Tokyo Story (1953) – Simple & True…

Tokyo Story 3

Yasujirō Ozu‘s Tokyo Story is a film I would urge anyone to see, because I can’t think of another film that matches it for such simple and profound emotional truth.

In twenty years as a film buff, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve had a blind spot when it comes to Japanese cinema.   My prejudices were probably strengthened by the few examples of J-horror that I’d seen.  The end of Ringu was so pant-wettingly scary that it almost got me a free month’s rent – my flatmate was so frightened he offered to let me off if I’d let him sleep in my room that night.  Yet the preceding two hours or so were pretty much how I expected Japanese films to be – chilly, inscrutable, oblique.

I’ve been trying to defeat my prejudices recently, starting with Kurosawa’s cornerstones Rashomon and Seven Samurai. It took me a while to get round to Tokyo Story despite it currently occupying third spot in the BFI’s top films behind Vertigo and Citizen Kane.  If I’m completely honest, it just seemed a bit too black & white and a bit too Japanese to really take my fancy.

A viewer experimenting with Japanese cinema will find themselves on comfortable ground with Kurosawa’s most famous works. Rashomon introduced the now familiar conceit of a story told from different viewpoints (although not as funny as One Night at McCool’s…).  Kurosawa was influenced by Western cinema, and in turn Western cinema was influenced by Kurosawa – if you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven,Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, Star Wars or even Three Amigos!, you’ll know exactly where you are in Seven Samurai.

Ozu’s Tokyo Story, on the other hand, feels very Japanese, and is told in such a poetically simple way that you’ll wonder why 99% of cinema is filled with so much noise, gimmicks and clutter. It is about an elderly couple (Chishū Ryū & Chieko Higashiyama) who visit their family in Tokyo. Their family are busy and don’t have much time to spend with them.

Despite cultural differences, the film’s themes are universal – anyone with parents and grandparents, which is most of us – will quickly identify with the film. While it is very, very sad, you don’t feel like you’ve been taken on a downer. It is a film about life, told by a filmmaker who is not interested in tugging heart strings, but tells it like it is in a calm, meditative manner.

“Telling it like it is” is a phrase that suggests someone who wants to rattle a few cages or get in people’s faces. Ozu is not that kind of film-maker. It presents a realistic portrait of family life, but is not the kind of angry realism UK film buffs will recognise from the strain of kitchen sink dramas that emerged in the 50’s and 60’s.

Even Ken Loach’s Kes, perhaps the purest and evocative example of British social-realism, still had an undercurrent of political statement. Ozu’s family in Tokyo Story aren’t struggling with poverty or railing against perceived social ills. He just recognises that all lives end in a form of tragedy, and in this case, the grandparents have become distant from their children and irrelevant to their grandchildren.

I would urge anyone watching Tokyo Story for the first time to seek out the best copy they can find of the film. Set against Kojun Saito’s tender, melancholic score, there is an elegant geometry to Ozu’s compositions. The camera never moves, usually set a couple of feet from the ground, or eye level with characters sitting on the floor.

Low angles, frames within frames...

Low angles, frames within frames…

The interiors are a fascinating array of lattice windows and doors, hallways and doorframes, frames within frames within the camera frame.  When people are talking, they are often in the centre of the frame, talking directly to the camera.  Sometimes they sit in profile, turning to talk across their shoulder to the camera, and when there is more than one person in the shot, they are carefully arranged in parallels. You could frame almost every shot in Tokyo Story and hang it on your wall.

The low camera angles shorten the depth of field, and being on eye level with the characters most of the time creates a real sense of intimacy with them. The incessant motif of frames, flat images, still camerawork, and characters in portrait-like settings bring to mind a kind of living family album.

Tokyo Story benefits from this efficient and eloquent visual style, because the true depth of the film is in the universal story it tells. The old couple are from the country, and their family live in the city, and over the years a distance has opened up between them. Conversation is slightly awkward. Their children love them, but they have hectic day-to-day lives and the oldies get under their feet. They are all but irrelevant to their grand-children, who run away from them or ignore them, not because they are mean or callous, but because they’re just kids and don’t have much empathy yet.

Much of the film is set indoors, but some of the most poignant imagery is outside – the old couple, lonely together, sitting on a sea wall or grass verge as they hang around until the family has time for them, or the time comes to drop in on another old friend.

Tokyo Story 1

While lines in the interior shots are horizontal/vertical, Ozu often uses diagonals in his exteriors.

Tokyo Story inevitably makes you think about your own family. I thought about my great-grandmother. I loved her so much, but as I grew into my teens my life suddenly started getting rather busy. At the same time, she became more deaf and senile, which made it easier not to visit her sometimes. One day I rode past her house on the way to my paper-round, and I saw her standing at the window. She watched me ride past, and she was smiling. For some reason I didn’t wave or acknowledge that I’d seen her I could’ve popped in and said “Hello”, but I didn’t.

She died a few years later in 1994, aged 93. That was over half my life ago, but I still choke up when I think about it, and I suspect that even if I live as long as she did, I’ll always feel guilty for not visiting her more.

Tokyo Story is a lovely film.  What is more, it might even make you consider how you deal with your own family!

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 22/04/2014, in cinema, Drama, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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