Is Tokyo Story Yasujirô Ozu's greatest film? I couldn't tell you. When dealing with a master like Ozu it's splitting hairs to assign varying degrees of greatness to his individual films, and, quite frankly, such laurels mean nothing—especially when considering Ozu's films are so completely committed to avoiding the grandiosity such ready-made labels imply. Three reasons explain why Tokyo Story is generally regarded as Ozu's finest work are: it's by far the film of his that's been most widely seen in the West; its first distribution in the U.S. coincided with the landmark publication in 1972 of Paul Schrader's Transcendental Style in Film, which considered Ozu alongside other such luminaries as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson as an exemplar of spiritual filmmaking; and it's seen as the most complete summation of its director's art.
Ozu, often called “the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers,” made films about everyday life. It's almost difficult to talk about “everyday life” now when it comes to film because the term has been co-opted by those with political and stylistic imperatives. To document “everyday life” for the neorealists meant to document financial struggle, which, in the hands of some of its latter-day followers, has resulted in a depiction of life filtered through miserabilism. For the adherents of direct cinema, the camera itself was meant to disappear, which more often than not meant lackadaisical camera setups and shoddy compositions, justified by the idea of spontaneity.
Ozu had no such imperatives. His characters are usually middle-class folks not overly concerned with money, and not subject to but actively a part of daily rituals that some may find mundane but are truly the stuff of life: having a cordial, if superficial, conversation with a neighbor; preparing the morning breakfast; folding laundry; rearranging furniture to make room for company; packing for a trip. Tokyo Story's plot couldn't be simpler: An elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi, travel from their country home to visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo. There they find that their children have their own busy lives in which they don't quite fit anymore, and when they leave, Tomi, the grandmother, takes ill and dies. For the sake of drama, Ozu's films do often hinge around a key life event—usually a marriage or a death. But it's the ordinary moments in between that matter most, the kind of moments left out of most conventional screenplays. Take this bit of dialogue from Tokyo Story: Tomi asks her husband, Shukichi (Chushu Ryu), “I wonder what part of Tokyo we're in?” When he says, “A suburb, I think,” she replies, “You must be right. It was such a long ride from the station.” That's exactly the kind of mundane banter anyone from any part of the globe could expect hearing their grandparents engage in.
Ozu's appreciation of subtle shades of character means that what isn't said can be more important than what is. When Tomi says, “When each of my boys was born, I prayed that he wouldn't become a drinker,” it implies that her husband had in fact a drinking problem, something you wouldn't expect from the ever-so-slightly-stiff Shukichi. Ozu expresses great distinctions in character through the most subtle of differences; Shukichi's daughter Shige very practically packs a funeral kimono when visiting her ailing mother near the end of the film, while his daughter-in-law Noriko comes completely unprepared. It reveals a lot about the different attitudes of the characters, without elevating one over the other.
Behind the simplicity of the writing is a simplicity in staging and composition that the unschooled eye might see as artless. Ozu usually places his camera no higher than the eye-level of a person sitting on a tatami mat and, almost never moving the frame, records the carefully planned movements and gestures of his actors. Notice how in the film Shukichi usually sits at a right angle to the camera, right side facing us, with Tomi to his left and ever so slightly behind him. But when things don't go quite as well for them on their trip as they'd hoped, Shukichi and Tomi end up sitting directly parallel to one another, as if comforting each other. Likewise, when their children send them away to a raucous health-spa, Ozu first indicates that Shukichi and Tomi are out of their element by a medium shot of their sandals lined up outside their door.
By having established the rhythms of Shukichi and Tomi's life together with such precision, Ozu's presentation of the old woman's death, because it's not conventionally melodramatic or histrionic, is all the more deeply felt. When the film ends where it began, with Shukichi sitting on his tatami mat, fanning himself because of the sticky summer heat, this time alone, it's a different presentation of eternity than, say, Dreyer's Ordet. Where Dreyer used resurrection as a metaphor to underline the miracle of life itself, Ozu establishes the miracle of human life by the absence of one life. Though Tomi is gone there will still be the putt-putt of a boat engine in the harbor, the far-off whistle of a train, the endless droning screech of cicadas. And the knowledge that Shukichi and Tomi's children will replace them and one day suffer their fate too. Such is life.
In this exquisite merging of specific and universal, infinite and infinitesimal, Tokyo Story perhaps most clearly illuminates that Ozu is not the most Japanese of filmmakers, but the most human.