Great Classics: Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
Japanese Title: 東京物語 (Tokyo Monogatari)
I first watched Tokyo Story in a classroom some time ago and witnessed something curious. I have never seen a group of people so choked up over a film, ever. The most curious thing about it though is that most could not place what exactly made them so emotional. There are moments in Tokyo Story in which you are hit with a wall of emotions, surprised and overwhelmed that this simple little film could evoke such feelings. It’s something about the characters, the honesty, the way everything hits home despite the cultural and time-period barriers.
Tokyo Story takes a deep look at familial relations in postwar Japan. Simply, it boils down to this: two aging parents (played by Ryu Chishu and Higashiyama Chieko) live far away from their children, who are in a quickly modernizing Tokyo. The children in Tokyo are quite selfish and focused on their own busy lives in the hustle-and-bustle of the city. The key character in this film, though, is Noriko (Hara Setsuko), the widow of one of the parents’ sons who died in the war. Noriko turns out to be more active with her husband’s parents than their own children are.
The parents decide to make their first, and possibly final, trip to Tokyo in order to see their children and view the spectacle of the city. The only person that can make significant time for them, however, is Noriko; the children are busy with work and even send their parents away to a spa! In one heartfelt scene, the mother, Tomi, spends the night at Noriko’s in which she begs her to re-marry and apologizes for the burden that her son has caused. During this time, the father, Shukichi, is out drinking with old friends and admits to them that he is disappointed with his children, agreeing with his friends who feel the same way.
Ozu Yasujiro is considered to be one of the world’s greatest filmmakers and Tokyo Story is considered his masterpiece. There is no reason to deny this. Ozu’s camera is often a topic of discussion–it usually sets itself at the level of people sitting on the floor (tatami), which allows the viewer to feel like they are sitting right with the characters. It is usually always a calm camera, and very rarely pans. His films are also often slowly paced and meditative, choosing to avoid showing important events which later are revealed through dialogue. Ozu’s direction of children has always been brilliant, they are never a weak point in his films and he often bases his stories on child characters (though not here).
Tokyo Story contains all of the elements that make Ozu’s films popular with film students and cinephiles today. His calm, observant camera; his real-life, non-embellished characters; his attention to detail and the emotional emphasis on certain objects; his perfectly timed music; among other things, contribute ultimately to the warmth and effectiveness of the film. Ozu’s passion for filmmaking knew no bounds.
Tokyo Story will not appeal to everybody, especially today. The typical moviegoer will either dismiss the film because it is “old” or “black and white,” or find it boring. To the cautious and attentive viewers who allow themselves to connect with the characters and feel the story, Tokyo Story is a rewarding experience. Tokyo Story, along with Ozu’s other films, is a good example of film as an art. Aimed at telling a story and depicting true life on camera, it is much less of the “entertainment” experience that people have come to expect from the movies today. There are no explosions, violence, chase scenes, or over-the-top characters here. This is Ozu. This is one of the greatest films ever made.