings - visit their offspring in Tokyo, their oldest 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.
The visiting elders are clearly disappointed in their children. Not only are they neglected by their own kids, but modern ambitions and work ethics is not even remotely understandable to the old couple. They hardly recognize their own kin anymore, and the new world appears outlandish to them.
Noriko is the only one treating the old couple the way parents should be treated by their children. She maintains pre-war Japanese values, but gains nothing from it, other than the old couple’s sympathy. She is as much a daughter to them as their own children, which is why they ask her to move on and seek a better life.
The tone of the movie is as serious as Ozu ever got. It culminates with scenes from a funeral, followed by a family gathering in the childhood home. The elder siblings are aching to get back to their busy lives. Their mourning seems more for show than actual emotional distress.
The youngest sister becomes disheveled by her older sibling’s behavior, but in contrast to Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, no confrontation ever occurs. Arguably, Tokyo Story is more realistic, which might to some extent explain why it stood the test of time so remarkably well.
Theories About the Production of Tokyo Story
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.
By putting the actors in the background and angling the camera from a low point of view, Ozu made the viewer feel like onlookers. The static positioning makes it feel arranged, yet natural and believable, like we’re sitting in on an actual day in a post-war Japanese household.
Brittany Kennedy at Reel Rundown describes the style in Tokyo Story as intimate, in the sense that it invites the audience into the home and lives of the characters. This effect is further strengthened when the actors speak directly into the camera, which makes us feel like participants in the conversation.
According to Sharp, everything is underplayed, but at the same time methodically planned. Sharp explains that once Ozu discovered his own style (ca. 1941), he spent the rest of his career perfecting said style. «Instantly recognizable» Sharp calls it, which aligns perfectly with Horike’s notion about the so-called «Ozuism».
As mentioned, Ozu’s use of empty space is argued to parallel Japanese traditional art. Richie and fellow researcher Kathe Geist compared 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. The plenitude of angles from which it has been approached also underlines that there is more to the film than meets the eye.
Discussions About the Meaning of Tokyo Story
In the post-war era, Japan experienced a growth spurt 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.
Some critics argue that generational differences are a universal phenomenon that occurs in all kinds of settings. However, it is hard to look past Tokyo Story’s connection to post-war issues. After all, the loss of the older couple’s son, and their relationship to the wartime widow he left behind, is a central part of the film.
Changing times are of course something we all have to tackle at some point in our lives, which offers yet another explanation for Tokyo Story’s timelessness. Still, the shift in family values in post-war Japan happened exceptionally fast. The result was an aging generation who suddenly felt like strangers in their own homeland.
Not that the younger generations had it easy, which might be another message hidden between the carefully stylized scenes of Ozu. None of the kids lived in splendor, but were struggling hard every day to make ends meet.
Other interpretations of Tokyo Story claims that it was a rejection of the Hollywood film tendencies that inspired Ozu in his early filmmaking years. He certainly distanced himself from American film tendencies by making the stylistic choices we have discussed throughout this article.
Is Tokyo Story Any Good?
To this day, it still feels like a chore to put on Tokyo Story. I have come to appreciate it, or even get excited by it, but I wouldn’t call it entertaining per se. I will say this, it never stops growing on me, which leads me to suspect that it might be one of my favorite films, I just haven’t come to realize it yet.
The tempo was a huge obstacle for the younger me. Two decades later, the tempo is one of my favorite things about the film. It moves slow, like a sloth trying to get out of bed in the morning after an all-night bender, but it lets you breathe and take in the view. And personally, I find Ozu’s views to be the highlight in Tokyo Story.
The slice-of-life images from 1950s Tokyo households are magnetic, far more so than the characters. It is like a glimpse into the past. Even though the cinematography is very stylized, the world that is presented feels realistic, at least to my foreign eyes.
The magnificent views of Ozu also makes the story resonate with me. Coming to understand the tale, is likely connected to my own aging process however. As I get older, it is easier to sympathize with the aging protagonists, even though the acting always felt too stale for my personal palate.
An amusing anecdote about the acting, is that Setsuko Hara was my favorite in the film. Her performance is the only one that feels natural to me, while the other ones are rather stiff and theatrical. When discussing this with some fellow Japanese film fans, though, they all told me that Hara’s acting felt unnatural, while the other actors were perfectly believable.
I still have a lot to learn and discover about Tokyo Story it seems. It will probably intrigue me and haunt me to my dying day. One thing is for certain, no matter how many times I revisit Tokyo Story, I will never stop seeing the framework of a Japanese film paradigm beneath its exterior.
Final Verdict for Tokyo Story
Tokyo Story is like a bottle of smoky scotch; an acquired taste. If you are unfamiliar with its basic flavors, building blocks, and background, many of its nuances will pass by over your head. When you get a taste for it, however, you might soon find yourself a full-blown Ozuholic.
A good first step towards better appreciation of Tokyo Story is reading up on the Japanese post-war era. A good second and third step is reading up on Ozu’s history and watch some of his more accessible films.
I Was Born But…, Tokyo Chorus, Late Spring or Good Morning are nice starting points, since all of them are somewhat cheeky and easy to digest. At the same time, they tackle similar topic matters and adjust your palate to the more developed notes, tones, and hints in Tokyo Story.
Ozu kept improving his «distillation» methods until he arrived at the perfect formula with Tokyo Story. With staggering attention to detail and surgical production methods, Tokyo Story became worthy of the label so often given the film, a central pillar in filmmaking history.
BFI: Tokyo Story: Anatomy of a Classic
Evergreen State College: Tokyo Story: Storytelling Through Cinematography & Pacing
Lister, Christian J. A.: Noriko's Good Heart and the Matter of Filial Piety in Ozu's Tokyo Story
Reel Rundown: An Analysis of Cinematography in Ozu's Tokyo Story
Toyo University: Why the Postwar West Took Notice of Ozu’s Tokyo Story
University of Tokyo Museum Database: The Absent Present of Tokyo Story
University in Oslo: Rearticulating Japanese Cinematic Style Wikipedia: Ozu’s Anti-Cinema
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.