DVD Review Of Tokyo Story

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/27/06


  There are many roads to greatness. This is a notion that I have always held to be true. No greater example of this could be given than by comparing the films of two of the greatest filmmakers from Japan. Of course, most people have heard of Akira Kurosawa and his classics like Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Ikiru. But there is also Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), whose canon of films is set in modern times far more often than Kurosawa’s.  Where Kurosawa was grand, Ozu is small. Where Kurosawa was kinetic, Ozu was static. Where Kurosawa celebrated the epic, Ozu celebrated the ordinary. Yet, despite their differences, their greatest films are indisputable masterpieces of cinema, even if they achieve their ends in seemingly contradictory ways.

  Perhaps the greatest of all Ozu films is his 1953 black and white classic Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari), which follows a simple story outline, unfolds very slowly – the film is two hours and fifteen minutes long, builds its power through the slow accumulation of facts, and the deft, but subtle revelation of character. In short, it’s everything that Hollywood films are not, and it would never have been produced there, then or now. It has been derided as being stale, dull, and plodding, even as it has alternately been chided as melodramatic and a third rate soap opera. Such definitions only go to show how little the claimants know of the words they wield.

  It is true, that nothing much of ‘excitement’ happens in the film- no murders, car chases, explosions, steamy sex scenes. It follows an old couple, from the small town of Onomichi, on a long train trip to Tokyo to visit their grown children. Some have seen the film as a remake of Leo McCarey’s 1937 Hollywood sudser, Make Way For Tomorrow, but Tokyo Story is to that film what Long Day’s Journey Into Night is to The Bold & The Beautiful. There, the old couple see the town, are shunted aside, then return home. The mother dies, the children come to visit, and there are some revelations, but most of the living family members just return to their own patterns of life. Yet, having watched soap operas for many years, I can tell you this film soars well beyond soap operas, which rely on archetypes and stereotypes, and the most silly plot contrivances. Everything in this film happens as it would in reality. Plus, Ozu does not milk scenes for their overwrought emotions. In fact, he wields his edits like a rapier, and excises scenes that soap operas and more standard films would include. Tokyo Story is no shameless tearjerker.

  Ozu is the master of narrative ellipses. As example, we do not see an early emotional farewell scene between the parents and their youngest daughter Kyoko. We do not see the parents’ first stay with their youngest son Keizo (Shiro Osaka), in Osaka, as they head toward Tokyo. Another technique he mastered is that of developing subplots, such as that of the widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko, who treats the old couple far better than all but one of their children. Yet, she is not hagiographized at the expense of the other children, even as they are not demonized for their lack of care for their parents. They are simply caring and selfish, as most people are to a certain degree.

  This is merely part of life, just as the train trip Shukichi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu), a retired school board official, and his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) take. In a sense this film can work as a time capsule of a slice of life on earth a half century ago. Put it on a spaceship and aliens would get a pretty good idea what most human life has been like for centuries, at least on a personal and emotional basis. When the couple arrives at their oldest child’s home, Koichi (So Yamamura)- a low level doctor, he is indifferent to them, and his children Minoru (Zen Murase)- who whistles the theme from John Ford’s Stagecoach, and Isamu (Mitsuhiro Mori) react like spoiled brats. His wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake) treats them with respect, although she cannot handle her children. A planned site seeing tour is postponed when Koichi must treat a patient. They next try to visit their oldest daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimura), a beautician who is even more indifferent to her parents, and is a crass materialist who ridicules her mother’s being overweight. When her husband buys some cakes to give to her parents Shige rebukes him for their expense, and that her parents only deserve crackers. Of the three children that lived in Tokyo, only their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), an office worker who was married to their son Shoji, who was killed in World War Two, eight years earlier, treats them warmly. Unlike Koichi and Shige, who live in houses, Noriko lives in a small apartment in a slum, but they go on a tour of Tokyo with her, and she goes out of her way to feed them treats.

