Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story is a 1953 film directed by Yasujirō Ozu and starring Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, and Setsuko Hara. Often listed among the greatest films ever made, with four out of four stars from Roger Ebert and high ratings from Rotten Tomatoes (100%), IMDb and elsewhere, it's widely regarded as Ozu's masterpiece. Few films are able to draw out emotions as subtly as this one does.

It starts with a view of a river on which a boat is slowly (the pace of the entire film) making its way through the shot. This is the town of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture, eight years after the war has ended, and near the home of Shūkichi Hirayama (Ryū) and his wife Tomi Hirayama (Chieko)—an elderly couple and the film's main characters. The boat represents the transience of life, a major (wabi-sabi) theme of the story and one found often in Japanese art. The Hirayamas are preparing for a trip to Tokyo, where their daughter and one of their sons reside. Another son has presumably died in the war, as he never returned from it, and one other son lives in Osaka, where the Hirayamas stop for a brief visit en route to Tokyo by train.

In Tokyo, the children, busy with their jobs and families, seem to view their visiting parents as a nuisance and send them off to the resort town of Atami after realizing they have little time to spend with them. Their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Hara), whose husband was the Hirayama son who went missing in the war, is unlike the Hirayamas' three living children. She's compassionate and kind, and although there are hints she's suffering and lonely, her unselfishness doesn't let these emotions show through clearly. Hara's performance is excellent, and we're drawn to the warmhearted character she plays. The film is very touching, and the scene in which Shūkichi Hirayama gives Noriko a timepiece, a symbol of the passing of time and a reminder that she cannot always dwell in the past, was executed to dramatic perfection, and also significant considering the film was released fairly soon after the war.

I remember watching Steven Spielberg discuss Ozu in a documentary. He talked about Ozu breaking the 180-degree rule, which keeps the actors on one side of an invisible line or axis. Ozu shot from all around, and also had the actors speak directly at the camera, putting us in the position of a character in several instances. Also, the camera never pans or follows its subjects in this film, it's always still, and Ozu shot many scenes from a low position, from about the height where one's head would be if they were sitting on a tatami mat floor. All of this helps to create an intimacy between the audience and the characters. When it ends, you feel close to and have empathy for them, at levels deeper than what most other films have been able to accomplish.

I've heard that Ozu films focus on the individual, whereas Akira Kurosawa's work tends to revolve around society as a whole. But while Tokyo Story takes a close look at each individual character, the film also addresses social change, specifically the passing of generations and the eroding practice of filial piety, as represented by the selfishness of the three children and the total lack of respect from the grandchildren, and perhaps symbolized by Tokyo itself, a modern, fast-paced city where there is little time to spend looking at the past, respecting it duly, or following many of its traditional ways.

Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, and Setsuko Hara in Tokyo Story

Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara in Tokyo Story

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