Ozu is one of the greatest film-maker, whose name must be familiar with ardent movie-lovers, but who also remains virtually unknown. Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) acclaimed was a critically Japanese director who made close to 54 films, films that were popular in Japan, but have been under-appreciated outside Japan. His movies mostly deal with the middle-class Japanese family life. All the laurels for his movies means nothing -- especially when considering his films are so completely committed to avoiding the grandiosity such ready-made labels imply.
Yasijuro Ozu's best known film 'Tokyo Story' is a work of art that still has the power to astonish, disrupt, and shatter hearts. The movie creates a unforgettable pictorial design of middle class Japanese family that might seep into your consciousness. The movie poignantly broadens into universal issues that all can relate to. Tokyo Story graphs the inevitability of change, disappointment and death with a resigned air of mute acceptance.
PlotThe story of the movie is very simple and straight-forward and the dominant theme here is the generational conflict between parents and their children. Don't expect an sentimental film, or the one with fancy camera movements, fades, dissolves, pans or tracking shots. The story is uneventful, but hides great depth beneath its basic structure. As the movie opens, the parents, Shukishi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who live in a small rural village, are preparing to visit their grown children, all of whom reside in the post-war Tokyo. Their children are disinterested and selfish and the grand-children are even more self-centered and spoiled.
The grown-up children have no use with their presence. They are preoccupied and a little put out by the old folks' visit. The only person who seems really pleased to see them is, ironically, their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara). It is an straight-forward narrative, in that there is no great all encompassing resolution, and none of the characters are delineated as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, with the possible exception of their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko.
Yasijuro Ozu’s long shots, knee-high camera placement—gather power over the duration, but time itself is the master’s most potent weapon. Prolonged sequences make you impatient for forward motion, but then, in an instant, you’re left to mourn beauties hurried away. The simplicity of his narrative is rejoiced in the intricacies of everyday banality. Ozu adds subtle shades for a character, which means that what isn't said can be more important than what is. When the elderly Tomi says, "When each of my boys was born, I prayed that he wouldn't become a drinker," it connotes that her husband had in fact a drinking problem, something you wouldn't expect from the ever-so-slimly-stiff Shukichi.
Tokyo Story is about a middle class family life and more specifically, how it was coming apart at the seams, but there are no arguments, fistfights, or shouting matches -- just coldly subtle rejections and snubs veiled by intricate social etiquette. We’re also given access to the children’s points of view—they’re selfish yet understandably so, not villains but thickened—but Ozu is most interested in micro-scoping beneath the polite smiles of their elders, confronting a lifetime of gathered disappointment, facing children they frankly can’t stand to be around. Even though all of his films all centered around the daily activities of parents and their offspring and the often widening gaps between them, director Ozu himself never married or had children.
A unschooled eye might see the simple staging and composition as artless. Notice how in the movie Shukichi usually sits at a right angle to the camera, right side facing us, with Tomi to his left and ever so slightly behind him. But when things were bad for them on their trip, Shukichi and Tomi end up sitting directly parallel to one another, as if comforting each other. Also, Ozu places his camera no higher than the eye-level of a person sitting on a mat and, almost never moving the frame, records the carefully planned movements and gestures of his actors. Ozu establishes rhythms of elderly couples life with such precision, which nullifies the melodrama and histrionics. When 'Tokyo Story' ends where it began, with Shukichi sitting on his mat, fanning himself because of the summer heat, this time alone, it's like a different presentation of eternity.
The acting (though they have lived in those characters) is brilliant throughout, emotions conveyed powerfully by as little as a turn of the head. Chishu Ryu, as Shukichi, the father who lives so gently beyond his time, is surely one of the best actors in Japanese film industry. Setsuko Hara as the gracious daughter-in-law gives a wonderful, subtle performance.
A character observes, "Isn't life disappointing." This dialogue and scene, near the end of the film, essentially completes a view of normal life that is luminous in its freedom from the sentimentality or the satire that so often obscure an artist's vision of normal living. Tokyo Story is a remainder that the most pleasurable moments in cinema don't consist of special effects and mind numbing action sequences, but are thoughtful and quiet small moments that touch the heart and soul.
Watch Tokyo Story because none of the modern multiplex movies showing a similar family-styled melodrama can match this film for breath of scope, intensity and honesty of character.
Tokyo Story - IMDb
Rober Ebert's Great Movies Archive - Tokyo Story