★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’ is the best film I have ever seen. It is a movie I keep coming back to. There is a beauty in its very simplicity.
The film opens with Japanese characters against the simple background of a tatami mat, and the picture’s straightforwardness is established from the onset. We know that we are being invited to something ruminative – to ponder the beauty of ordinary life.
Children grow up and leave the nest. Parents grow old and die. Time passes, and life goes on. I haven’t stated anything you don’t already know. And yet, sometimes it takes a masterful work of art to remind us of life’s veracities.
The plot is as simple as possible: An elderly couple takes a long train ride from their village in southwestern Japan port city of Onomichi to post-war Tokyo to visit their grownup children who have not visited them in years. Their son, Koichi, is a doctor living with his wife and two sons in a modest suburban house. Their daughter, Shige, is a beautician. Neither of these two have much time or patience for their parents – they are too wrapped up in their own careers and families. They discourteously scuff off the elders to a low-cost seaside resort. It is only Noriko, the widowed daughter-in-law of their son killed in World War II who treats them with any kind of warmth or kindness – there is an ease and generosity of spirit that exists among them and it is a welcome contrast to the treatment received from their blood relatives.
The parents return home. But on the train, the mother falls ill. And now, the children make the journey to visit their parents. Faced with tragedy, the children speak of their regrets – they wish they did more for their mother when she was alive. A day after the funeral, they are on their way back home; the daughter-in-law stays the longest but she too has to return home, and we feel a great deal of sadness for the old father who must now accept a life of loneliness. “Living alone like this, the days will get very long.” in his words.
Ozu doesn’t side with or blame any of these characters – instead, he allows us to muse over the motives behind their decisions. Or ponder the impact external forces like time could have on a relationship. There was a point when these characters relied on their parents for everything. Now, they parents are treated like a burden.
I realize I’m making this sound like a downer. It really isn’t. What I think Ozu is displaying on screen is the entire spectrum of human behavior and emotion. He is defining humanity through contrasts: youth and old age, kindness and cruelty, joy and tragedy, life and death.
The camera remains stationary mainly at floor level, shooting long, unbroken takes. There isn’t any technical wizardry or workshopping at play; the camera merely functions as an observer. This is filmmaking stripped to its most essential elements intent on capturing truth – as it unfolds episodically, we witness three generations navigating through life, as if they are completely unaware that a camera is documenting them. There isn’t a conventional narrative structure, and I noticed only one camera move – as it traversed around a corner to reveal the elderly couple alone and neglected. Every single shot is perfect and its compositions remain unparalleled. The exterior shots of the landscape and empty interiors feel anything but vacant – the characters, at some point, have passed through these spaces and their presence remains even when they’re not there.
Many movies that confront these unquestionably overarching themes are large scale – epic, ambitious, and operatic. ‘Tokyo Story’ has a quiet intensity – this is minimalist cinema at the apex of artistic expression, effortlessly evoking the feelings its characters abstain from articulating.
‘Tokyo Story’ may be specific in its time and place (Japan, 1953), but its themes and observations of human behavior transcend geographic borders and time itself. We see ourselves in these characters, and we’re more cognizant of our self-centered tendencies and the tragic irrevocability of loneliness we all face. ‘We see the good and the bad, and we want to be better. After seeing the movie, I felt wiser and I believe that the movies (at least the very best ones) can change us. That’s the power of this medium.
Note: The Criterion Blu-Ray presents a crisp 4K digital restoration that belongs on every movie lover’s shelf. QED.