What makes cinema such a special medium is that no matter the language we can relate to a story. This week on our World Cinema journey we look back to Japan and to a masterpiece of a film and one that everyone who loves cinema needs to watch Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).
Elderly couple Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) leave their small village to visit their grown children in Tokyo and for the first time, meet their grandchildren. Along with their youngest daughter, they find that they are not overly welcome at their eldest son and daughters homes, due to them living their own lives. Their widowed daughter in law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) welcomes them with open arms as they are shooed off to a nearby spa.
From that synopsis, you might think that Tokyo Story doesn’t really have much of a story to go for a feature-length, and you would be greatly mistaken. While other family dramas tend to get up close to the dynamics of the family and weave these intricate stories for everyone. Tokyo Story takes a step back and almost watches from afar. This can be a tad sterile for an audience member, but instead of us feeling close with these characters as if we are intruding on their lives, we are watching them from a distance, as if we are in innocent bystander to seeing this lovely elderly couple be shifted to the side while some of their children try to live their lives.
That is an extraordinary approach and one that Ozu was known for. Knowing information about characters always helps to feel emotion towards them throughout a film, however by keeping that distance we are to make our own quick judgements on everyone and feel automatically for Shukishi and Tomi, while at the same time being aghast at the actions of their children. We feel towards Noriko, she may not be family technically anymore, she still has a great amount of respect for Shukishi and Tomi, indeed as Shukishi notes at the end of the film, far more than his own children. This is a method that really isn’t utilised as much as it should be, we should see enough of the characters throughout the film to obtain a full idea about them. At no point is any of the characters under-written and that is essential for its success.
In truth little and a lot happens in Tokyo Story, and a lot of it will resonate with children who have moved away from their parents. Indeed, personally, this became noticeable for me. I had moved to England from Northern Ireland for University (in truth not over far, but a flight away) and while I tried to keep the weekly phone calls back home, it became difficult, I would have things planned out that interfered and slowly calls would become inconsistent. With the children of Shukishi and Tomi having their own lives, careers and children, they have become distant from their own parents and Ozu is showing the audience how easy it happens, hell it probably easily happens with family members who move to different parts of the same city. He shows that once a child has their own family, sadly their responsibilities change and they forget.
Obviously, in Tokyo Story we see more selfishness in this distancing. Other than the youngest daughter and Noriko the family are too quick to disregard their parents and it shows younger audiences how important it is to love and remember the older generations of their family as their time is quickly coming to an end. This is an endless circle for families and individuals, see now how you treat your parents and grandparents as before you know it you may very well be in the same boat as them, forgotten and easily pushed aside. Tokyo Story is almost a cautionary tale.
The patriarch of the family Shukishi is another brilliant performance from Ozu regular Chishû Ryû. While it would have been easy to just have his character be old and lovable, he also has faults, he is an alcoholic and it is apparent that this has been part of the rift between him and his oldest children. We watch as he tries and fails to keep away from alcohol and still be there for his wife while they deal with being shifted off to the resort. It is a great performance perhaps for how understated it is.
One of the standouts, of course, is the performance of Setsuko Hara as the widowed Noriko. The ability to play a character, trying her best to stop from veering off the edge externally and to force the pleasantries to others when she is still broken was astonishing. Subtle clues that all was not well for her and how she had to try and keep the façade despite it all, could very well be an appropriate allegory for Japan at the time. That is a difficult part to play, and one that Setsuko Hara does faultlessly.
Thanks to how Ozu sets his camera, we get the feeling that the performances are more natural. The longer shots as if we are eavesdropping on conversations. The idea that we are seeing something real always remains in his films and thanks to this excellent cast, they are able to portray that to perfection. This inspection of the relationship between parents and their children, of course, is not a new field for Ozu, he has gone here before. But, this nuanced tale perhaps encapsulates post-war Japan better than any other film. It focuses on family and most importantly grief.
We take our time with the family, and without a doubt, Tokyo Story is a slower-paced take than others, much too some peoples impatient detriment. This slow pace allows the room to breathe and most importantly allows the viewer to think and reflect. This is an important feature in Ozu’s films. The reason the film connects with so many is that it feels real. We see family drama’s where when the film becomes tense there is the obvious comedy moment or stereotypical characters. Here we have characters that feel real and their experiences feel real, we can connect with them we know each of these characters in our own lives and that is very difficult for a film to portray. It is why Ozu is a master of the art. This is life if we like it or not, it doesn’t matter, it is the truth.
Tokyo Story takes it’s time and brings out a wealth of fantastic performances. This slow burner allows an audience to feel and reflect on themselves and when a moment in the film strikes you, it won’t be quickly forgotten. Without a doubt, after watching Tokyo Story, you would be inclined to contact that older family member just for a check-in. You won’t regret it.