Editor’s Notes: Tokyo Story is out on Dual-Format Blu-ray/DVD today. Special Features include: I Lived, But . . . a 2-hour documentary from 1953 about Ozu’s life and career, Talking with Ozu, a forty-minute tribute to the director from 1993, and A booklet featuring an essay by critic David Bordwell.
The burden of other people’s expectations can loom large and ominous when writing about an iconic film such as Tokyo Story as a work so integral to the film canon comes with immense personal attachments. Trying to honor a diverse readership’s deeply personal feelings about such a film is both nerve-wracking and futile. The only thing I can do is interpret the film through my own rose-tinted glasses and hope that my interpretation and emotional response to the film is defined with enough clarity to offer a personal perspective forged by my own unique set of life experiences. Art is not subject to one vantage or one objective interpretation as once it is birthed into the world lives in a constant state of flux and images and attitudes become reinterpreted through new sets of cultural parameters, taboos, and the comfortable deceit of hindsight. This review simply offers one more interpretation of the film. It may not be your interpretation, but the wonderful thing about art is that it has room to accommodate everyone’s subjective viewpoints.
Tokyo Story comes from the latter years of Yasujiro Ozu’s illustrious and diverse career and shows a master comfortable enough in his own style to pare down every image to its most impactful configuration.
Tokyo Story comes from the latter years of Yasujiro Ozu’s illustrious and diverse career and shows a master comfortable enough in his own style to pare down every image to its most impactful configuration. Superfluity isn’t something that abounds through Ozu’s oeuvre, but by this stage of the game Ozu had his own cinematic language that he could effortlessly use to create concise imagery that conveyed volumes without the use of camera motion, odd angles, expressionistic shallow focus photography, unusual subjectivity of vantage points, or even fluid frame transition as he possesses the unparalleled ability to establish volumes of context with three seven-second shots placed side-by-side. This erudite workman’s ethic doesn’t just define Ozu’s visual language but narrative and dramatic structure as well. One could easily outline the plot of Tokyo Story on a napkin, and actors work harder toward suppressing emotion than expressing it outright, as faces like that of Chishu Ryu’s Shukishi Hirayama betray raging undercurrents of emotion behind practiced outward stoicism.
These techniques are representative of a master whose toolkit has been stripped of all but the most necessary tools, but the visual compositions are masterworks of domestic neoplasticism that show us the living spaces of middle-class Tokyo with the angular complexity of a Piet Mondrian painting. People occupy these oppressive spaces like prisoners of middle-class domesticity, trapped in their positions and ways of thinking by imperceptible forces. Doorways, windowpanes, and other domiciliary objects create angular compositions of indoor settings rife with incidental conflict while outdoor shots show smokestacks and power lines that bastardize the skyline and slice into its timeless flesh with the grisly accoutrements of hasty progress. Ozu’s signature “tatami shot” places the camera at the eye level of a child or that of the adults he is capturing as they sit on the floor in the conventional seiza position, its deep focus 50mm lens mimicking the limitations of the human eye and making monuments of the mundane. Empty sake bottles in the hallway become as monumental in stature as the light-houses that permeate Ozu’s filmography when filmed using his signature technique. There are no expendable images or gratuitous displays of empty style Tokyo Story, so one must remember to give special attention to the intricate details in every deep focus frame and their multifaceted dimensions of purpose and detail.
The plot is as ubiquitous as life and death itself as Ozu allows life to unfold in its natural course, showing a mother and father visiting their adult children in Tokyo and the pettiness that blackens the souls of the young and ambitious as the ungrateful offspring unappreciatively pass the parents around like unwanted objects so they can continue to focus on satisfying their own selfish needs.
The plot is as ubiquitous as life and death itself as Ozu allows life to unfold in its natural course, showing a mother and father visiting their adult children in Tokyo and the pettiness that blackens the souls of the young and ambitious as the ungrateful offspring unappreciatively pass the parents around like unwanted objects so they can continue to focus on satisfying their own selfish needs. It requires immense fortitude and maturity of the spirit to look past the petty problems that litter our lives with constant conflict and attempt to fill us with emotional bankruptcy. Most of us won’t acquire this skill until we are old enough to bear witness to our own obsolescence and can only sit back and observe the misguided priorities of youth with a bemused heartbroken smile. Perhaps the penance for our own youthful transgressions of the soul is to live long enough to witness the emergence of our worst qualities in the next generation. The widowed daughter-in-law Noriko is the only person able to see past their own ego long enough to recognize the emotional needs of the elderly parents even though she is the poorest among the siblings and possesses no biological obligation to the elder Hirayama’s. She treats them with kindness and respect, using her limited means and boundless heart to show the elderly couple a good time with actual regard for their wants and needs. The only hospitality found in Tokyo Story lives in the ramshackle single-room apartments filled with the lonely widows of World War II. These widows treat each other with the kindness that more affluent siblings should show one another, offering what little they do have without feelings of burden or shame from either side. The old master offers these observations without the pretentious immediacy of younger directors foolish enough to believe their work can be the catalyst for social change and instead shows things as they were in that specific setting while recognizing the cyclical undying nature of the gap that separates generations.
Tokyo Story is a masterpiece by all measures and standards. The immensity and frankness of its dramatic elements will continually attract the attention of neophyte cinephiles while the pared-down mastery of its images and form will enrapture the most jaded cinematic pedants among us. This Blu-Ray presentation opens up worlds of detail unavailable to American audiences since its theatrical release here in 1972, and the checkered prints of Atami’s leisure garb and underplayed emotions of the principle cast come alive with delicate brilliance. The final shots speak volumes about Ozu’s philosophy of life as students in white uniforms study intently as a train arrives in Tokyo. Boats go about their business indifferent to life’s dramas and history carries on with its ever-revolving cast of characters, an antique pocket-watch and the memories of those with hearts large enough to carry them the last remnants of a life that has come and gone with the unending ebb and flow of the tides.
[notification type=”star”]100/100 ~ MASTERFUL. Tokyo Story is a masterpiece by all measures and standards. The immensity and frankness of its dramatic elements will continually attract the attention of neophyte cinephiles while the pared-down mastery of its images and form will enrapture the most jaded cinematic pedants among us.[/notification]