Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tokyo Story (1953)

Director: Yasujirô Ozu                                    Writers: Kôgo Noda & Yasujirô Ozu
Film Score: Takanobu Saito                            Cinematography: Yûharu Atsuta
Starring: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara and Sô Yamamura

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is the kind of filmmaker that seemed to connect with American audiences because of his emphasis on plot as well as character. In some ways he was inspired by American films and this is evident in his work. Yasujirô Ozu is an entirely different kind of director. If Kurosawa is an American style director, then Ozu is definitely in the European mold. His films are almost entirely about character. Like Tokyo Story, they are an immersion into everyday Japanese life that can seem almost pointless at times, but then the same can be said for many European films. The key is to understand first the relationships between the characters and second, like people from anywhere, understand what their interactions tell us about those people and the culture that they live in.

The story is simply an episode in the life of the Hirayama family. The elder mother and father live forty miles east of Hiroshima and are excited about visiting their children who live in far away Tokyo. When they arrive the conflict, if it can be called that, begins right away. They are staying at the house of their oldest son, and after a few crackers for a meal they are whisked upstairs to bed, even though it’s clear they’d rather visit with their family. The next day is Sunday and the tour of Tokyo they have planned is called off when their son, a doctor, must attend to a patient. Their daughter, who runs a beauty shop with her husband, then calls up her sister-in-law, their younger brother’s wife, and makes her do it. It’s then we learn the younger son died in the war and she is all alone. That night the son and the daughter decide to pack off their parents to a resort, which is noisy at night and quite a disappointment to the parents.

When they return early, there is no place for them to stay. Mother spends the night at her daughter-in-law’s apartment, while the father goes out with some old friends and gets drunk, showing up at the daughter’s door well after midnight. Then the parents leave the next day. Chishû Ryû does a nice job as the father, though he was more like fifty rather than the late sixties he was portraying. Setsuko Hara is the real star, however, a devoted daughter-in-law who seemed the only child, ironically, who really cared about the old couple. If there’s an antagonist in the piece it’s Haruko Sugimura, who is shrill and borderline cruel as the oldest daughter. But the real conflict seems to be the change of culture. This is symbolized wonderfully when the parents arrive in Tokyo at the home of their oldest son. Sugimura is in her kimono, as is the mother, while the father and their daughter in law are wearing Western clothing. And it’s the death of the older culture that not only explains the divide between parents and children, but is also symbolized by the ending of the film.

In his essay on the film for The A List, Kevin Thomas looks at the conflict as a generation gap. It is that, but to my eyes it is more acutely felt because of the cultural shift that has happened. And there is an inevitability to the whole thing as well. In the same way that the children, basically good people, have become so focused on their own lives and survival, societies change as well. It’s significant that, except for the tour bus through Tokyo, the only scenes of the city near the children’s homes are industrial smoke stacks and construction sites. This is in stark contrast to the fishing village that the parents come from. Life is short, and parental expectations don’t count for much as children grow into their own people. Likewise, the evolution of society pays little heed to the past as it rushes forward to meet the future. Tokyo Story is a meditation on life, and a good one, that does not depend on the knowledge of Japanese culture to understand. What Ozu is showing us is that the Hirayama family represents all of us.

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