Tokyo Story 1953
I wrote last night about where Tokyo Story (1953) sits as a great film and how the reputation that years of bias has attributed to this extraordinary status. Now I want to talk about the film and not how it is generally regarded or generally perceived because I do think it is a masterpiece. Late Autumn (1960) likewise.
Late Spring (1949) and Late Autumn were about an unmarried daughter who is not concerned about whether she will marry or not or whether it will be now, later or never. Everyone around her is particularly concerned about the fact that she is getting older and is still single. Both films also touch on the issue of widows and widowers and the acceptability of them remarrying and whether it is shameful. In Late Spring Noriko’s character even judges a family friend for having remarried. She calls it filthy. It embarrasses her to think that someone would marry again after being widowed. For herself, she’s happy to not marry and look after her father as he gets older. In Tokyo Story the character of Noriko was married to one of Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama’s boys, but after he was killed in the war, she didn’t remarry. She seems not to be concerned with it or interested in it. Tomi, however, makes it clear to her that they wouldn’t feel she would be done the wrong thing to get married again. This issue of whether it is okay or not okay to remarry is significant in all three of these films.
Tokyo Story is not about fathers and daughters (like Late Spring) or unmarried daughters or widows and widowers who don’t want to remarry, but about parents and children and how they behave towards each other. The Hirayamas live in a small town with their youngest daughter, Kyoko, while their eldest two live and work in Tokyo. They are married and reasonably successful. Keizo, their other boy, is single and works for the railway and is the one who lives closest to their town. The film begins with the mother and father packing and working out the train timetable to take a journey to Tokyo which is a considerable distance away. Once they arrive at Koichi’s house their visit, which should have been an enjoyable time of catching up with Koichi and Shige and their grandchildren, becomes a series of situations where the selfishness of these children becomes evident.
It’s a universal theme which the film is describing, especially in an era where keeping in touch with your children is a difficult thing when they move away from home. Especially also when a lot of children want to move to a bigger town than the one they grew up in. Noriko Hirayama we learn as the film unfolds is the daughter-in-law and the film uses her good nature and love for dead husband’s parents to further underline the lack of regard, time and patience of Koichi and Shige. The brief time of happiness for Tomi and Shukichi while visiting Tokyo is when Noriko is intentional in spending time with them.
The film is very serious for the most part but there are several scenes of gentle humour, often ironic. Scenes where the dialogue and the circumstance play against each other reveal a gentle irony, such as when the couple are sent to a spa so that the two Tokyo children don’t have to look after them or worry about entertaining them. They collude to each put in quite a bit of money to send their folks to a spa so they can be rid of them. Then at the spa, they’re so unhappy there, they come home early and are made to feel so unwelcome, they immediately leave even though they have nowhere to go. They sit with their bundles of clothing and the few things they brought with them in a park looking like a pair of hobos. Their children aren’t interested in spending time with them and they’ve got nowhere to go and nowhere to even spend the night until they come up with a plan which allows for the most serious scene and the most entertaining scene. Tomi and her daughter-in-law have a meaningful conversation at Noriko’s place while Shukichi gets drunk with two old friends, staying out all night as he has no place to go.
This rich Yasujiro Ozu film is full of the same directorial style of Late Autumn and Late Spring which has the camera set at an unusually long distance from where the action happens. The closer camera set-ups for dialogue which is important, are rare, and a moving camera (in all three films) is even rarer, when the old couple walk down the small wall at the ocean. For the rest of the time Ozu’s pared back directing style makes for films that come across as very reserved and observational in tone. If you think of Wong Kar Wai’s style of directing in Chunking Express (1994) and Ozu’s approach you have the two extremes of directing styles. On is frenetic and involves draws the viewer completely into the scenes while the other has a quality that is typical of Japanese behaviour (except when drunk or angry), which is cool, calm and reserved. Like all three of Ozu’s films I have seen they are dialogue-based and the intrinsic value and understanding of the story is in the dialogue of the screenplay. It is so revealing because Ozu gives great value and illumination to scenes which give the characters licence to state how they’re feeling when so often Tokyo Story is a lesson in people not connecting with each other. The conversations between the visiting couple and everyone but Noriko underline how little communication goes on between everyone. Shukichi and Tomi don’t speak up and tell their children how they feel and their children talk behind their backs, revealing the nasty, uncaring side of their natures.
With Tokyo Story, the main point is about revealing and accepting that children and parents will draw apart as they grow older, more often than not. But it still has a point to say which is that children don’t respect their parents (in this case) and that parents shouldn’t be so worried about being alone when their partner is dead and the last child is ready to leave home. As Kyoko, the youngest daughter, watches the train leave for Tokyo with Noriko on-board, it is a revealing moment as she looks longingly at the train headed for Tokyo, the place where everyone seems to think they will find fun and happiness. When she expresses her disappointment in the treatment of her mother and father, Noriko defends her brother and sister-in-law’s behaviour, quite convincingly. With Shukichi’s track record of raising children who don’t care about their parents, the writing is on the wall that Kyoko will act in a similar way. It is Noriko, though, who we know will make the trip from Tokyo to visit and keep in touch with Shukichi, the father.
Tokyo Story is a beautiful and powerful observation of a Japanese family interacting. The dialogue is real, revealing and speaks of many things which occur between parents and children, husbands and wives, and widowers and friends.