  Meanwhile, Koichi and Shige plan to send their parents away to the Atami health spa, where the oldsters cannot get any sleep, as it is filled with young partygoers. They decide to return to Tokyo, but Tomi has a brief dizzy spell. When they do return to Tokyo Shige blows them off, so Tomi goes to spend the night with Noriko, while Shukichi goes out drinking with old co-workers. In this sequence we find out that Shukichi was once an alcoholic whose drinking nearly ruined the family. He stopped when Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), the youngest daughter, who still lives with them in their town, was born. In a moving scene, Tomi tells Noriko she wishes she would forget her dead husband, even as she joys to sleep in his former bed. Tomi starts weeping, and in a great albeit subtle move, we see Noriko- seemingly with a permanent smile on her face throughout the film, start to weep silently. The shot is done so perfectly and luminously that the actress who played Noriko, Setsuko Hara, looks like an angel. In truth, she was to Japanese cinema what Julia Roberts is now- the superstar actress who was yet the girl every man could fall in love with, although she’s a much better actress than Roberts. How any male viewer could not come to adore a creature as her is a universal improbability. Oddly, in real life, she never married.

  The next day the oldsters are leaving for home, and Koichi, Shige, and Noriko are all there. Tomi seems to know this will be the last time she will see her children, and tells them that if anything happens they need not bother coming to their town. The next thing we see is Keizo telling a co-worker of his mother’s illness when they arrived- another effective ellipsis used by Ozu to get past mere melodrama. Then we cut to Tomi dying, and the children all planning to arrive at her bedside. Keizo arrives late, and has to leave the wake. Noriko tries to comfort him, but all he can do is mouth the platitude, ‘None can serve his parents beyond the grave.’ The children then have a last dinner together. Shige demands some keepsake kimonos of her mother’s, Koichi mouths platitudes, Keizo says he will stay with his father a while, then decides work and baseball games take priority. Only Noriko shows real compassion, and Kyoko appreciates it, and rightfully berates her three older siblings as selfish. Noriko tells her she is being too hard on them, that children gradually drift away from their parents. Kyoko asks, ‘Isn’t life disappointing?’ and Noriko beams a ‘Yes,’ that is so filled with genuine emotion that a viewer almost expects her to break down. She doesn’t, and the two youngest women in the family seem to bond.

  As she is set to leave for Tokyo, Noriko is told by Shukichi that he appreciates how well she took care of Tomi in Tokyo, and reiterates the claim that he wants he to forget about Shoji and remarry. She confesses that she sometimes forgets about Shoji, but sees no real future for herself. Whereas Shige demanded worthless items of her mother’s, Shukichi gives Noriko a valued watch, and remarks how odd it is that the person who has been kindest to him and Tomi was Noriko, who is not a blood relative. As she leaves, the only time we see any of the characters on a train is when we see Noriko holding the watch as she heads back to Tokyo. The film ends with Shukichi fanning himself on a hot evening, as a neighbor lady walks by and banters with him of his impending loneliness, just as she had at the film’s start with the couple over their upcoming trip. He remarks that had he known things would turn out like this he would have been kinder to Tomi. We then see life move on as boats sail on in the harbor.

  What is so striking about Ozu’s style in this and other of his films is how he mutes melodrama by having classically melodramatic scenes occur offstage, which only makes the charges of melodrama or soap opera all the more absurd. Another thing he is famed for is his static camera movements. There are only a few pans in the whole film, and most shots are from a low angle, so that the characters fill up the whole screen and many shots are as elegantly composed as paintings. Film critic Donald Richie claims that the ‘reason for the low camera position is that it eliminates depth and makes a two-dimensional space.’ This is clearly wrong, for the small Japanese homes of the parents and Koichi seem as long and labyrinthine as the enormous spaceships from the Alien or Star Wars films. And the reason is precisely because the low angle lengthens depth, it does not reduce it. Ozu thus is more like Carl Theodor Dreyer in his use of space and depth with a Vermeer-like precision. Also, in a sense, Ozu was Japan’s equivalent of the Italian Neo-realist filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti, even though his films are more artificially structured- as example, the children the oldsters stay with on their trip are all introduced in descending chronological order, even though the youngest, Keizo, we hear of having been visited first in Osaka. We do not see him, however, until the return trip.

