How can a film be so simplistic but also so elegant? This is the question you ask yourself after watching director Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Everything about this nuanced Japanese film seems so natural: the acting, the cinematography, and the story. For Ozu there is no climatic conclusion—only a slight transition to the next stage, whatever that may be (the audience is left to decide). Whenever I watch Ozu’s work I feel as though I have spent a few hours maneuvering along the philosophical realm of his (and my) mind. As such, I have never been disappointed by any of his movies—as a matter of fact, I have found most of them quite delightful (if not slightly depressing, too).
The story is about an elderly couple’s (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) decision to take a trip to Tokyo to visit their far from home adult children. They obviously have a good relationship with their youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who still lives at home, so you expect this will be the case with their other three children. Yet, once they arrive in Tokyo and start being shuffled from one place to the next you realize, as they do, that their adult children are too busy with their own lives to truly embrace the fact that this might be the last time they see their parents alive.
Their oldest son, Koichi (So Yamamura), is a doctor who obviously doesn’t spend much time with his wife and two sons. His oldest son is disrespectful and outright rude to both his parents—a sure sign that something is amiss regarding filial piety (a tenet of Confucianism). While Koichi may seem preoccupied with his patients, at least he is respectful towards his parents, which is more than I can say about their oldest daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimura). Confucius would have had a stroke if he heard some of the things Shige says to her parents. Plus, she’s exceedingly cheap—always worrying about how much their visit it costing her.
I expect the only true student of Confucianism that they visit is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara). In Confucianism there is something called Ren. In this a person attempts to achieve a peaceful existence by being altruistic, which in turn, leaves everyone they encounter with a good feeling. Noriko exudes Ren, and you adore her for it. As a single woman, she has the least amount of money and comfort of the three children the couple visit. Yet, she is more than happy to take time off work and spend time and money on them. For her it is an honor to be in their presence—something that cannot be said of Koichi and Shige.
On their way back home they briefly visit their youngest son, Keizo (Shiro Osaka), when the mother becomes ill. Keizo is fond of saying, “No one can serve their parents beyond the grave,” but he, like his other siblings, is not an adherent of Confucianism. When it become clear that their mother is going to die it appears that even this is an inconvenience to her children. Again, it is Noriko who is asked to make sacrifices so that the others can carry on with their own lives. The pivotal moment in the film comes when Kyoko is so outraged by her sister and brothers behavior that she tells Noriko how disgusted she is. In a calm, peaceful manner Noriko explains the bitter truths of life. Upon these revelations, Kyoko asks, “Isn’t life disappointing?” Noriko’s simple answer, “Yes, it is.” Ah, Ozu, I love you!
Cinematographer Atsuta Yuharu didn’t really have to work very hard on setting up complicated camera shots. Heck, there was only one tracking shot in the entire film. Ozu was a fan of a low, static camera. His tatami shot style found the camera at a very low height (often below his characters’ eye levels), usually about one or two feet off the ground. He wanted the viewer to feel as though they were in the middle of his scenes, which created an intimate relationship between the viewer and the story. This is probably why his films seem so personal.
As for the acting, with any Ozu film it must be naturalistic. There is no place for histrionics in an Ozu story. While I despised her character, Haruko Sugimura deserves to be recognized for playing Shige so well. She delivers her lines with both malice and obliviousness, and does a fine job of employing facial expressions. Of course, the star of the picture is Setsuko Hara. Ozu had a habit of using the some stock actors, and Hara was a particular favorite. While she was noted for her flawless beauty, it was her ability to touch the hearts of viewers with her light and refined acting style that most endeared her to moviegoers.
Overall, I enjoyed Tokyo Story. Ozu and I both enjoy philosophizing on the effects society has on the familial unit. Still, the film is a tad too long and drags in a few places. Nonetheless, this is an excellent representation of the artistic style and vision of one of the greatest directors in Japanese cinema.