Yasujiro Ozu’s gentle exploration of family dynamics, loss, and generational divides sees a frail, elderly couple travel from Onomichi to Tokyo and back home again, where tragedy awaits them. They are visiting their grownup children, for whom the parents are a burden. Ozu conjures a poignant sense of winding-down before the end of life and the sedate pace at which the pair move, speak, and react foreshadow that this will be their last such trip. Their children, caught up in their own lives and work, have no comparable sense of the preciousness of time.
Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) arrive in Tokyo and, although their son Koichi (So Yamamura) and daughter Shige (Haruka Sugimura) are ostensibly welcoming, they show them little real warmth and are far from generous with their time. Shige, with her tight insincere smile and begrudging hospitality is the most overtly insensitive, causing the father to remark, “Shige used to be a much nicer person before”. Koichi, now a local doctor, is coldly courteous but secretly mean with money and just as eager as Shige to offload them and thus the two conspire accordingly.
A visit to a spa in Atami — arranged by the self-interested Shige and Koichi — turns out to be less a relaxing getaway and more a hive of youthful late-night activity. The exhausted Shukichi and Tomi are forced to return to Tokyo unexpectedly, where they find themselves unwelcome and briefly without a host family. They thoughtfully separate, so as not to inconvenience those they call on.
Past foibles have been dulled by age and, perhaps, a growing sense of co-dependence. They bicker, but only in a very lackadaisical way and, despite the fact that Shukichi is revealed as a former heavy drinker, a final drunken hoorah with old friends is played for comedy; especially when Shukichi and a friend turn up pickled at Shige’s — to her considerable annoyance — and end up sleeping it off in a couple of her salon chairs.
The most touching scenes are those between the elderly couple and Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their son Shoji who, it transpires, was neither a good son nor husband. She has been left to support herself and is a devoted, kind daughter-in-law, who actually seems to enjoy the time she spends with her in-laws. Despite her cheerful, stoic demeanour, they recognise the tragedy in her situation and, through displays of sympathy, concern and encouragement for her to remarry, they eventually unearth her true feelings of loneliness and despair. Delicately portrayed and played by all concerned, these sequences in particular have tremendous power. When Noriko’s broad, generous smile gives way to long-suppressed tears it is utterly heartbreaking.
Ozu is a master of the Japanese domestic environment. His direction is unshowy yet highly distinctive; he favours static shots which encourage focus on the actors and low-angle compositions, with the camera almost seated amongst his characters as an observing equal. He cultivates an atmosphere of polite intimacy and minimal drama in which he seeks and succeeds in drawing-out basic human truths. His is not the cinema of spectacle but of subtlety. Tokyo Story is resonant, insightful and superbly performed and directed. It is a justly recognised classic.
The DVD edition comes with Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), a rarely seen early Ozu feature, which in many ways can be seen as a precursor to the superior Tokyo Story, thus making it an interesting comparison piece. Unlike the fairly mint main feature, it has suffered the ravages of time — particularly with regards the quality of its sound — but is otherwise a welcome addition. It concerns a family that, at the start of the picture, come together for a family portrait in celebration of the matriarch’s 61st birthday.
Immediately after the event, her husband Shintaro is taken seriously ill and dies. The children arrange to have the family home and its more valuable contents auctioned to pay off the father’s debts, leaving their mother and the remaining unmarried daughter, Setsuko, hard up, homeless and reliant on the pity of family members, who are less than forthcoming with their assistance.
A further inclusion is a 21-page illustrated booklet, which brings together fascinating essays by John Gillett, Tony Rayns and Joan Mellen on Tokyo Story, Ozu and a comparison of the two featured films respectively.