Tokyo Story: Compassionate Detachment

On Film / Essays — Nov 18, 2013

When Tokyo Story was released in late 1953, Western audiences were just being exposed to Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa had made his breakthrough with Rashomon three years earlier, and Kenji Mizoguchi was moving to the forefront of the international festival scene. In 1955, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell would win two Academy Awards. The time would have been ripe for a very different sort of Japanese film to arrive on the global stage. Yet Yasujiro Ozu remained unknown abroad, chiefly because decision-makers considered him “too Japanese” to be exported.

Although other Ozu films were shown sporadically in Europe and the UK, it was Tokyo Story that broke the barrier. There were screenings here and there in the mid-1950s, an award from the British Film Institute in 1958, and programs organized by Donald Richie, throughout his life our great champion of Japanese cinema. Then the film opened in New York in 1972, coinciding with the publication of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, and it won the hearts of influential critics. When Richie’s Ozu was published two years later, critics came to realize that this quiet filmmaker was one of cinema’s finest artists. In the 1992 and 2002 Sight & Sound international critics’ polls, Tokyo Story was ranked as one of the ten greatest films ever made. In the 2012 poll, it came in third, behind Vertigo and Citizen Kane.

The capricious way in which this work entered world film culture might make us suspect that its renown 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.” But Tokyo Story is in fact a generous introduction to his distinct world. It contains in miniature a great many of the qualities that enchant his admirers and move audiences to tears.

There is, first of all, the mundane story. Ozu and his scriptwriter, Kogo Noda, often centered their plots around getting a daughter married, a situation through which an array of characters’ lives could be revealed. But Tokyo Story lacks even this minimal plot drive; it carries to the 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. This simple arc of action conceals a strong and cunning structure.

After leaving their youngest child, Kyoko, behind in Onomichi, the Hirayamas are shown visiting their other children, in descending birth order. First they stay with Koichi and his family, then with Shige and hers, then with Noriko (the widow of their third-born child), and finally with young Keizo in Osaka. Offscreen, they have already visited Keizo first, en route to Tokyo, but Ozu and Noda portray only their stopover during their return trip—partly to allow us to form expectations about how hospitable their youngest son will be, but also to respect the family-tree structure. (Ozu had experimented with this device in his first extended-family film, 1941’s The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family.)

This patterning would seem overneat were it not carefully buried in a wealth of details of gesture and speech, from the frantic energy of the grandsons (one whistles the theme from John Ford’s Stagecoach) to the plaintiveness of three elderly fathers fretting over their sons’ failures. Again and again, personalities emerge through concise comparisons. The businesswoman Shige is hardheaded enough to pack a funeral kimono for the trip home, but it never occurs to Noriko that her mother-in-law, Tomi, will die, so she is unprepared. Who can say that pragmatism is less virtuous than innocence? Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov—these are the artists who come to mind when we confront a story told through such tactful revelations of temperament and states of mind. Yet there is nothing soft about Ozu’s tact, which can be astringent. “What a treat,” reflects Tomi, “to sleep in my dead son’s bed.”

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 seldom cuts away from a speaking character. It’s as if every person has the right to be heard in full. In other films, he deploys his distinctive techniques more playfully, but here he seems chiefly concerned with creating a quiet world against which his characters’ personalities can stand out.

The same delicate poise emerges in a refusal to tilt the scales. It would be easy to sentimentalize the father, Shukichi, for instance, but when he staggers back drunk from his reunion, Shige remarks that he’s reverted to his old ways. The implication is that his carousing once caused family problems. (This resonates after Tomi’s death: “If I had known things would come to this, I’d have been kinder to her while she was alive.”) The warmhearted Noriko confesses to forgetting occasionally about her dead husband, measuring herself against a cruelly high standard. Likewise, most of the siblings aren’t deeply selfish, just preoccupied and caught up in the lives they have made for themselves. Even Shige, whom Western viewers are inclined to censure, surprises us with her sudden, copious, utterly sincere burst of tears at her mother’s death; and her harsh edges are mitigated by the fact that she’s played by Haruko Sugimura, one of Japan’s most beloved female performers.

Thanks to Ozu’s compassionate detachment, the final scenes take on enormous richness of feeling, as we watch characters contemplate their futures. Noriko smilingly says to Kyoko, “Isn’t life 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 the train headed back to Tokyo dies down, leaving only the throbbing of a boat in the bay.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the 2003 Criterion Collection DVD release of Tokyo Story. It has been updated by the author for the film’s Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release.