Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953)

“Honour your parents while they are still alive”/”You cannot serve your parents when they are in the grave.”

We go back. Back to the Sight and Sound Top 10 Films of All-Time. The list that is infamous as Citizen Kane always comes up top. The list that claims that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s finest film and The Searchers is the best Western piece of filmmaking. Yes, we agree it is all opinion – but it is opinion of those in the film criticism industry. Ozu’s Tokyo Story is one of those films. It has appeared in the aforementioned Top 10 list twice and is regarded as Ozu’s masterpiece. Though, in fairness, I haven’t seen any other Ozu films.

From Hollywood to Tokyo
I remember when I first comitted to researching and exploring cinema in more depth, that Hollywood looks at the 50’s as a bit of a bad-time. Hollywood trotted out Musicals and Epics primarily – in reality the fifties not only showed us Hitchcock at his best (Vertigo in 1957) but also saw Kurosawa rise up in the East with Seven Samurai appearing the same year. Tokyo Story appeared in 1953 too – so it appears that cinema, in terms of longevity, seemed to churn out many important films. I think Hollywood was the problem – not cinema itself. Maybe during these dull-days of Summer blockbuster, we should turn our heads towards international cinema – as in the fifties, it was international cinema that was making waves.
I wrote, only recently, about Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and noted how it became a huge influence for Ozu when he made Tokyo Story. At the time I wrote that statement, though I knew this to be the case, I had not seen Tokyo Story to know exactly what was influential. Indeed, Tokyo Story presents, initially, the visit two aging parents have to Tokyo when they visit their children (unlike Make Way for Tomorrow whereby the film begins through news that the parents are forced to be separated due to the recession). The parents have many children – their youngest daughter Kyoko housesits for the parents when they visit Tokyo. Koichi and Shige are the children who reside in Tokyo and both find it too difficult to entertain their parents – unlike the widow daughter-in-law Noriko, who manages to take them on a sightseeing tour of Tokyo and even gives Mum a back rub.
Mondrian Meets Ozu

Having mentioned Kandinsky when discussing Fantasia, (and as an Art teacher) I do believe it is incredibly important to try and incorporate Fine Art and Contemporary Art with Cinema. This week, I bring you Piet Mondrian. His iconic images of vertical and horizontal lines have been imitated many times since their creation in the early 20th Century. Throughout Tokyo Story we see vertical and horizontal lines in many pieces of architecture – though the lack of colour negates any clear correlation.

It nevertheless shows a certain consistency in composition in Ozu’s film – the controlled and specific lines give the impression of precision and perfection. This provides an interesting contrast to the expectations and attitudes of the parents and children too.
Industry Against Tradition
Another interesting contrast is the use of establishing shots. Usually these shots would show the area a sequence takes place but there is something at odds with these shots in Tokyo Story. They often consisted of two shots – one showing the traditional Japanese architecture and then cutting away to an industrial building or refinery. This reminds you of the bigger consequences of the future that is at hand – the lack of importance of the family at odds with the capitalist and business focus of others. The children are often ‘too busy’ to be with their parents – whether it be tending to the beauty salon or on an immediate call-out for a pateint. Jobs is what gets in the way of these family members to merely make time for their own parents.

The daughter-in-law, who has lost her husband, appears to be the most humble, kind and considerate – and yet Noriko still blames herself. She claims she is selfish because she doesn’t think about her deceased husband enough (whilst we have never heard the other family members mention him even once). The perspective that she thinks about others so much that, the one time she lapses, is apprently a horrendous thing puts things into perspective. Maybe there is hope yet. Then again, the Grandchildren are exceptionally problematic – insulting their Grandparents at one point and becoming exceptionally rude to their own parents.
In one shocking exchange, we see the Daughter almost tell her Father off for merely drinking an alcoholic drink following the death of his wife. Shige is so patronising and, rather than considerately thinking about the heartbreak he may feel, she is casting his mind back to a history he had many years prior and the one instance that inconvenienced her in Tokyo. And yet she has the audacity to assume that her parents enjoyed their stay in Tokyo.
There is a touching moment whereby the youngest son, Keizo, realises he didn’t do a great job as a son – but this fits nicely with the expectation he places on himself running parrallel with the expectations the parents had of their children – maybe we simply cannot live up to the expectations of others. Especially as family members see every side of you: the good and the bad.
Best Film Ever?

Make Way For Tomorrow seems to explore old age and the passing of time – and tje selfishness of children as they get older. Tokyo Story goes further and explores the ramifications and expectations of parents on their children and how it is possible that these expectations are too high – even lying to impress other friends in some cases. Tokyo Story incorporates the parrallel between industry and its affect on the family. Tokyo Story shows the actual consequence of actions – the regret you cannot change if have not honoured your family and parents while they are alive. There is even a hint at the political problems within Japan as parents discuss the loss of their children during the war.
People do say it is the ‘Best Film Ever’. And the slow-pacing and very calm and patient characters seems at odds with what many people consider their favourite films now. Rotten Tomatoes has the highest critical rating for the film, Paul Schraeder rates it ‘gold’ and John Walker (former editor of the Halliwell’s Film Guide) placed Tokyo Story at the top spot of his Best 1000 Films Ever Made. The list goes on – but you have to ask yourself why? An incredible documentary presented by Barry Norman on the UK Citizen Kane DVD fills in the blanks as to why Citizen Kane often tops the polls (and, once you watch it, you do realise that it deserves the coveted spot) but Tokyo Story appears to be much more inaccessible – I think that on multiple viewings it gets better and, already, I know the story will stick with me in the future.
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