care of your parents while they are alive. You cannot help them
from beyond the grave.” –Japanese proverb
us not try to interpret, as many people have throughout the years,
Tokyo Story as a film more complex than it really it.
How many reviews have I read insisting on its deeply rooted social
commentary on post-war Japanese society (a label that often gets
slapped on Kurosawa’s Ikiru
as well), or a heavily themed parable about parental neglect?
Too many, in pages and pages of interpretation that understand
the notes but not the soul of Yasurjiro Ozu.
grant that both of these themes might tie into Tokyo Story,
but if you truly pay attention to writer/director Yasujiro Ozu’s
straightforward tale of an elderly couple’s visit with their
children in Tokyo, often cited as one of the ten greatest films
of all time, you will realize that you have to read pretty deeply
to find any statements so glaringly complex. This film is exactly
what it appears to be on its surface: A simple, elegantly-made
picture of an elderly couple re-examining their accomplishments
and their failures as they use their grown children as mirrors
for themselves. It seemingly has no message or punch line deeper
than the revelation that sometimes, life is simply life, and there
is no punch line.
me, the scene that speaks the most volume is when the two aging
parents, Shukichi and Tomi (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama,
respectively), stand atop a railing overlooking all of Tokyo,
and their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) points
over unseen buildings, revealing where all of the couple’s
various children live throughout the city. As she points, the
camera rests behind them, revealing only their backsides, so we
do not see the buildings where the children live. But we do see
the towering skyscrapers of the city beyond them, and we realize
that whether or not we see where Noriko is pointing doesn’t
matter: The children are as far away as those skyscrapers themselves.
They are emotionally detached, annoyed at their visiting parents’
company, and desperate to dump them on Noriko, who loves them
dearly. It is appropriate, then, that Noriko is the only one we
can see—she is the only one really close to them.
is as complex as this story gets. The film follows Shukichi and
Tomi’s travels about Tokyo as they visit various children
and grandchildren, who smile and pretend to be happy to see them.
Ozu parallels these scenes with the desperate children wondering
how much longer the parents plan to stay and how much money it
will cost them to put them up. Their parents are not beloved guests,
but liabilities. Shukichi and Tomi seem to be aware of this, but
they are nevertheless content with the opportunity to see their
children under any circumstances.
would be tempting to think that their children are cold and even
bad, but against all odds, they are responsible people with families
of their own, and there are scenes that reveal that at least Shukichi
was not a great father himself—he drank too much when he
was young, and it is now too affable when he is old. You reap
what you sew. Everyone in the film, at least, is pleasant enough,
if emotionally detached from one another. That Noriko’s
husband was an alcoholic before he died (he was killed in the
war) indicates that he picked up some of his father’s bad
habits. All the same, no one seems bitter about their questionable
childhood—they’re too busy; besides, cinematic bitterness
is better reserved for more complex, melodramatic exercises than
Tokyo Story, which is content with capturing how such
a detached family would probably interact in reality.
proverb keeps popping up periodically throughout the film—“Take
care of your parents while they are alive. You cannot help them
from beyond the grave”—but it is not something that
occurs to any of the children save Noriko before it is too late.
The final act of the film concerns the death of one of the parents.
Even then, the proverb doesn’t seem to hover over the children
for very long, or the remaining parent for that matter, who accepts
the death with quiet, withdrawn restrain.
Ozu think that the neglect of what is seemingly such a universal
idea of love and “honoring thy father and mother”
is sad and unfortunate? Maybe, yet the film does not seek out
to directly challenge or defend this statement. It merely points
out that Shukichi and Tomi’s children haven’t thought
about it much, and that perhaps most children do not. But it’s
not a tragedy—it’s simply life, and life, as Noriko
eventually points out, “is disappointing.” Perhaps
Ozu is arguing that only when you strip away idealisms and recognize
the disappointment in life can you truly begin to find contentment—a
theory reinforced by a powerful closing scene when the remaining
parent nonchalantly thanks Noriko for loving the elderly couple
more than their children ever cared to. For the parent, this statement
is less of a regret and more of a mellow observation.
emotional detachment reminds me of Akira Kurosawa’s heart-wrenching
scene in Ikiru
in which the aging hero, realizing that he has stomach cancer,
sadly sings, “Life is Brief.” I make the comparison
because Tokyo Story has the opposite effect on our emotions,
and it takes the message of Kurosawa’s film to the next
level: For the remaining parent and the children, the death is
certainly a confirmation that “life is brief.” But
for them, life also goes on, and after a few brief tears, they
return to their lives. If Ikiru’s hero laments
that he never accomplished anything in life except for a dead-beat
son, the parents of Tokyo Story seem to recognize that
sometimes, dead-beat but successful children are enough to die
Ozu is considered one of the greatest directors in the cinema,
and Tokyo Story is probably the best example of his simple
storytelling method that works so effectively to convey life and,
more specifically, the human soul. If Akiru Kurosawa is the Martin
Scorsese of Japanese cinema, utilizing stark, startling images
and full-throttled acting to paint vibrant pictures about the
weathering of the human heart, then Ozu is the Robert Altman.
I think it is completely fair to compare Tokyo Story
specifically with Altman’s Nashville because they
are accomplishing the same thing: Both films use unspectacular
filming techniques and follow around realistic characters, allowing
their interactions and experiences to speak for themselves and
create their own themes and ideas.
Kurosawa’s work was generally embraced by the international
world, Ozu’s was often labeled “too Japanese”
for the rest of the world to comprehend—they were slow,
quiet, meditative, and seemingly uneventful. I don’t know
that the world’s reaction was to Nashville, but
it couldn’t have been much different than reactions to Tokyo
Story. In both films, there are no gripping moments of cinematic
drama or standout performances of Shakespearian proportions; rather,
they simply exhibit people walking about in their everyday lives
and reveal the choices that they make hour to hour. Unquestionably,
Nashville remains an invaluable piece of filmmaking:
By capturing a day in the life of a few Americans, Altman captured
the heart of America. Ozu has done the same here with the heart
of Japan in Tokyo Story. In its simplicity, the film
is breathtakingly beautiful and profound.
Chishu Ryu: Shukichi
Chieko Higashiyama: Tomi
Setsuko Hara: Noriko
Kyoto Kagawa: Kyoko
A film by Shochiku Films Ltd.
Written and directed by Yasurjiro Ozu. No M.P.A.A. rating, but
contains no questionable material. Running time: 134 minutes.
Original Japanese theatrical release date: November 3, 1953. Japanese
with English subtitles.