Tokyo Story (Day 97)

Tokyo Story

My Opinion: 8.8 || A moving meditation on aging, loss, and family ties. The story can feel languid, but this is slowness with a purpose: producing steady imersion and leading to a resonant end. A triumph of quietly precise characterization and delicate storytelling.

TITLE: Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari)
DIRECTOR: Yasujirô Ozu
LANGUAGE: Japanese | COUNTRY: Japan
YEAR: 1953
PROFILE: Drama | 136 minutes | IMDb (8.2)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of IMDb): An old couple visit their children and grandchildren in the city, but the children have little time for them.

Strengths: The film builds slowly, like a tide coming in. No waves to assertively grab your attention — but before you know it, you’ve been submerged.

There’s a distinction to be made here between naturalism and realism. Yasujirô Ozu delivers little of the former, hewing to a very formal, carefully arranged style. It’s about as far as you can get from the handheld vérité of the Dardenne brothers, Michel Gondry, or any director who wants to render subjective experience. Ozu wants something different: a social and emotional realism that focuses on relationships. The result is a perfect rendering, not of personal experience, but of social and cultural bonds.

Tokyo Story

The plot of the film is deceptively simple. (Try proposing this story in a screenwriting workshop or pitch meeting and see how far you get.) The normal story complications are not to be found, and the narrative has a true-to-life episodic quality. There are no grand revelations, no epiphanies, and the one major event occurs off-screen. Even in films that are very well written, we can often picture the guiding diagram, but Tokyo Story exhibits a perfect absence of schematic design.

Mr. and Mrs. Hirayama go to Tokyo, they visit their children and grandchildren, they share meals, they go on outings, they take a little trip, they meet old friends, they go home. (And a few other things, but I won’t spoil it). There’s some boredom, some tenderness, some awkwardness, some satisfaction, some disappointment. Until the end, moments of raw emotion are not to be found, and even then you’ll wait in vain for an emotional crescendo or moment of raw catharsis. And that’s exactly why the film is so effective. Ozu doesn’t want to hit you, he wants to swallow you up. And, by the end, he does.

Weaknesses: What I see as a weakness may not bother some viewers — and might even seem a strength to some. Either way, it’s an essential element of Ozu’s style: The man never moves the camera Every scene is completely static. To his considerable credit, the staging is meticulous, with painterly perfection in the arrangement of characters and objects. Nevertheless, the absence of movement can be stultifying, and I’ll argue that it lacks fidelity to lived experience, which is more fluid. I’ll admit, though, that this comes down to personal aesthetics and that the film’s cumulative impact can’t be denied.

Tokyo Story

Harder to defend, I think, is Ozu’s habit of having characters speak directly into the camera when addressing one other. Face of Character A. Face of Character B. Face of Character A. And so on. The actors might as well be on different sets. The effect is to decrease the sense of human interaction and emphasize the fact that we’re watching (very good) line readings. Ozu’s formal restraint seems intended to limit the director’s imprint on the scene, but I find it only emphasizes the artifice.

Comparisons & Context: Tokyo Story ranked #16 in the 2002 Sight & Sound Directors Poll of greatest films (tied with Mirror, which easily makes my own Top 10, and Psycho). On the 2012 poll, it was #1. (Comparing the ’02 and ’12 polls is a good lesson in the fickleness of taste — and also a good way to lose a day.) In the 2012 Critics poll, Tokyo Story was #3. So its esteem among critics and directors couldn’t be higher.

If forced to choose, however, I’d place Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru higher. They feel like companion pieces: two longish Japanese films released a year apart that address mortality and the distance between parents and children. Ikiru is more narratively ambitious, providing a Rashomon-like investigation of different perspectives. However, it’s also a less focused film, devoting considerable energy to an unexceptional critique of Japanese civil bureaucracy. Nevertheless, although it lacks Tokyo Story‘s directness and breadth of characterization, I found its emotional impact to be equivalent, and I think it provides more visual and intellectual interest.

Edit (4/7/13): I was just reading Roger Ebert’s post about his Top 10 films, which was based on his own Sight & Sound votes. Here’s what he had to say: “There must be an Ozu. It could be one of several. All of his films are universal. The older I grow and the more I observe how age affects our relationships, the more I think “Tokyo Story” has to teach us. Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” has as much to say, but in the rigid economy of the Sight & Sound limitations, impossible choices are forced.”

Tokyo Story

The even more obvious comparison is Ozu’s own Late Spring, which enjoys almost as much acclaim among critics (#15 on the most recent Sight & Sound Critics Poll but only #174 on the Directors poll). In many respects, Late Spring is a sequel to Tokyo Story, though it was produced before it. Chishû Ryû  (a wonderfully warm and unaffected actor) stars as the father in both, playing a character who’s identical in all but name. And the sweetly guileless Setsuko Hara plays a daughter named “Noriko” in both films. (Same name but her character is different, which hurts my head in a good way.)

Late Spring does many things well, but I’ll side with the S&S Directors poll in saying that the gap between them is large. Tokyo Story has a grander scope and its examination of mortality is more emotionally powerful. An example: Setsuko Hara’s Noriko role in Late Spring is good but not nearly as fascinating as the character she plays in Tokyo Story. The widow of the Hirayama’s dead son, she’s more devoted than any of the other children. It’s a beautiful, sensitive characterization that’s going to stick with me.

Tokyo Story

Best Moment: I don’t want to give away the film’s pivotal moment. Suffice it to say that there’s a gathering. Like everything else in the film, it’s supremely understated — and devastating. There’s an insight here, which is that a good story makes us witnesses to an event, but only a great story makes us participants. In truth, it’s not that hard to make viewers cry. What’s immensely more difficult is to make them feel bereft. To engender such quietly intimate feeling is an enormous achievement.

File Under: aging, mortality, realism, family ties, obligation, loss, Yasujirô Ozu