Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Criterion is tackling some steep towers of film culture lately, and doing a good job presenting them with the respect and detail that they deserve. The biggest benefit of going to film school in the 1970s was the exposure to great films and literature about them. Nowadays, with outfits like Criterion providing great copies of movies in conjunction with serious prime source documentation, anyone can better my cinema education on their own.
Tokyo Story is on most of the top twenty films of all time lists. It is a tale of family matters told in the simplest terms. Yasujiro Ozu's style has been likened to poetry that gets beyond images to the underlying truths. While observing what seem to be ordinary exchanges between ordinary people, we find ourselves becoming deeply involved in the extended Hirayama family as if it were our own.
Retired public servant Shukishi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) and his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) make a rare trip away from home to visit their son and daughters in Tokyo. Their stay seems to be an imposition, not helped by one son's unlikable kids and one daughter's selfishness. They have their best time when pawned off on Noriko, the widow of their son who died in combat eight years earlier. Even though she doesn't let on, their visit is a hardship for Noriko as well. The selfish daughter packs them off to a popular seaside getaway spot but they leave after one sleepless night in the noisy youth-oriented resort. After a cold afternoon in the park, Shuskishi gets drunk, causing his daughter to chastise him. And Tomi is experiencing feelings of weakness ...
Just about the only 'alien' aspect of the Japanese culture that Tokyo Story doesn't make seem natural is the custom of affecting what seem to be formalized smiles during all sorts of personal interactions. At the end, a passing neighbor grins as she offers appalling observations about an old man's situation. It's obvious that the Japanese culture has different standards about what's proper to broach in a casual conversation. The lady seems sincere when she says he'll be lonely and miserable, and he is pleased, not offended.
Throughout the story people smile as they apologize for things they can't possibly have helped (the parents, constantly) or refer to themselves as unworthy (the widowed son's daughter, also constantly). We know these are sincere characters - and we believe them ... but in American or Western terms the actual smiles codify totally different things - calculation, insincerity. I suppose I'll need more exposure to the culture to find a better understanding.
Tokyo Story presents such universally understandable situations and characters that details like this become important. The grandparents' visit is an unstated last chance to see their family all together for the last time (one son is a railroad worker in a different city), and their initial elation is dampened by a succession of disappointments. The son turns out to be a harried neighborhood doctor and not a rich man, and his two boys are unqualified brats. A daughter is a beautician and considers everything about the visit an imposition. The old folks are pained by thoughts that their dead son's wife hasn't remarried and can't possibly be happy. And they avoid the realization that their own kids have sidetracked them to an inappropriate resort destination.
A family emergency brings out more interesting interaction. The selfish daughter cries quite sincerely at one point, yet takes advantage of an opportunity to grab some family heirlooms. After planning to stay longer, all three offspring disappear as soon as possible after a funeral, leaving the youngest daughter (who was dutifully staying at home to care for her parents) and the widow to do their duty.
Interestingly, Tokyo Story never resolves itself as a simple story of the older generation victimized by the younger. That worked very well in the melodramatic Make Way for Tomorrow, a 30s story where Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore are forced to go to separate retirement homes because of the financial burden on their grown children. Tokyo Story lets us know that Shukishi and Tomi didn't have perfect lives - Shukishi had a drinking problem for a while - and that childhood for the selfish daughter Shige may have been traumatic. Economic conditions in this immediate post-war situation are also not as good as the parents may have enjoyed. All of the kids live in fairly tight surroundings, with the daughter occupying a one-room flat. Curiously, she's the most accommodating and generous.
It's not as though the elder generation has answers or even good ideas for their offspring. But the old folks do relate well to each other. It's a curious combination of family courtesy, obligation and mildly-strained interrelations.
Ozu's style has been called spare or ascetic, but it is deceptively sensitive. The almost completely static camera stays mostly in rooms so small that one angle can take in all of the action. Matching overlap cuts to hallways and adjoining rooms make the wooden houses seem like crowded warrens. Camera positions tend to be not much higher than floor level, as people sit and sleep on or near the floor. The settings are therefore anchored, and Ozu uses naturalistic blocking to make action and movement seem unforced. We concentrate on faces and gestures in a directorial screen space that's more focused than static.
Scenes begin and end without establishing shots or other conventional trappings. Instead, Ozu will cut away to poetic bits of landscapes, views from windows or other details that suggest a mundane reality surrounding the drama.
Apparently Ozu's placid traditionalism represented everything that new-school Japanese filmmakers from the 50s onward utilized as a focus-point for artistic rebellion.
Slowly the connections fall into place. Reportedly having played beloved characters when younger, Haruko Sugimura followed the selfish daughter Shige here with a shrill turn as the harridan-madame in Kurosawa's Red Beard twelve years later. And star Chishu Ryu, only 49 when this film was made, appeared 28 years later in Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World.
Criterion's DVD of Tokyo Story is a two-disc assemblage. The feature on the first disc is of excellent quality but has more flaws than we're used to, mostly slight density fluctuations that digital cleanup can't do much to abate. Overall it is unblemished and fine, but not of the same pristine quality that Criterion is fast making their standard. I have to assume that these good film elements are the best to be had.
Reel two has a pair of exhaustive docus. One is a comprehensive two hour show from 1983 that exposes the life and times of the director in ideal terms. The second is a 40 minute piece that assembles a series of tributes from international movie directors.
Author and Ozu specialist David Desser provides the feature commentary, and author David Bordwell the major insert essay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tokyo Story rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by Ozu-scholar David Desser, I Lived, but...(1983),
a two-hour documentary about the life and career of Ozu; Talking with Ozu a 30-minute
tribute to Yasujiro Ozu featuring directors Stanley Kwan, Aki Kurasmaki, Claire Denis, Lindsay
Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien; New essay by David Bordwell,
author of Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: November 22, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson