Director: Yasujiro Ozu
After Citizen Kane and Vertigo Tokyo Story is the fourth greatest film of all time, according to the 2022 Sight and Sound poll. It was third in 2012, and fifth in 2002. The plot is simplicity itself: an aged mother and father (68 is seen as a venerable age) from western Japan visit their grown up children in Tokyo for the first time. Neighbourhood doctor Koichi and beauty salon owner Shigi both regard the parents visit as an interruption to their busy lives with their own children and jobs. Noriko, the widowed wife of another son posted missing in WW2, is far more selfless with time and trouble. An effort to pack the parents off to a seaside resort in the guise of treating them is a complete failure, and the parents are practically hurried out the door back home.
The first half of the film sets out an entry point as a generational comedy, but the story pivots on two parallel scenes resulting from the parents return from the resort. The father hooks up with some former colleagues, and they get steaming drunk in a geisha bar, proclaiming their disappointment with their offspring. Their late night gatecrashing of the beauty salon is the broadest comic moment of the film. Intercut with this is a heart-rending scene between the mother-in-law and Noriko, in which Noriko initially resists the promptings of the mother to marry again by insisting her life is happy, only to end up unable to keep her loneliness from her mother-in-law. I cannot tell you how brilliant this sequence is, placed far enough in for us to know and care enough about the characters, and making both scenes far more affecting than if they had been placed one after the other.
From these moments on the story becomes more sombre, as the mother is taken seriously ill on the train home and the siblings have to make the journey to their childhood home.
This is not a film about politics, like Jean Dielemann, or full of the visual tricks and flair of Kane or Vertigo. It’s about people, in particular families and the roles and relationships that accumulate over the decades. Just as the plot starts with small scenes – arrivals, getting ready for bed, a walk that is cancelled, and then works up to the bigger set pieces that dominate the final third of the film, so Ozu starts with the small truths and works up to the bigger ones. The early scenes explore the generation gap, the country relatives in the big city, and the bickering that takes place between all siblings. By the end of the film the fates of Noriko, and of the youngest daughter who still lives at home are exposed in heart-rending detail.
Ozu offers no easy divisions into right and wrong, good or bad. The parents are exasperating – the father’s gatecrashing of his daughter’s house in the middle of the night brilliantly captures how annoying the drunk are to the sober. The brassy eldest daughter berates her husband for buying cakes that are too good for her parents – then eats them herself. There are a hundred little moments of domestic detail and family moments that Ozu captures with absolute clarity, and between them these add up to a completely convincing portrait not just of a family’s life – but of all families.
Ozu observes all this with a fixed camera usually at the height of a seated observer. Characters walk in and out of shot as if the viewer is sat in a corner – another member of the family if you were. Between the interiors there are wonderful transitions of timeless Japan – city roofs, canals and trees, set against symbols of modernity like ships, trams and trains. It’s not the quickest paced film, and at the start introducing two parents and two married sets of siblings can occasionally be confusing; but at the end the place this film gets to is deeply human and profound.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Thinking about people, and what makes them tick.