Review: Tokyo Story (1953)
Tokyo Story, or Tôkyô monogatari (1953)
In Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece, Tokyo Story, nothing happens. An elderly man and woman leave their small village and travel to Tokyo to visit their grown son, daughter, and daughter-in-law. The adult children are busy and the parents are an imposition and a burden. The visit sours, but in the most un-dramatic way. No one speaks of it and the parents return home, with a brief stop off in Osaka to visit a second son. Then the mother dies and the children make the journey home. That is all.
For the modern viewer, that synopsis may sound preposterously boring. In the hands of cinematic master Ozu, it is anything but. True, it moves at a glacier pace, the same way life does. Then your mother dies and is lost forever, with everything left unsaid and regret hanging in the air, the same way life does. Then you’re busy and self-involved again and life goes on, the same way life always does. In Tokyo Story, life is impossibly beautiful and sad, impossibly long and all too brief, the way life tends to be. And Ozu draws you in and lets life unfold at its own pace, creating a sweeping emotional tour-de-force so stealthily you’ll barely know why your eyes are tearing.
The sum is ultimately greater than the parts in this film, but the parts are exquisitely detailed. Take for example actor Chishu Ryu as the father Shukishi. He barely speaks, instead delivering a kind of grunted “Yah” as agreement. So much is said in those empty spaces, which lesser directors would rush to fill with chatter. The relationship between the mother Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) and Shukishi is so beautifully illustrated by the compatible silence and the terse conversations about their children, fleshed out only by some off-handed comments about Shukishi’s younger, wilder days. They had problems and yet they stuck it out and made it through.
A list of powerful, fine grained detail to be found in Tokyo Story would go on for thousands and thousands of words. But as Ozu so deftly illustrates, words are largely meaningless and always inadequate to measure the distances between ourselves and our families. Much is made of Ozu’s peculiar visual composition. First, it bears noting that every single frame is perfect and harmonious. You could take each one, frame it, hang it on your way and feels hours of peace in observing the symmetry. Movement occurs in Tokyo Story, as it must, but it does not originate from the camera. The eye is static. When there is movement, it is from a human being leaving a room or waves lapping at the shore. One particularly moving affect for me is the lingering shot of the spaces inhabited by humans without the humans in them. We may see the family shuffle through a hallway and into the room, yet the camera remains in the hallway, just long enough to make the point – all of this exists without you.
Again, this could go on forever, this praise of Tokyo Story. I’ll say one final thing about the radiant Setsuko Hara as Noriko Hirayama. The only child who had time for the elderly parents is daughter-in-law Noriko, married to a son lost in the war. Though these are not her parents, she takes time out of life to spend with them. She hosts them in her home. And when Tomi dies, it is only Noriko who remains behind for some time. Yet, Noriko is most ready to forgive those self-absorbed children. It’s is the natural course of life, she says. As a woman who’s natural course has been disrupted by war and death, her perspective is profoundly placed on the now, on the people still in her life. Noriko understands heartbreak and loneliness and she understands the potency of contact. And has there ever been a more beatifically beautiful face in all of cinema than Setsuko Hara’s teary smile?
It’s hard to know how to wrap this up. I’m no Ozu. In the end, when the children and even Noriko have left, Shukishi says to a passing neighbor, in his own terse way, “”Oh, she was a headstrong woman … but if I knew things would come to this, I’d have been kinder to her.” Then he pauses. “Living alone like this, the days will get very long.” Indeed, living alone like this, as we all do, the days get long. Fortunately, we have films like Tokyo Story to fill the hours.
Where to see Tokyo Story
Tokyo Story is playing at TIFF Bell Light Box as part of the TIFF Cinematheque programme Japanese Divas: The Great Actresses of Japanese Cinema’s Golden Age. This programme is part of Spotlight Japan (January – April), a city-wide festival celebrating classic and contemporary Japanese culture for which five of Toronto’s leading cultural institutions came together (the Japan Foundation, TIFF, Canadian Stage, The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre and Soundstreams).
Tokyo Story screens on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
Galley of Images from Tokyo Story