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Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953)

The pain in Tokyo Story is beautiful.

Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953)
Photo: Janus Films

Wherein Ben and I struggle to compose ourselves as we compose two very similar reviews.

Ben Begins:

I am going to start by way of Beckett with a specifically formal point in mind. In my experience, Waiting For Godot is the most plot-less drama ever. Just about nothing happens. At all. Just about. Of course, nobody is more aware of this than the characters themselves; constantly talking about the fact that they are doing nothing, that there is nothing to do, that nothing can be done, nothing nothing nothing. But now I am moving from the form of the thing into its content.

Tokyo Story does not get into this sort of content, this self-reflective existential business, but speaking strictly formally, it is just as plot-less a drama as Godot. Seriously, the big event in Godot is that Pozzo shows up and falls over. The big event in Tokyo Story is that they go home and she falls over for good. Sure, sure, there are many more episodes in Tokyo Story. They go here. They go there. But with respect to the formal requirements of DRAMA, just about nothing happens. At all. Just about. Yet the drama is sooooo powerful. Tokyo Story knocked me out.

Let me announce up front, however, that it is not Ozu’s social consciousness that impresses me. It is too narrowly focused on The Family, always the primary unit for traditionalists, conservatives, reactionaries, call ‘em what you will. For this camp, inter-generational discontinuity is the main expression of social disorder and decay. Certainly, this is not dogmatic in Tokyo Story because the complexity of the characters—they are deceptively complex—facilitates nuanced readings. Still, this reactionary familial sociology is obvious enough in the film and in the context of 1953 Japan, the political ramifications are decidedly not progressive.

It is instructive to compare Tokyo Story with Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952). It also touches on family life but only as an aspect of a broader concern. It locates familial breakdown in the damaged features of post-WWII Japanese society at large. Ikiru connects inter-generational discontinuity to foreign cultural domination and its vulgar consumerism. Ikiru clearly criticizes the reinstallation of the political bureaucracy in Japan under the direction of the US State Department. Against a background of supposedly upbeat capitalist development, it presents a positive image of a grassroots, working-class, bread-and-butter mobilization. Because guess what folks—the prosperity was not universal and it takes more than the family to protect the family.

In its way, Tokyo Story is also extremely sensitive to the realities of post-WWII Japanese society—not the least of which being the son lost to the war—but this sensitivity is confined to the private emotional world within the family. It is never brought to bear on the family from without, from social forces outside of and larger than the family itself. Again, I’m not trying to dump Ozu in a right-wing cage. There’s a lot of room for interpretation. Still, even though I’m hardly educated about Japanese history I can see how Ozu’s outlook would have been popular among a very wide demographic of his society in 1953. There is something Frank Capra-like about the cultural reassurance he is providing for his own people.

This comparison may sound false because ultimately Capra delivers an optimistic message whereas Ozu articulates one of resignation fraught with disappointment—Jesus; this is explicitly spoken in Tokyo Story! But this difference reflects the opposite objective trajectories of America and Japan in the first half of the 20th Century as much as the subjective dispositions of the filmmakers. Tokyo Story is terribly sad and even sad about having to be sad. Yet, it is also comforting. I get the impression that Ozu is telling his domestic audience that any feeling of disgrace they may feel coming out of the military defeat and political occupation is OK. It’s a special sort of shame, a vital part of knowing how you are unique in the world, of being truly Japanese at that moment in history. The fallout from the atomic bombs irradiated the soul of the nation. Tokyo Story is crawling out from the cancer, but the rekindled spirit it flickeringly offers is just numb nostalgia.

But so much for what is implicitly ideological in my eyes and looked upon by me critically to boot. That’s definitely enough of that because, really, this film knocked me out. Add my name to the list of Ozu fans because all the stuff that bugged me about him before just came together this time as high art. The still shots, the flipping back and forth between speakers looking directly at the camera, the slow delivery of dialogue and complete lack of overlapping or rapid response dialogue, the almost painfully grinding pace of it all… I guess it boils down to a refusal to accelerate anything. Not just the tempo of the dialogue, but even more so, the tempo of the cuts. Ozu will not be rushed. The film is set to a silent metronome from which it uncompromisingly will not budge.

Be romantic and call this a gentle heartbeat. Or go for some coffee table Zen and say the whole thing is paradoxically driven by a no-drive; the passion comes from passionlessness, the tremendous drama from no plot at all. This must be what it is about Ozu’s aesthetic that is quintessentially Japanese. Minimalism and delicacy are fundamental principles. It’s the antithesis of baroque excess and novelty for its own sake. Everything is spare. No unnecessary energy is expended. This applies to the performances, the framing of individual shots, the editing of scenes, the recapitulation of images, the telling of the story as a whole—all aspects of the film are thusly informed. Less is sooooo much more.

That drama of such power can be achieved through such means is just staggering to me. For all that aesthetic restraint, the emotional appeal is spread on thick. Is this what you meant when you handed me this film and dropped Chaplin’s name? Tokyo Story is the amazing experience of humdrum life coming off as seriously profound and this notification we receive from our hearts more than our heads. I was, of a piece, basically bored and moved to tears.

