There’s a misconception of Yasujirô Ozu’s great Tokyo Story that warrants correction, or at least modification: that it relates a story of startling simplicity, an observation that occasionally risks unwitting cultural condescension on the part of the West toward the East. Because underneath the film’s ostensible logline, which involves an aging couple’s trek to see their adult children, resides a large cast of characters lost in a dense thicket of disappointment, tension, and unquantifiable and unresolved emotional, political, and cultural fallout. The film is an epic disguised as a short story, or, more specifically, it documents the largely unceremonious end of an epic that’s mostly unseen. The source of the film’s brilliance and of its considerable pathos resides in how gradually and subtly Ozu transforms the domestic, “simple” quotidian into the stuff of great universal tragedy.
Immediately striking is Ozu’s almost disconcertingly casual way of introducing major characters, a motif that subtly affirms that we’re watching not beginnings, but endings of stories already long in progress. It’s quickly clear, however, that the protagonists are Shukichi (Chishû Ryû) and his wife, Tomi (Chiyeko Higashiyama), an elderly couple pushing into the neighborhood of 70 who appear, by today’s plastic-gym-happy standards, to be closer to 80: He’s gaunt, weathered, with a weirdly unchanging look of deceptive good cheer, while she’s plain, chubby, and more emotionally tethered to the events directly unfolding before them.
The events in question predominantly relate to Shukichi and Tomi’s spectacularly ill-advised visit to Tokyo to catch up with a pair of their adult children. Their oldest son, Koichi (Sô Yamamura), whom Shukichi and Tomi understood to be a prominent city doctor, is actually a harried local practitioner, racing from call to call, who’s clearly disappointed with his cramped, middle-class life. Koichi has little time for, or interest in, his parents and doesn’t make much show of hiding it. Shukichi and Tomi’s beautician daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimura), is considerably worse, as she continually voices her disapproval with her parents and scolds her husband for attempting to treat them with gestures such as purchasing them nice little cakes. She’s a penny-pinching shrew of Dickensian (or, to be less kind, of Capra-esque) proportions, though she loosens her pocketbook to help Koichi send their parents to a spa, so as to sweep them up and out of the way as quickly as possible for an upcoming work meeting.
For a while the viewer is encouraged to accept all of this at face value: Shukichi and Tomi are poignant fuddy-duddy remnants of a pre-World War II Japan that might have been more certain of its various domestic classist institutions, and Koichi, Shige, and their various mates and offspring are horrors who represent the dawning of the new terrifyingly impersonal modern “efficiency” necessary of post-war Japan. If that’s all Ozu gave us, the film would be a master class in performance, cutting, and in the director’s distinctly immersive 180-degree rule-shattering sense of composition, but it would potentially ultimately confirm Ozu’s intimation that he made a melodrama.
But the second half of the film gradually challenges these easy assumptions. We learn, through swift references, that Shukichi’s an alcoholic, now long on the wagon (for a while, at least), who once behaved in fashions with which the family has never managed to recover, particularly Shige, who gradually references her father’s drinking more frequently as the story progresses. Shukichi’s stillness, his refusal to call his children out on their cruelties, gains in stature when we realize that he’s probably over-compensating out of guilt for whatever he’s done to his family in the past. A heartbreaking irony is that Tomi, who appears to have ably assumed the culturally requisite role of dutiful housewife through Shukichi’s troubled years, has been caught in the crossfire of her children’s resentment. When she dies, none of the children, even the more sympathetic Kyoko (Kyôko Kagawa) and Keizo (Shirô Osaka), seem to be able to properly mourn and take stock of their mother.
This context informs the climactic scene with a series of emotionally overwhelming resonances and ironies, particularly for audience members who can directly relate to the characters’ plights (in America, probably most of us). Another character, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), has been positioned to us as the film’s ray of light, an ex-daughter-in-law who understands Shukichi and Tomi, and who treats them with the kindness they’re clearly seeking in order to obtain an unremarked upon but palpable sense of closure. As broadly wonderful as Shige is broadly despicable, Noriko initially appears to be a particularly cruel instrument that Ozu uses in his efforts to turn us even further against Koichi and Shige: Noriko isn’t even blood, and look how she seems to get them! And that’s precisely Ozu’s irresolvable point: She isn’t even blood, and so she has the luxury of seeing this pair’s best without having born witness to the worst that helped to forge it.
As he displayed in other films, Ozu exhibits an understanding of goodness that far eclipses most artists, namely, that it often arrives at the expense of disappointment, self-doubt and self-loathing. Noriko loves Shukichi and Tomi, but it’s also clear that she probably irrationally hasn’t forgiven herself for their son’s mysterious disappearance in the war. She doesn’t know it, but she’s begging Shukichi and Tomi for atonement, and the former, after Tomi’s death and the proof-positive confirmation that much of his family loathes him, is desperate to provide it. He wants to free his children from his past wrath, but he can’t, there’s too much bad blood and emotional wreckage. But he can grant Noriko this reprieve, and so he does, in a moment that rivals Sansho the Bailiff’s finale in terms of purifying grace. Tokyo Story is ultimately revealed, then, to be an unconventional kind of process film, as it follows all the interlocking steps necessary to informing the extension of one brief moment of kindness, the kind of moment that be said, without hyperbole, to render life worth living.
A significant upgrade from the Criterion DVD, blacks are much sharper and richer, and background image detail is so much clearer as to be occasionally revelatory. The density of Yasujirô Ozu’s stage-within-a-stage-within-yet-another-stage compositions has never looked so staggeringly palpable to these eyes. Texture is simply stunning (note, in particular, the shots of the trains and cityscapes, or "pillow shots," that Ozu places in between each of the major scenes). The Japanese LPCM mono track is also an improvement, as it’s more nuanced and further scrubbed of the kinds of hisses and cracks that are traditional of preserved prints of older films.
An evocative documentary from 1988 about actor Chishû Ryû’s work at Shochiku’s Ofuna studio has been added, but otherwise all the supplements here can be found on the 2003 DVD edition of the film. The audio commentary featuring Ozu scholar David Desser is delivered in rehearsed tones that sound robotic even by the standards of Criterion’s commentaries, but it’s also an invaluably dense primer on Ozu’s techniques and the social conditions that informed them. (Desser is particularly astute in elaborating on the complexity of Ozu’s compositions.) "I Lived, But...," a two-hour documentary on Ozu’s life, both personal and professional, could be shorter, but it offers terrific footage in which the director’s collaborators discuss his methods at length. "Talking with Ozu," a 40-minute tribute to the director from 1993, featuring reflections of filmmakers Lindsay Anderson, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsein, Aki Kaurismäki, Stanley Kwan, Paul Schrader, and Wim Wenders, sounds more interesting than it actually is, as the directors tend to repeat both one another and themselves. Rounding out the package is the trailer and an essay by critic David Bordwell. It’s a decent package, but the lack of a greater wealth of new material is regrettable.
The extras could use a touch-up, but Tokyo Story looks and sounds so good it hardly matters. A key restoration of an essential film that warrants the potential double-dip.