“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” It feels like a lifetime ago when Korean director Bong Joon-Ho uttered those words as he accepted his Golden Globe award for Best Foreign film for Parasite. And yet as I watched Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story for the first time, Bong Joon-Ho’s statement becomes a ringing endorsement.
For someone who’s relatively new to Yasujirô Ozu’s work – a director who I’ve always wanted check off my cinema watchlist due to recognition, critical acclaim and regularly appearing in the best films of all-time lists, I can see why Tokyo Story is considered a masterpiece amongst critics and fans. I can see why his work is so influential to most modern-day filmmakers. It’s because Tokyo Story is a beautifully exquisite and melancholic tale about family life in an ever-changing Japan – a film that completely stole my heart.
Inspired by the 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow (Yasujirô Ozu never saw the film, but his screenwriter Kôgo Noda did), Tokyo Story’s emotive narrative is simple – an elderly couple Shūkichi (Chishû Ryû) and Tomi Hirayama (Chieko Higashiyama) travel from Onomichi to Tokyo to visit their son, daughter and their daughter-in-law. The problem is, their family is too busy to spend time with them, paying little attention and feeling the inconvenience and burden of their presence as it disrupts their busy lives. The only one who shows enough understanding and warmth is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara) – wife of the Hirayama’s middle son, Shōji.
For a film so resoundingly human, there’s no escaping the emotive response it evokes. Held together by superb acting performances by Chishû Ryû and Chieko Higashiyama, they capture the mood of the film, quietly embodying a reflective poise with every delivery, backed by the sheer confidence of a director with a meticulous speciality in capturing complex family dynamics with honesty and truth.
Without directly spoiling it, the bittersweet poignancy immediately resonates. Not only does Tokyo Story capture Japan in a Post-War/industrial regeneration and the cultural changes between traditions and modernity but depicts the notable generational gap between the grandparents and their children. While there are smiles aplenty, it only goes to cover-up the multitude of feelings expressed by the grandparents. Because what is so beautifully apparent within every frame is the conversations not said, missed, hidden and covered-up, as the family dance around their priorities. The feeling of displacement, the fragility of wisdom, growing older, the hopes, dreams, and expectations they wished for their children, all leading the gradual acceptance that they’re not on the same path – life’s toughest lesson. Standards and traditions reflect the time (the insistence of marriage for young women, for example), but Ozu’s universal approach to the characters is the film’s greatest strength.
It’s at that realisation where Tokyo Story begins to strike a more profound chord, gently inviting its audience to inescapably reflect upon their experiences. I saw aspects of Noriko in me, taking care of the grandparents with the same warmth and humility as I would look after my mother (who sadly passed away in 2016). But I also saw traits within myself in the other members of the Hirayama family where the world is changing, and we’re swept up in the arrogance of youth until it is too late. There’s no doubt that Ozu was ahead of the curve, but it’s the simplicity of the message, hence why it is so relatable, some 67 years later. Fast forward to 2019 and Lulu Wang’s beautiful family drama The Farewell only shows how Ozu’s influential depiction of family life can transcend both the language and cultural barrier.
And you can see why Ozu’s film has stood the test of time. Finding subtle and sincere moments of empathy amongst the ordinary is a challenging task for any director, which only demonstrates how effortless Tokyo Story feels.
Ozu’s confident command of the screen is the most impressive element of his directing, approaching Tokyo Story like a documentary. Each scene is beautifully framed, that’s neither in a rush to conclude or feel the need to be flashy or overly dramatic to keep you interested. Considering it was ‘too dramatic’ for Western audiences at the time of its distribution (with studios preferring Kurosawa’s Rashomon for example), Tokyo Story is a slow-burn exercise in patience and cathartic calmness in framing and precise positioning. Requiring that same patience from its audience, you’re imbued with a story that eventually envelops you, culminating into a powerfully driven third act.
That synergy feeds into the extras on the blu-ray. Not only are we blessed with a brand new 4K restoration print (made again from the compiled dupe print that has been in circulation for years – the original negative was sadly lost in a fire), but the disc includes an introduction by Tony Rayns who provides a summary of the film’s history and it’s celebrity context. Talking with Ozu is a 1993 documentary commemorating the filmmaker by the filmmakers who were inspired by him. Hearing directors such as Claire Denis, Stanley Kwan and others personally expressing the impact of Ozu’s work, brings a comforting feeling that I’m not alone in those emotions. But the best feature on the disc is Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, an early Ozu feature film from 1941. The quality is not the greatest (sadly it doesn’t get the same restoration treatment) and it doesn’t quite reach the emotive standards of Tokyo Story, but even an entry-level Ozu admirer can see where his influential perspective stems from.
Tokyo Story has to be seen to be believed because the experience is a great example where film can articulate feelings we inhabit, granting its audience permission to embrace and acknowledge them without fear or judgement. It’s a great example in intimate storytelling where it exercises control, pacing and dialogue without losing its meaning. But most importantly, it’s a great example of films being teachers, with lessons we’re never too young or old to learn. By that account, Ozu’s film is a beautiful piece of art and cinema.
Dir: Yasujirô Ozu
Scr: Yasujirô Ozu and Kôgo Noda
Cast: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Sô Yamamura
Prd: Takeshi Yamamoto
DOP: Yûharu Atsuta
Music: Takanobu Saitô
Runtime: 136 mins
Tokyo Story will be available on blu-ray on 15th June