But you know, a lot of power comes from really saying something when the occasion arises. And in keeping with the conventions of drama, the occasions arise towards the end of Tokyo Story. And talk about really saying something! Contrary to probably racist clichés about Orientals in general being circumspect when it comes to making ad hominem comments, there are a few lines of dialogue in Tokyo Story that are direct bullets to the gut. I already referred to THE killer line in the film but there are a number of super-direct lines. They just burst out of the small-talk/polite-chat/dull-practical conversation like comets of truth that burn the flesh. Love hurts. It is as sad as sad can be. But it is love. So it is also beautiful.

The pain in Tokyo Story is beautiful. The French come close with their category of poignancy. But this is too sensual, too openly felt, too French. When comparing Ozu’s Floating Weeds from 1934 and his 1959 remake, I tried to suggest that although the latter was in many ways superior, something was lost from the ’34 original. This quality I referred to as “a certain austerity.” Yet, this is also not quite right; too Scandinavian. I can’t do any better though, which is fine as long as you see the specifically Japanese thing for which I am reaching. Specifically Japanese. Universally accessible. Ozu. Art.

The smokestacks alone blew me away.

Dan Responds:

Here’s what I wrote about Tokyo Story a few years back. You may notice a similar reference in my review.

Tokyo Story

“None can serve his parents beyond the grave.” —Confucius.

Let’s face it, filial piety ain’t what it used to be. But it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be either. I mean, as a social goal, it’s always seemed awfully old-fashioned to me; the sort of quiet obedience that marks devotion to one’s parents has never struck me as a vital quality around which to build an enlightened society. I mean, who the hell hasn’t been terminally embarrassed by one’s parents? And if we don’t kick and rail against everything they stand for, how are we ever going to carve out a distinct reality and identity for ourselves? So how is it that, despite much scepticism going in, I am forced to admit that Yasujirô Ozu’s lifelong fascination with the familial dynamic in a rapidly-changing Japan has resulted in the production of one of the most quietly powerful studies of the gradual and inevitable erosion of filial piety in just such a world. And just how is it that, despite my misgivings regarding the value of this sort of studious and anachronistic obeisance, and regardless of how I spent much of my youth fighting against the very things that this film seems to be championing, Tokyo Story STILL managed to knock the pins out from under me?

A bittersweet wash of brittle facades and forced pleasantries, Yasujiru Ozu’s Tokyo Story is a mournful movie about the disappointment innate in the experience of being a parent in a world in a state of flux. The film certainly adopts the parental point-of-view at the expense of the petty children whose self-absorption couldn’t be more sponge-like. This certainly didn’t incline me to get me to climb aboard this cinematic train, as the painful properness of this aging couple’s relationship, both with each other and the outside world—as represented at first by an inquisitive neighbor and later by their own children—seems, like the troubling stricture of their forced smiles, strained and painfully repressed, almost to the point of obsequiousness. However, as the film marches quietly on, it becomes clear that these are people who have arrived at some hard-fought wisdom after struggling through life’s many challenges. While these two are hardly saints themselves, as their later willingness to rake over coals of their tattered relationship with their children suggests, they have a willing acceptance of those things they cannot change. Characteristically, Shukishi (Chishū Ryū) sagely comments to an old friend who complains of the many ways he feels let down by his progeny that we “expect too much from our children.”

Tokyo Story is most incisive as a study of the corrosive effects that modernity has upon the Japanese family unit. The whingeing of the ancient couple’s grandson is an early sign of the discord that the parental visit is going to bring, as well as an indicator of the sort of unpleasantness seething just beneath the surface. It also shows us that the journey from parent’s home in the country to the children’s Tokyo setting, which happens in a heartbeat of screen time, is a long one, both literally and metaphorically. The parents have traveled far, as they have not been to Tokyo before, and are not likely to make the trip again. When Shukishi and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyami) arrive in Tokyo, they are greeted by their children respectfully, but coolly. Their kids bicker over what to feed them, and search for ways to slip out of the noose of familial obligations, largely, it seems, because it costs them both time, and more importantly, money. At one point, the elderly couple’s embarrassed daughter even denies her parents’ identity, telling an acquaintance that they are just friends visiting from the country. Clearly, the distance between the parents and their children isn’t just that of age and geography, but also outlook and lifestyle, values and belief. The generational conflicts serve to emphasize the separation of rural and urban, ancient and modern, east and west in a contemporary Japan seeking to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of the Second World War through a near single-minded devotion to economic prosperity. Eventually the children shuffle their parents off to a coastal spa, which not only removes from them the burden of entertaining the old folks, but also saves the children money, because they won’t have to miss work to take mom and dad out on the town. At the spa, as the parents gaze out at the sea, their mouths may honor their children for sending them there, but their eyes tell a different story, one of disappointment and regret.

