Sunday, 19 August 2012

Yasujiro Ozu's timeless… Tokyo Story (1953)

This blog has been described as something like a road trip as I bumble along the dusty roads of film history encountering enlightening cinematic experiences as I go. To a large extent, this has been true as most of the films covered have been ones that I’ve only just watched and, luckily, there’s a lot to see.

I’d first stumbled upon Yasujiro Ozu at the BFI retrospective in early 2010 and been knocked out with Late Autumn, a rich depiction of generational flux made near the end of the director’s time and reflecting his core concerns of family and obligation.

So, I came to view Tokyo Story after already being familiar with Ozu’s style and subject yet, whilst this made it easier to understand the story it did not undermine the impact of this deceptively simple and powerful film. One of the best ever made? Without doubt (from my perspective) and, after watching for a second time, the complexity of Ozu’s vision only becomes more apparent. It’s a film I want to watch again…

Two elderly parents are planning to visit their children in Tokyo. They live a long way from the capitol and Ozu shows the slow and orderly existence of their provincial town. Their youngest daughter leaves for the school she teaches at, being greeted by her pupils as they tread the familiar paths to class. With deftness and economy Ozu shows us the culture and pace of life through sparse use of music and external shots bookending quietly, polite conversations.

This is a rare excursion for them and the father, Shukishi Hirayama (played by Ozu stalwart, Chishû Ryû, who appeared in nearly all of his films) and mother Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) make their preparations, excitedly discussing the reception they will receive.

Eldest son Koichi (Sô Yamamura) is an over-worked general practitioner in one of Tokyo’s more hard pressed suburbs. He is married to Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake) who struggles with their two wilful sons one of whom complains after his desk is moved to accommodate his grandparents’ stay… it’s a foretaste of what is to come.

Shukishi and Tomi duly arrive and after their day out with Koichi is cancelled after a medical emergency for one of his clients, it’s clear that he will struggle to find time for them.

They are greeted cordially by their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) who runs a beauty parlour and lives with husband Kurazo (Nobuo Nakamura), an easy-going chap who she criticises for spending too much money on her parents. Shige’s apartment and her life are too crowded to easily accommodate her kin and you wonder how such polite old people have produced such a misery of a daughter.    

The warmest welcome comes from Noriko (the serene Setsuko Hara), the wife of their eldest son who died in the Second World War. Noriko still cherishes her dead husband and thinks nothing of putting herself before his parents. She takes a day off to look after them and willingly gives them her time.

Yet, all is not so selfish or so simple. Shukishi and Tomi worry that Noriko has spent too long mourning and urge her to move on and re-marry even though she is seemingly content. Who does Ozu expect us to side with here? And, is the man who spent almost his entire lifetime with his own mother, saying that there are different levels of obligation or that we each must come to our own arrangements? All will be clearer, later.

Shige and Koichi send their parents off to a resort for a few days respite. It’s ostensibly a nice gesture but, whilst the beach is lovely and the food is good, the walls are thin and the couple can’t sleep for the sounds of young people enjoying themselves late into the night.

They return to the city to find Shige and Koichi unprepared. Tomi stays in Noriko’s tiny apartment, whilst Shukishi goes off to catch up with some old friends and get very drunk. This sequence was another Ozu trademark and allows the older generation to let down their guard and say what they feel. Here they bemoan the shortcomings of their off-spring. They are all disappointed with their children’s modest achievements but they are still proud… their offspring could be worse.

It is revealed later that Shukishi’s job had been as head of education, he was a high-flyer and this could explain his drink problem and the distance of some of his children… as well as his view of their positions.

Eventually the parents return home leaving relief behind. But here the story takes a gear shift as Tomi is taken seriously ill. After a series of steadily worsening telegrams Shige, Koichi and Noriko head north. There they find Tomi near to death with Koichi quickly realising she is in her last hours. They are saddened, especially at the suddenness and after a trip that Shige at least, remembers as being far more convivial than it was. But maybe that’s the way of things: being taken for granted is a privilege of parenthood. Ozu doesn’t judge and he leaves it for the viewer to reach their own verdict.

Tomi dies and we see the funeral and the family’s coming to terms with its grief. Shige and Koichi head back to Tokyo soon after leaving Noriko to help comfort Shukishi. His youngest daughter, the teacher Kyôko (Kyôko Kagawa) is angry with her siblings and accuses them of being selfish. But Noriko, perhaps surprisingly, defends them by saying it is the way of things and that they have their own affairs to manage.

She is not so sure she is much different – does her status as a widow free her up to devote more time to her in-laws or is she really a better person? We can only look at actions and opt for the latter. She admits to being disappointed with life but she has not let this make her bitter.

The final scenes of Noriko with Shukishi are very moving as the former finally breaks down to reveal her own feelings of unworthiness. Here father-in-law reassures her that she is a good woman and wants only for her to move on. He gives her Tomi’s watch as a keepsake – a more meaningful memento than Shige asked for or was given.

Tokyo Story is a film full of real characters who are all flawed and weighed down by life and responsibility. Ozu called it his most melodramatic film and this possibly appeals more to western audiences. It still operates around a relatively narrow emotional band and the depth of feeling is all the stronger for that. It is an ordinary story but those are, ultimately, the most resonant.

The performances are superb with Chishû Ryû being especially impressive – a 50-year old playing a man 20 years older. Needless to say Setsuko Hara is a wonder… she manages to convey so much with such economy and subtle changes of expression. She also has what must be the kindest face in cinema.

 As is typical for Ozu, there is very little visual mobility and he fixes his camera low down to let the scenes unfold in the cramped spaces of the rooms on view. He switches the viewpoint from front to back as conversations unfold and traces a path through each dwelling to anchor us in the place and time.

We are drawn into the story and there’s no casual observation to be made - focus is required. The reward is enriching and haunting... I’m still on Ozu time days later. Mind you, it is a very hot day and the house feels like one of Ozu’s… the windows are all open and we sit in quiet contemplation, casually fanning ourselves as the children watch TV and play computer games…

I watched the Criterion Collection edition which comes with a superb commentary from Ozu scholar David Desser along with sundry extras including a two hour documentary from 1983 in which Chishû Ryû and others talk about the director.

Amazingly, Setsuko Hara is still around. Now in her 90’s she hasn’t acted since 1963, the year of Ozu’s death.


  1. Wonderful Ozu, maybe I like most of his work. Great.


    1. I'd agree - a wonderful and unique talent! When you watch you're always slowed down to Ozu-time!