The next film up on the Movie Quest is a story about Tokyo called…Tokyo Story. It’s Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece from 1953 and has received a number of major accolades. Aside from its 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Tokyo Story was named the fifth best film ever made by the Sight and Sound critics’ poll in 2002, putting it just behind The Godfather. Despite the fact that it’s not as commonly known, Tokyo Story has consistently beaten Seven Samurai and Rashomon as the best film from Asia. Just so you know what you’re dealing with here.
It’s one of the simplest stories you could imagine. An older couple from the countryside to the south visits Tokyo to stay with their children. Most of Ozu’s films revolve around family dynamics and the relationships between generations. The beginning of the film is optimistic about their trip and portrays people that are loving and pleasant despite their separation from one another.
Soon enough, though, the viewer begins to see the rifts between the generations. The brief scenes during which the children, parents and grandparents are all present are skillfully used to drive home the truth of things: that the younger generations have left the older couple behind, so that their lives are almost unrecognizable. Ozu’s script is subtle in portraying the grandparents’ expectations and their reaction to the way things really are in Tokyo.
It isn’t long before the family tries to get rid of the old folks, sending them to a spa by the seaside as a “favor”. This is the turning point in the film, for me — the thoughts and feelings of the grandparents that had been kept inside can be seen creeping out. It’s at this point that the curtain of superficiality is thrown back and the nature of a changing family is brought into view.
Ozu’s style is minimalist in the most endearing sense of the word. There is only one shot in the entirety of the film which features a moving camera. The most common shot style of the film is from below eye level, at about three feet from the ground. This type of “tatami shot” [likening the camera to an eyewitness' perspective while sitting on a tatami matted floor] is intimate; it’s as though the viewer is an unseen visitor in each setting.
Through this style, you share in the old couple’s loneliness. They’ve become outsiders in their own family, but keep sporting faces on nevertheless. Your frustration with their children, though, is eventually satisfied with two separate and perfectly choreographed scenes. The old woman spends the night with their widowed daughter-in-law, while the old man goes out to drink with his friends from long ago. Only then do they address the memories of years past, one focusing on the future of the family and one on the past.
Ozu raises questions about the limits of family, as well. Who is truly “family” and how do we define them? Can someone without a blood relation be called family in the truest sense of the word? For a Japanese moviegoer in the 1950s, the answer to the second question might be ‘no’. But Tokyo Story is a thought-provoking counter argument that manages to break that convention while remaining abnormally plausible. The old couple’s widowed daughter-in-law [played by the rising star Setsuko Hara] is a character with whom you cannot help but sympathize. Her character is both admirable and believable, and is given remarkable depth and development through Ozu’s screenplay.
Talking about Tokyo Story is strange for me; at no point in the film would I have said explicitly that I was particularly enjoying it. But as a whole product, it makes me feel better for having seen it. As a portrait of human nature and the family, it remains relevant outside of Japan more than a half-century on. Roger Ebert, the famous film critic, said of it, “[Tokyo Story] ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections.” And I truly agree with him. Whether or not you connect with this film, it will connect with you — and when it ends you’ll find that you aren’t yet done thinking it over.
Before watching Tokyo Story for the first time, I was skeptical; could this slow-paced film really rival Rashomon and Seven Samurai in reputation? I knew that it was considered a great film, but I hadn’t read any reviews, so I couldn’t tell you why. But in watching it I came to see that the story betrayed the fundamentals of humanity, that the simplistic cinematic style came as close to perfection as I’d yet seen, and that the actors’ performances captured what we sometimes choose not to see in our own lives. This film is worthy of all its praise.
Tokyo Story is available on the Criterion Collection and it’s currently streaming on Netflix. While it isn’t the most exciting or high-paced film I’ve seen, I recommend it as essential film literature to any movie lover. To some, it will go by unnoticed as a dry narrative with nothing much to offer. But to those who let it, Tokyo Story will be a cinematic work of art that can rarely be matched.