Is life disappointing?
What director Yasujiro Ozu referred as his most “melodramatic” picture seems at first, from a Western viewpoint, to lack the qualities we associate with that sort of narrative. His Tokyo Story is his most-acclaimed classic, though, and this naturally indicates a less rigid adherence to that particular Ozu style. His way of framing dialogues with characters speaking directly into the camera, his long sequences with characters kneeling in horizontal arrangements captured by low camera angles, his lack of dramatic musical cues, his placement of exterior establishing shots to signal ellipses in time; all these traits have long distinguished Ozu as not just one of the great directors but one of the inimitable stylists, whose family dramas unfold in a visual grammar distinctly separate and sometimes opposed to the classical Hollywood structure.
And so Tokyo Story contains all of these traits, yet remains an open picture. Its journey structure takes the central couple Shukishi and Tomi to the titular city and to the separate homes of their living children, who in finding their presence more an inconvenience than a welcome visit send them to stay in a spa, then later give Shukishi cause to reconnect with old friends at a bar for a long night with many glasses of sake. Ozu’s exteriors here not only signal the passage of days or hours, but also give the grandparents space to breathe and to take in their new place in the world. Many of Tokyo Story’s most moving images are simple shots of Shukishi on rooftops, contemplating nature with his distinctive, sad smile.
Shukishi’s smile is the smile of actor Chishu Ryu, a favorite of Ozu’s whom audiences would, upon the film’s release, recognize from his starring role in many films including There Was a Father, a triptych narrative which aged Ryu from a young father to an old man on his deathbed. Ryu’s good looks and eternally beaming, amiable disposition translated well to the aging makeup he wore so often for Ozu; in Tokyo Story, his is the central perspective, as viewers familiar with the Ozu catalogue and even newcomers can see through the years in his smile, and glimpse the young man now hunched and smiling at his impudent grandchildren.
While his wife Tomi hardly lacks for development, the picture’s main female perspective remains that of Noriko, the couple’s widowed daughter-in-law who alone treats them with dutiful attention, kindness and genuine love. Though not a blood relation, she seems more like one than any of the three children they visit. As played by actress Setsuko Hara, she wears a perpetual smile much like the good-natured Shukishi and Tomi, with none of the forced pleasantries of Koichi, Shige, or Keizo.
But what is at the root of her pleasantness, her eagerness to serve and to fill the role of good daughter that the brusque, unsentimental Shige has forsaken? The climactic and memorable (intentionally so, as the film pretty much stops dead to accommodate it) exchange sees the tearful, resentful youngest daughter Kyoko venting to Noriko in the aftermath of her siblings’ departure just after Tomi’s funeral, the ultimate demonstration of the impassable emotional distance between generations. Noriko, with that ever-comforting smile, acknowledges that such a separation is inevitable.
Kyoko, with hate and sorrow clashing on her face: “Isn’t life disappointing?” Noriko, ever gentle, ever smiling: “Yes, it is.”
The booklet included with Criterion’s re-release of Tokyo Story features an essential essay by critic and scholar David Bordwell that succinctly points out the ruptures in the film’s serene, placid surface: Shige’s unexpected burst of emotion at her mother’s death, the hints at Shukichi’s alcoholic past after his night out, and the crucial conversation in which Noriko skirts the truth of her difficult relationship with her late husband. “You must have suffered,” Tomi insists, as the young widow demurs, smiling as always.
Multiple viewings reveal Ozu’s classic as not simply an emotionally overwhelming portrait of parental piety and suffering, but a sustained family drama in which the conflicts are never allowed fully to surface. As Shukichi happily allows his children, one by one, to make excuses and return to their homes the evening of the funeral, his saintliness begins to look more like passive aggression.
This dynamic is what keeps the film’s central exchange from being a blunt thesis statement. The question is not whether life does, ultimately, disappoint, so much as whether Shukichi’s breakdown in the closing shots is a symptom of this inevitable disappointment or a circumstance he’s brought on himself. Why must Shukichi and Tomi simply nod and smile at their bratty, impudent grandchildren? Their pleasantness seems less like a necessary social grace in their children’s home than it does an active choice to eliminate conflict from their relationships.
Of course, in doing so, they have also eliminated a kind of honesty, which their mildly resentful children seem all too happy to avoid. No generation has failed to disappoint the other; both have closed their doors on respect and connection long ago.
It is perhaps because Shukichi has come so close to the pain caused by his past and his cowardly method of bandaging old wounds that he makes his final plea to Noriko to remarry, to form an honest bond with another and forgo the path on which he’s isolated himself. Is life disappointing? How can it be, if one takes punishment and lasting loneliness for granted? Far from the tragic film that bludgeons one with sadness to drive out tears, Tokyo Story remains that rare breed of melodrama; one that tries, ever so delicately, to cushion the blow.
The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray update of Tokyo Story fully shoulders the burden of releasing a classic, but has thankfully chosen not to overload the disc with extras. Three wholly satisfying, extended supplements are included: the expansive “I Lived, But…”, which intersperses footage from Ozu’s filmography into a comprehensive study of his life and work over two hours; “Talking with Ozu”, a feature which forgoes academic or historical study of the filmmaker to focus on individual directors including Wim Wenders, Claire Denis and Stanley Kwan in a series of emotional monologues about their personal experiences with his films; finally, a deserved emphasis on Ryu’s contribution to Ozu’s legacy with a concentrated short documentary on his career, interspersed with lovingly shot interview footage of an elderly Ryu revisiting old sets and reminiscing on various subjects including his many transformations into older characters. The commentary by scholar and editor David Desser situates individual scenes both within Ozu’s personal concerns and stylistic traits as well as a historical context.
This is essential purchase for admirers of Yasujiro Ozu.