Why I Love… #59: Tokyo Story


Year: 1953

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Stars: Chishu Ryu (Shukishi Hirayama), Chieko Higashiyama (Tomi Hirayama), Setsuko Hara (Noriko Hirayama), Haruko Sugimura (Shige Kaneko), So Yamamura (Koichi Hirayama), Kuniko Miyake (Fumiko Hirayama)

Genre: Drama

I watched Tokyo Story, initially, as a box-ticking exercise. A perennial of all-time-greatest movie lists – including Sight And Sound‘s feted hit parade – and a cornerstone of revered world cinema and a textbook example for film studies courses, Ozu’s most well-known film is the kind of thing you feel you should watch. I expected to respect it, approaching it as an intellectual exercise. I didn’t expect to end up taking the film to heart.

I avoided reading up too much on the film, not wanting to allow preconceptions to taint my experience. Now, sitting here, rewatching the film, my concern is that I will unwittingly be repeating the words mouthed by others. So be it. I want to talk about why Tokyo Story quickly became more than just another mark on my cinematic bucket list.

Ozu introduces to us a Japan of juxtapositions. In his montages of morning life at the top of the picture we see industrial smoke stacks sitting side by side with a comparatively rudimentary washing line. Japan’s hungry rebuild after World War 2 and the country’s pervasive grasp toward the future, contrasted with the simple routines of modest people. It’s a comparison that echoes in the film’s tale of family drama, as an elderly couple visit their family in the city, only to find that youth has little time for them.

Ozu’s film is humourous yet damning, accusing his countrymen of neglecting their elders and allowing values to fade. Yet Tokyo Story is not the work of a director telling off his audience. Ozu is far more respectful and mindful than that. He works here instead as a master observer of human nature. His compositions are formal, but flawless. The film moves at a gentle, measured pace. Watching it causes the viewer to slow down too. It feels nourishing. Ozu drops contemplative pauses into the story judiciously, setting us at a different tempo. Asking us to be more respectful in turn. It wouldn’t work if he weren’t so good at what he does. The respect is almost immediately earned.

Still, it sounds like an exercise in highbrow film critique. Ozu’s technical prowess and control of his material may be absolute, but the story itself is what makes this work so well, and elevates Tokyo Story from being merely a technical achievement.  And the story works because of Ozu’s aforementioned astute observations, as well as the superb naturalistic performances from the ensemble cast. Captured here is family life, with universal truths. Like the most immaculate home movie ever conceived, Tokyo Story excels for depicting relationships that we know, without heavy-handed sentiment, but rather with an ache of nostalgia or fondness. We know these people because they reflect ourselves, for better and for worse.

Relatively early in the film we see grandmother Tomi and grandchild, not far from the family home, standing on a rise. One of the film’s preciously judged music cues rises. The audience is asked to draw on their own memories to appreciate the resonance of the moment. It is not typically dramatic; more a simple beat in the film’s momentum, yet it is emblematic of how it all works so well. Carefully judged touchstones allow us to empathise with the characters. We understand why Koichi and Fumiko are neglectful of their elders without them having to be bad people. Ozu’s film credits it’s characters with more than one trait. We can see their shortsightedness, but we can forgive them it. We’ve connected to them too. The passing of time will bring them their own lamentations, as it does to us all.

When Shukishi visits a bar he bemoans his son’s apparent disinterest in their visit, citing a change of temperament in Japan. Ozu’s criticism is at its most explicit and Shukishi is textured also. He is ashamed of his own disappointment, resentful of the cultural shift. His agitation rounds him as a character, we appreciate his anger and in turn respect his efforts to rationalise it and place it in perspective. When he is brought home drunk by a policeman, we also appreciate Fumiko’s embarrassment.

Reminded of our own shortcomings, we therefore see Noriko – the only family member who credits Tomi and Shukishi the attention and respect they deserve – as an almost angelic presence. Ozu offers her as the ideal; the person we all should be in this situation, even if we often aren’t. Noriko is played beautifully by Setsuko Hara; the centrepiece of a cast that cannot be faulted.

Events in Tokyo Story would be considered mundane if they weren’t so acutely familiar. Calling the film formal does it a disservice, as the word carries associations with rigidity, austerity and stiffness. Tokyo Story doesn’t feel like that, rather it is airy, quiet, peaceful. A measured representation of life. Just as Noriko takes time from her life and gives it to the visiting couple, so Ozu’s film asks us to take time from our lives to consider them from a more thankful perspective.

Blah blah blah blah. What hits me by the end is the subtle impact of it all. Like a sneak attack, Tokyo Story and it’s characters get under my skin. I come to care for them through identification, so when a more conventionally recognised dramatic domino falls, it carries enhanced weight. I’m genuinely moved at the end of the film. Rejecting the need for sentimentalism, melodrama or histrionics, Ozu shows how perfectly pitched restraint can reap dividends. Displaying emotional truth, even that of sadness and grief, makes the film feel triumphant. By the end I feel connected to Tokyo Story, as if some new technology has grafted tissue tendrils from my veins to the screen. Briefly, whilst it is playing, we are one. That’s an astonishing achievement.

I love film as a medium because it allows me the adventure of seeing through someone else’s eyes. What makes Tokyo Story so great is that, for two and a quarter hours, I feel as though someone has seen through mine. Watching another person’s perspective on the world is fascinating. Feeling as though someone else has understood your own? That’s incredibly rare. I’m not as good as Noriko. I don’t make enough time for my elders. I’m not as open and forthcoming and interested in my family. But Tokyo Story asks me to pay more attention, so I’ll try.

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