Tokyo Story is rife with this sort of pervasive sense of loss, not just of a single life, but of what Japan has surrendered in order to enter the modern industrial world. While ominous, Tomi’s morbid musings on mortality as she watches grandson pluck blades of grass also acts as a reminder of the finality of this visit, which takes on allegorical overtones for all of us—the elderly couple, like we in the audience, will not be passing this way again. Likewise, the film is an elegy to a Japanese society that is rapidly giving way. Ozu’s fixation on the distinctive manners of traditional Japanese society is reminiscent of Victorian era period pieces, placing us in a world of tightly controlled emotions where you have to be patient and attentive to spot minor but significant shifts in characters’ thoughts and feelings.

Those familiar with his work will see much evidence of Ozu’s touch—the tatami-mat level POV, the serene camera work, the elegant mis-en-scène, and his thematic concerns with familial discord evident throughout. While he is a much different sort of filmmaker, Ozu’s Tokyo Story shares much in common with countryman Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Both films are intimate ruminations on the power and fragility of an individual’s life, both sneak up on you and slug you where it hurts, and with both films the pain stays with you for days afterwards. There is very little comfort (“Life is disappointing”) and a terrible amount of sorrow (“If I’d known things would come to this, I would have been kinder to her”) in Tokyo Story, which is remarkable given how much there is of the former and how little there is of the latter up there on the screen. How Ozu manages this is the secret of every great master; he trusts the audience to bring to the film a certain level of intelligence and emotional commitment. If you are willing and able to do the same, you should find, as I did, that Tokyo Story is a profoundly moving experience.

And, as for your query about Chaplin, yes, most certainly. But even more so in the comedy, which Ozu (sadly: heh) pretty much deserts after 1950, you see that same humanitarian affection that lifts Chaplin above all but a chosen few.

And yes, the smokestacks. Not to mention the clotheslines.

Then Ben:

Yeah, the clotheslines too.

Tokyo Story

Well, we agree but from different directions. We agree that the authority of the elders—the father’s, to be precise, in a word, patriarchy—is at least in need of questioning if not radical challenge in the hope of progress. However, you approach this individualistically and classify the family problematic in Tokyo Story as the collapse of filial piety. I approach this socially and classify the problem in the film as the breakdown of inter-generational continuity. For you, Ozu is upset that the children are not loyal to the parents and do not respect them accordingly. For me, Ozu is upset that the parents fail to command the respect of the children and do not attract their loyalty accordingly.

I reckon either approach to the social obligation involved is sustainable because of the complexity of the characters. Nevertheless, your approach is probably more in keeping with Japanese culture, at least that of 1953. On behalf of this concession, it occurs to me to contrast the Freudian paradigm with that of Naikan therapy. The former gives the introspective individual a license to blame his parents. The latter does the exact opposite. The introspective individual is prompted to blame himself for failing to live up to his parents’ expectations. Clearly, this is your side of the spinning coin more than it is mine.

We are definitely tossing the same coin though. Between you and me there is the deeper agreement that the treatment of the family in Tokyo Story has essentially a conservative bent in need of criticism. And I was impressed that both of us organized our reviews in the same way. We could not overlook the ideological aspect of the film that bothered us and felt the need to address this first. But we didn’t want to make too much of this, preferring instead to gush about the aesthetic and emotional power of Tokyo Story for the remainder of the review.

As for the Ikiru comparison, we agree enough to have both adopted this strategy but we do so for opposite purposes; you, what they have in common; me, how they are different. I don’t think there is any substantive disagreement between us, however, (alas). I trust you concur with my assessment of Kurosawa’s explicitly larger sociological treatment and radical orientation. For my part, I like your review for acknowledging the implicitly larger sociological elements in Ozu, to which I gave only a single line of lip service: “In its way, Tokyo Story is also extremely sensitive to the realities of post-WWII Japanese society.” You spread some butter on this bread.

Last observation, you allow yourself to employ the term “bittersweet” whereas I did not allow myself to use the term “poignant.” Is there some Japanese word we need to learn?

OK, one more observation. What the hell is wrong with us? Can we not seriously disagree about a film? (We’ll always have Mulholland Drive.) You said, Tokyo Story “managed to KNOCK the pins out from under me.” I said (twice), Tokyo Story “KNOCKED me out.” Well, knock knock fellas. Who’s there? It’s the God of Vocabulary at the door. Seems she’s shown up to knock our heads together. Seems she’s noticed this exact-same-language thing we’ve got going on. Seems we’re supposed to knock it off.

And Dan:

Do you suppose the uniformity in our choices of expression has something to do with the similarities of our education, culture, interests, appetites and the like? All in all, we’re just another brick in the wall.

I, too, sense a cultural gap in our inability to articulate exactly what it is that Ozu is expressing here, but whatever it is, he’s damned good at it—particularly when you consider how pretty much all of his plot outlines read like melodrama.

Then Ben:

I hear you and I agree with you (again, sigh). But come on, this time the two reviews were frighteningly similar. I mean, Mary-Kate and Ashley scary. One thing is for certain, we’re never gonna get our own TV show if we keep on agreeing like this. (I’m planning on being the fat one, just to let you know).

I reckon if we studied some traditional Japanese philosophy and painting and martial arts and such, we might get somewhere. Ozu is bringing something prior from his culture into cinema that us Westerners cannot quite fathom.

By the way, do we each have to be another brick in the wall? I’d much rather that we be two peas in a pod.

Tokyo Story

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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