Tokyo Story 07/01/2009
Tokyo Story is a simple, beautiful film, of quiet devastation. It is a rare story, devoid of contrivance, and full of humanity. The plot is seemingly mundane, but with the storytelling of the revered Japanese auteur, Yasujiro Ozu, it is dramatic and engrossing.
An elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi, travel to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren. Upon arrival, they are neglected; as the children would much rather go without upsetting their routines. They stay with their eldest son, Koichi, who has a wife and two boys of his own. He is a doctor, and due to his busy schedule does not spend much time with his parents while they visit. Shukichi and Tomi then stay with their daughter, Shige, a hairdresser, who is also married, and much too busy to entertain the guests. Only one person goes out of their way to pay attention to the old couple, and that is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko. Becoming annoyed by the burden of having to care for their parents, Koichi and Shige send them to a hot spring spa. Realizing that they are only a nuisance, the couple returns home. On the journey back, however, Tomi takes ill.
We reach a remarkable level of intimacy with these characters, which is attributable to Ozu’s style. He sets up the camera, which is almost always still, at the eye level of a person seated on a tatami mat (known as the “tatami-mat shot”). Most of the time, the shots, with the exception of close-ups, allow us to view an entire room and all of the characters occupying it, so we can observe both speakers and listeners at once. This achieves the feeling that we are in these places with them. Whenever someone speaks, Ozu never cuts away, as if to say that all people, or at least his characters, are worth hearing out.
Each person in Tokyo Story is guarded and formal, always abiding to the accepted standards in manners. In fact, I observed it took over two hours for anyone to truly say what was on his or her mind. Before that, each character hides what they truly mean, and instead put up a front so as to please everyone. Often, one’s criticism is masked by a coded comment and a smile. When Shukichi and Tomi want to express their disappointment in their grandchildren, they agree that they prefer their children. To my mind, I find this to be a great sadness. Expressing our hopes, fears, and true feelings with our families brings us closer together. Here the characters will never truly understand each other, as their society will not allow it. In Japanese culture we can see the gaps between generations, between parents and children, more prominently than in western society. The lifestyles of those in their prime are far too busy to accommodate the people that raised them. This insight is tragic but understated, and never exploited. Ozu avoids sentimentality and never takes advantage of the emotional subject matter. He lets the story achieve its own effect with poetic realism.
Later, after Tomi passes on, Shukichi presents a gift to Noriko, as a token of gratefulness for the kindness she showed when they visited Tokyo. The gift is Tomi’s old watch. It is ironic that a tool used to measure time now connects two generations together.
Ozu’s pillow shots, which consist of still images of things such as steamboats, railroad tracks and marching children, enhance the film’s quiet beauty. Some may argue the pacing is slow, but rather it is calm, and appropriately so. While some moments carry more emotional power, they are not given emphasis. The entire film operates on a single wavelength that always contains feeling. The performances are invaluable and it is hard to choose one over the other. Chishu Ryu, as Shukichi, contributes some of the most memorable moments, as he continues to smile and remain polite in the wake of his lover’s demise. In an exchange with his nieghbour at the end of Tokyo Story, they agree he will now be very lonely. Of course, their conversation appears to be somewhat cheerful, as they both maintain their mannered demeanor. The closest Shukichi comes to expressing his grief is when he says “…If I knew things would come to this, I’d have been kinder to her…Living alone like this, the days will get very long”. While he withholds his tears, it is very difficult to withhold our own. Tokyo Story is a profound masterwork of the cinema, as enriching as any I’ve discovered. Its themes are at once very Japanese, but ultimately universal.
The film is the third of a loosely connected trilogy (Late Spring and Early Summer being the predecessors), that all feature the wonderful character, Noriko. Close to the film’s end, she is in conversation with Kyoko, the youngest daughter in the family. Kyoko speaks her mind, complaining about how inconsiderate everyone in the family has been. Noriko, the only other character who was always caring, defends them. She explains that everyone has their reasons and their own lives to lead. The drift between parents and children is inevitable. Noriko even admits that as time passes she may become the same way. Kyoko, clearly displeased by this wisdom, asks “Isn’t life disappointing?” Noriko smiles and responds, “Yes, it is.”
posted by adam cook