Tokyo Story (1953)
This remains one of the most approachable and moving of all cinema's masterpieces.Wally Hammond, 2010, Time Out London
Of all the Japan-born directors of the Post-War period, Yasujiro Ozu is most often cited as having the most 'Japanese' style. In truth, this actually held back his films from being released in the Western world, since distributors were afraid his work would be too poorly received. On the contrary: he is now considered a remarkably significant figure in Japanese cultural history, perhaps second only to Kurosawa.
His Tokyo Story from 1953 aided Rashomon in welcoming the world's cinephiles to Japanese film style—with its immobile camera, long takes from low heights (Ozu developed the characteristic 'tatami shot'—a frame captured from about eye-level height when kneeling on a tatami mat), as well as fundamentally breaking established continuity editing rules. The film's plot is a (misleadingly) simple tale of a reluctantly hosted family visit that ultimately questions and complicates our perception of parenthood. Calmly, elliptically, revealingly, it somehow paradoxically unfolds as one of the screen's truest ever stories.
The capricious way in which this film entered world film culture might make us suspect that its success is accidental. Surely Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951), to cite only two examples, are no less excellent? Ozu himself hinted at a reservation: “This is one of my most melodramatic pictures.” Yet Tokyo Story turns out to be a remarkably replete introduction to his distinct world. It contains in miniature a great many of the qualities that enchant his admirers and move audiences, no matter how distant, to tears.
There is, first of all, the mundane story. Ozu and his scriptwriter, Kogo Noda, often centered their plots upon getting a daughter married, a situation around which an array of characters’ lives could be revealed. But Tokyo Story lacks even this minimal plot drive; it carries to a limit Ozu’s faith that everyday life, rendered tellingly, provides more than enough drama to engage us deeply. An elderly couple leave the tiny town of Onomichi to visit their children and grandchildren. Inevitably, they trouble their hosts; inevitably, they feel guilty; inevitably, the children cut corners and neglect them. In the course of the trip, the old folks become aware of both the virtues and vanities of their offspring. On the train ride home, the mother is stricken, and shortly thereafter, she dies.
Tokyo Story also exemplifies Ozu’s unique style—low camera height, 180-degree cuts, virtually no camera movements, and shots linked through overlapping bits of space. In dialogue scenes Ozu refuses to cut away from a speaking character; it’s as if every person has the right to be heard in full. Other films use his distinctive techniques more playfully, but here he seems chiefly concerned with creating a quiet world against which his characters’ personalities stand out.
Thanks to Ozu’s compassionate detachment, the final scenes take on enormous richness of feeling as we watch characters contemplate their futures. Noriko smilingly tells Kyoko that “life is disappointing”; Shukichi assures Noriko that she must remarry; the neighbor jovially warns Shukichi that now he’ll be lonely. Yet the momentous revelations are tempered by the poetic resonance of everyday acts and objects. Shukichi greets a beautiful sunrise—signaling another day of brisk fanning and plucking at one’s kimono. An ordinary wristwatch links mother, daughter, and daughter-in-law in a lineage of hard-earned feminine wisdom. And the roar of a train dies down, leaving only the throbbing of a boat in the bay.David Bordwell, 2003, Criterion Collection