  The acting is superb, by all parties, especially in a scene where Shukichi and Tomi are in Ueno Park, and realize their children will not be like them in attitudes, and that they need to find places to stay for the night. When Shukichi’s drinking buddies, Numata and Hattori, tell him that the younger generation is not up to the past standards, he moderates by stating, ‘We expect too much of our children.’ The wisdom that comes from drunkenness is effectively and realistically conveyed. Another great moment comes from an early scene that has Tomi alone with her youngest grandson Isamu. She asks if he wants to be a doctor like his father. He ignores her and she muses if she’ll still be alive when he grows up. They are together on a hillside, but not near each other. But, there is no sentimentality, for we see her realize she likely will not, and a small fear grips her. As a side note, the home where Koichi and his family live looks like the same suburb where Ozu’s superb comedy Good Morning was filmed a few years later. Lastly, Setsuko Hara, as Noriko, is dominant in every scene she is in. It’s not only that she is a great actress with an enormous range, conveyed through the eyes, as she is forced to imposture by Japanese standards of the time, but she simply exudes depth and grace. She is one of those actresses simply blessed with IT- call it presence or style, but she has it in spades.

  The DVD of Tokyo Story was put out by The Criterion Collection on a two disk version and the print of the film on Disk One was in very disappointing quality, with streaks, murky grays and too light whites. Criterion usually does far better work than this. It is especially annoying when trying to read the white subtitles against the blanched and bleeding backgrounds. Are gold subtitles too much to ask, especially when there is no English language dubbed track to satisfy real film connoisseurs who appreciate the visual aspects of the medium? The audio commentary track by Ozu scholar David Desser, editor of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, is surprisingly good, especially considering it’s highly scripted. He seemed to time his comments perfectly for each scene, and explain many in technical detail, as well give backgrounds on the film, Ozu, and the actors. Sometimes he misses some narrative points and gets a bit haughty and moralistic, but often he does well to explain Japanese customs and the politics of the time, and how certain scenes played to Japanese audiences then and global audiences now. There is also the original film trailer, Disk Two has one of the best artist documentaries I’ve ever seen- in depth and detailed. It lasts two hours and is called I Lived, But... It was made in 1983, and is the rare documentary that connects you with the real person it features, to the point of moving one emotionally at the person’s demise. Then there’s a forty minute bonus feature where other filmic personalities like Stanley Kwan, Aki Kurasmaki, Claire Denis, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien speak of Ozu. It’s called Talking with Ozu. The insert has an essay by David Bordwell, author of Ozu And The Poetics of Cinema.

  Tokyo Story is a great film, all the way around, but it was ignored for many years until it was re-released in New York in 1972, with the publication of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style In Film. Twenty years later, in the 1992 Sight And Sound film critics poll, Tokyo Story was ranked as one of the ten greatest films ever made. In 2002 it repeated that feat. It is not a film that provides easy answers, and it lacks all the phony sentimentality and contrivances Hollywood films wallow in. It is not melodramatic in the least. When Shige, as example, bursts out in tears, when Koichi says their mother has not long to live, it is not Ozu’s melodrama, but the character’s own, and there is a huge difference in recognizing that. That the film so perfectly captured all the Japanese conventions of the era, yet still resonates with worldwide audiences, is the mark of a great work of art, and a testament to the great circularly narrative screenplay by Ozu and Kôgo Noda, which deftly interweaves symbolism, such as train tracks and laundry, while capturing the way real people talk and react. Never is there a forced moment nor false reaction. The character building is superb, and the very relaxed and slow pace of the film shows what such a style can do. The film’s score, by Kojun Saito is a tad over the top, at times, but understated far more often than not.

  If only Criterion had done their usual good job with this film the experience would have been perfect. But, don’t let that deter any lover of great cinema from basking in one of the great films of all time. Tokyo Story makes its own leisurely way, but where it heads to is where all art desires to be.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]


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