Sight & Sound-Off: #3 – ‘Tokyo Story’ and ‘Citizen Kane’

Call it bigotry or some manner of predetermined prejudice, but cinema seems to steer clear of the elderly. No, old people appear in many movies, their recognition often reduced to inappropriate humor, dramatis catalyst, or handkerchief fodder. In fact, film fails the oldster so frequently that when a movie comes along which celebrates or deconstructions such maturity — Cocoon, Away from Her, Michael Haneke’s Amour — we tend to go overboard with our praise. The problem, of course, is that the current cinephile demographic, a contingency made up of online know-it-alls, wannabe journalists, and stuck-in-the-mud stalwarts, don’t support stories that center on the aged. Instead, they tend to bray with the herd, harrumphing over the constant bows to youth while championing same in reviews and mainstream retrospect.

So it’s interesting that as we move toward the top of the Sight & Sound‘s Best Films list for 2012 (both the general and the directors’ selections), we find two films at number three that focus almost exclusively on the end of life. In the perennial pick for Greatest of All Time — Citizen Kane — we watch as a dying man utters some mysterious last words. The rest of the film is a quasi-mystery remade as part character study, part epic example of the American dream in disarray. Charles Foster Kane, our William Randolph Hearst substitute, grows from a boy of privilege to a mighty newspaperman. Along the way, he learns that money doesn’t solve problems, that friendship can’t be finagled or bought, and that love comes quickly and exits just as quietly. In between, power and corruption lead to loneliness. By the finale, our elderly icon is wandering his massive mansion, depressed and defeated.

In Yasujirō Ozu’s equally celebrated Tokyo Story, we watch as an old couple try and connect with their independent children as the possibility of mortality hangs heavy over the family. Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama are simple country folk, used to the agrarian life their offspring clearly fled from. Wanting to see them one last time (though we don’t know this, initially), they travel to Tokyo and play catch-up. Of course, their married pediatrician son has no time for them, and the daughter that owns a bustling beauty salon is equally aloof. Only their daughter-in-law Niroko (the widow of their boy who died in the War) shows any compassion. She bonds with the duo because, like them, she is lost and lonely. As events travel toward an inevitable tragedy, it’s this non-blood related relative who illustrates the true value in age. As she absorbs the wisdom and warnings that Shukichi and Tomi offer, there is hope beyond her current spouse-less status.

In general, Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story are studies in contrasts and approaches. The former finds an energy in the newsreel like overview of the future tycoon’s humble beginnings. From there, everything grows bigger, broader, and more bombastic. By the time Kane is seen shambling around his elephantine estate, the unkempt grounds already looking like an unmarked grave, he’s reached the dizziest heights while harboring nothing but anger and melancholy. He’s mislaid his links to the world, his wives have left him in abject disgust, and his former pals and business partners scoff at his selfish rise to prominence. He’s the classic example of the man who has everything and yet truly has nothing. As a director, star Orson Welles consistently amps up the power, moving his motion picture personalities toward an inevitable collision with reality that inspires both awe and an awkward sense of interpersonal justice.

Ozu is far more languid with his approach. In fact, his pacing and cinematic style could be considered in direct conflict with Welles’ way. Things move at a slow, deliberate clip. The camera stays locked most of the time, playing silent observer vs. stylistic showboater. For the famed filmmaker, it’s the people who populate his stories that require the most attention, not the flash around the corners of the frame. With his simple tale, Ozu uncovers a true universal – that in all situations, parents and children drift apart…perhaps not as radically here, but definitely as inherent to the concept of aging. Tokyo Story is not just a movie about old people growing older. It’s also a reflection of how the young begin to battle their own inevitable maturity.

Throughout, the filmmaker finds little moments which illustrate his theory. Since we are dealing with the Japanese culture in the ’50s, we have to expect a bit of emotional distance. Equally important is the ongoing cloud of the recent War, which literally destroyed much of the country’s internal and external dignity. The Hirayama children want to forget the past and forge a new future sans the influence of their “out of touch” parents. The older adults, on the other hand, want a mere connection, a chance to discover the happiness of their history, a time before conflict and battle, a place where their small charges were happy and homebound. For the Hirayama’s it’s their Rosebud. It’s their link to what’s been lost, toward a simpler, sensible time. The trip would hopefully rekindle that. When it doesn’t the need to go on fades as well.

In fact, both Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story symbolize the essence of years misplaced. They argue that the wistful memories of the past only propagate disappointment in the present. There’s no future here. All the main characters are on their very last legs. Instead, we witness the evitable decline into depression and inferiority. No matter how hard they try. No matter what they think will come of their continuing, Charles Foster Kane and Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama are determined to make one last stand – emotionally, personally, and prophetically. For the former, it’s reconnecting with the mother who gave him up, the father who was too ineffectual to care, and the simple childhood that was stripped from him. For the latter, it’s the legitimacy of their role as parents. It’s their part in their offspring’s present life. For both, age has become a burden, a weapon others can use to diminish their value… sort of like how cinema struggles to do these aging individuals justice. Luckily, Welles and Ozu knew.