Criterion Project #36: TOKYO STORY (1953)

Tokyo Story

Spine #217

Year: 1953

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

How do I even begin this?

Tokyo Story is one of those films that is held to an almost unreachable esteem. It currently sits comfortably at #3 on Sight & Sound’s 100 Greatest Films list, as voted on by film critics and scholars once every decade. Director Yasujiro Ozu is similarly referenced among the finest filmmakers ever to take up the craft, frequently being mentioned with the likes of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Ford, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, etc. In my opinion, the film’s status belies its demeanor of simplistic complexity.

I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing I thought when I typed that sentence – how can a film be both simple and complex?

Let me try to explain.

Ozu is a fascinating filmmaker who fashioned a unique style of taking a complex idea and presenting it in a simplistic way through both form and technique. When you watch one of his films you’re often being shown layers of humanity painted across a series of digestible compositions. One of his trademarks is his camera placement, which is usually positioned knee-high with barely a movement to convey action within the frame. And in terms of Tokyo Story, there is minimal action to convey.

The film centers on an older couple, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who come to visit their adult children and young grandchildren in Tokyo. Again, simplicity is the name of the game. When they arrive in Tokyo, the mother and father are welcomed with open arms by their family. The children divvy up time to dedicate to their parents and plot out activities to share with them, but before long the complexity of familial bonds comes to the surface.

Like I stated earlier, the camera rarely moves and is often placed close to the floor. Considering much of the family interaction occurs inside one home or another, it feels almost casual. When the family is together they’re usually kneeling on the floor in relaxation, so the camera placement makes this location the de facto baseline. For Ozu, this is a familiar aesthetic that complements the family drama narratives he’s famous for. He also accentuates this technique with the way he frames his actors, who are regularly shown speaking directly into the camera. Both of these choices make the viewer feel like they’re part of the family, which is a calming, immersive feeling that also serves to punctuate the themes he’s portraying.

Within the first 30 minutes, Ozu will use that immersive, calmed feeling to establish the harsh reality of family life and how we take elements in our lives, even our closest bonds, for granted. Their Tokyo-based children, Koichi (So Yamamura), a small neighborhood doctor, and Shige (Haruko Sugimura), a proprietor of a hair salon, quickly and perhaps without a hint of self-awareness resort to finding ways for others to occupy their parents while they tend to their own matters. Shige, in particular, is unapologetically selfish and opposes any form of sacrifice during their visit. She is often seen lowballing mom and dad at every turn, including chiding her husband when he brings home expensive cakes for their visitors to enjoy. For his efforts he gets yelled at for providing decadence, saying mom and dad are fine just having crackers.

Similarly, Shige is usually the one scheming for others to entertain her parents while she’s busy tending to clients and making sure her patrons’ hair is done properly in lieu of spending time with her mother and father. Ozu paints this picture without a hint of melodrama, which keeps the family drama grounded. Shige doesn’t feel like a traditional villain because she’s too real, as are most of the characters and situations presented. How often are we so wrapped up in our work that we neglect to make time for others, even our own family? As I watched this series of mundane events occur I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disappointment at the normalcy of it all. And not necessarily at Shige’s actions, but at the familiarity of her attitude.

Most of the caretaking responsibility falls on the delightful Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widowed wife of their middle son, Shoji, as she is often the only one to sacrifice her time and offers the most affection and benevolence toward the aging couple despite having no blood relation to them.

Being of a certain age and feeling a connection towards my own ageing parents certainly imbues the film with an extra layer of emotion for me. I can’t help but feel heartbroken when I watch the actions of the children and the effect it has on their parents, who superficially pretend to be understanding of the busy lives of their kids, but deep down are feeling the pain of neglect from the very blood they gave life to.

There’s a telling sequence a little more than halfway through the film where Shukichi and Tomi must spend the night apart because Shige is entertaining other people from her business and has no place to house them. That predicament is born from the couple returning early from a raucous spa the kids shipped them off to, of course because they were looking to occupy them without sacrificing any of their own time. Tomi spends her evening in the home of Noriko, who offers a welcoming compassion to her mother-in-law in spite of her widowed circumstance. Shukichi, on the other hand, spends the evening visiting two friends he used to work with many years before. Their evening unfolds over the course of several rounds of sake as they reminisce about the old days and eventually find themselves drunkenly freeing their thoughts about being parents and divulging their feelings about their children.

Shukichi’s friends are the first to verbalize their disappointment, wishing their children had been more successful in life than they had been. In a drunken stupor, Shukichi first defends his children, trying to convince even himself, perhaps, that they’re good kids who turned out all right. But, of course, in vino veritas, and eventually he confesses his disappointment in Koichi, as he only recently became aware that he isn’t a highly regarded doctor with a large practice. It’s a difficult scene to watch from a multitude of positions, but it’s especially heartbreaking to watch a father admit his disappointment in those he raised and whose shortcomings he feels responsible for.

The complexity within the narrative is derived from these simple situations. It forces you to ask the heartbreaking questions – is he acknowledging disappointment in himself as a father or is it an existential moment of realization that his son isn’t who he thought he was?

The same is true for Tomi. Noriko’s generosity toward her comes in direct contrast to that of her own daughter, who refused to house her parents in favor of her professional colleagues. While she doesn’t profess her disappointment in the way Shukichi does, the connection and gratitude she shares with Noriko is the strongest bond anyone experiences in the entire film. While you feel the palpable sense of love and respect between these two women, it forces you, and our protagonists, to face the bitter reality that their own children don’t afford them the level of devotion and gratitude their widowed daughter-in-law does. It’s both heartwarming and gut-wrenching, and something that perhaps occurs all too regularly in our own lives.

Honestly, continuing any further would never do the film any justice. The way Ozu presents the familial structure in the most simple way before gradually tearing away at its faรงade is masterful filmmaking at the highest level. We all experience these bonds at some point in our lives, whether its through the nuclear family or some other composition of connections. I think it’s because of that universality that everyone can see the complex, disheartening truth behind the simple narrative here. It’s the reason Tokyo Story still resonates almost 70 years after its initial release and will continue to teach and reveal existential truths to us for generations to come. One thing is for sure, the film is truly an incredible artistic monolith worthy of its lofty status.

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