Tokyo Story (1953)
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Cast: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama, Sô Yamamura, Setsuko Hara
Plot: An old couple visit their children and grandchildren in the city; but the children have little time for them.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Tokyo Story is quite rightly the crowning achievement of Yasujiro Ozu’s film career. It best represents Ozu’s melancholic vision of Japanese society and contains some of world cinema’s most heart achingly beautiful images. The film is shot in black-and-white, partially on location, and features nearly the same cast of actors whose roles are almost indistinguishable from that of Ozu’s previous or later works.
Tokyo Story tells the story of old parents who decide to visit their children in faraway Tokyo since the latter are busy with work commitments and are unable to make time to visit their parents. The elderly couple have not seen their children in years and want to pay them a visit before they become too old to do so.
While they are delighted to see their children, they are left disappointed by how much they have changed. In one sequence, they are sent by their children to a cheap hot springs resort to relax only to find themselves unable to sleep well because of noisy youths gambling and partying the night away.
It is not before long when the “outcasts” find that they are literally just that and make their long trip home. Without revealing further about the plot, Tokyo Story is very much a masterpiece of human drama. Ozu’s sensitive treatment of his characters gives them personas deeply rooted in everyday realism.
The director fleshes out in great detail each character’s attitude towards one another, and through their actions, revealing inner feelings about themselves. The most fascinating aspect of Ozu’s dramatic films, especially this one, is his understated ability to build up honest emotions (in his actors) without resorting to theatrics.
Tokyo Story is so brutally honest with its depiction of the mundaneness of everyday life that it reminds us that it is the simple things that we do together that forever become part of our most treasured memories. No matter which culture one belongs to, watching Tokyo Story is like a meditation on the past; a nostalgic, Zen-like contemplation of what truly is most important to us – the bonding within a family.
The most striking image of Ozu’s film is the static long shot of the grandmother and her grandson on a hilltop in the background with part of the roof of a house below the hill positioned in the foreground. The small child walks around within the frame of the shot as his grandmother talks about not being able to see him fulfill his ambition after he grows up.
This entire scene communicates an acute sense of emotional distancing between the grandmother and her grandson due to cross-generational gap, and spatial distancing between the house (a representation of modernity) and them (a representation of a traditionalist view of family bonding) which can be read as an inevitable erosion of the family in a rapidly changing world.
Tokyo Story allows a deep introspection of ourselves and despite being shot more than half a century ago, Ozu’s film still holds significant (if not more) relevance today. Are we so caught up with the “vices of modernity” such as self-gratification and materialism that we have lost sight of what we hold dearest?
Tokyo Story may be the closest we ever get to watching ourselves on the big screen. It is like a mirror, only that we don’t see ourselves but a damning indictment of what most of us have become.