Finding Truths in Everyday Life

Aug 29, 2004 (Updated May 17, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Strong themes, high quality performances, beautiful images, touching story

Cons:Ozu’s relatively static and minimalistic style will prove challenging for many Western theater-goers

The Bottom Line: A critically-acclaimed and powerful examination of the breakdown of the traditional Japanese family unit.


In 2002, this film was ranked by Sight and Sound Magazine as the number five greatest film all-time. That’s quite a complement. Although I wouldn’t, myself, rate the film that high, it is clearly a great work of art that will endure for all-time. For those brought up on Hollywood action films and special effects, it will perhaps seem unexceptional, dealing as it does with family relationships in ordinary life. It is never dull, however, packing a dramatic punch that will keep even the most revved up MTV-addict engrossed. Despite simplicity of design, Tokyo Story is powerful and gripping.

Historical Background: Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) made fifty-four films. beginning in 1927 with silent films, of which some thirty-six remain extant. His films are, in a sense, variations on a theme, with striking recurrences of plots, characters, themes, and filming techniques. Ozu used the same actors and crew members over and over again, refining his technique as we went. Ozu’s films deal with the Japanese family and how it has changed but persevered as a result of World War II, industrialization, and the Americanization of Japanese culture. Ozu’s best known film among Western audiences is this one – Tokyo Story (1953). It was also his own personal favorite from his oeuvre. For another interesting Ozu film, check out my review of Floating Weeds (1959).

The Story: An elderly Japanese couple, Shukishi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chicko Higashiyama) Hirayama, of average means, live in a small seaport village, Onomichi, in rural Japan. Their children are mostly grown and have gone off to pursue careers in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka. Only the youngest daughter, Kyôko (Kyôko Kagawa), a school teacher, remains at home. Their eldest son, Koichi (Sô Yamamura), is a pediatrician living in Tokyo, with his wife, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), and their two sons, Minoru (Zen Murase) and Isamu (Mitsuhiro Mori). The eldest daughter, Shige Kaneko (Nobuo Nakamura), also lives in Toyko, with her husband, Kurazo Kaneko (Nobuo Nakamura), and operates a beauty salon out of her home. The Hirayamas’ middle son was killed in World War II but his widow, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), also lives in Tokyo. Youngest son, Keizo (Shiro Osaka), lives in Osaka, which is about half as far as Tokyo from the Hirayamas’ hometown.

The Hirayamas have lost touch with their grown children and have decided to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Tokyo for a visit, to meet their grandchildren, and to see how Tokyo has been rebuilt since the war. Tokyo is a day-and-a-half by train. There is a short stopover in Osaka and they visit briefly with their busy youngest son, who barely has time to squeeze in a stop at the station. Arriving in Tokyo, they find that their physician son is working in a neighborhood clinic and living in a less desirable neighborhood than they had imagined. The grandchildren take no interest in the old people and, in fact, Minoru complains about being temporarily displaced from his room to make a place for the grandparents. It turns out that Koichi will be on duty on Sunday, his only usual day off, because of an emergency at the clinic. He will not be able to show his parents around Tokyo after all. His wife, Fumiko, cannot leave the children alone for an excursion and their finances are so tight that they can ill-afford a babysitter. Koichi asks his sister Shige to care for their folks instead.

Shige is also way too busy to cater to her parents’ tourist interests. Moreover, Shige is manifestly selfish. When her husband brings home some expensive pastries as a gift for Shukishi and Tomi, Shige chastises him for wasting money on a gift that they won’t appreciate anyway, while wolfing the cakes down herself. Shige asks the good-hearted daughter-in-law, Noriko, if she can show Shukishi and Tomi around the city a bit. Though Noriko has been widowed for eight years, she is truly delighted to have the opportunity to visit with her in-laws. Despite being poorer than either Koichi or Shige, she arranges to take a day off from work to spend with her deceased husband’s parents. It is, quite naturally, the highlight of their trip to Tokyo. Not only does she show them the sights, but she also engages them in heart to heart conversation about their lost son.

There are still several days remaining in the Hirayamas’ time in Tokyo and Koichi and Shige are far too preoccupied with their careers to spend time with their parents. They conspire to buy their parents some time at a local hotel hot spa, mainly to get them out of their hair. The hot spa caters largely to an exuberant and noisy youthful population, making it impossible for Shukishi or Tomi to enjoy themselves or even to get much sleep. They decide to leave after one such fitful night, but, returning to Shige’s house, she will not take them in because she is hosting a get-together of beauticians and her parents are too much of an embarrassment to her. Shukishi and Tomi find themselves temporarily homeless. Tomi is taken in by Noriko for the night and they enjoy another woman to woman meaningful conversation.

For his part, Shukishi looks up an old drinking buddy, Osamu Hattori (Hisao Toake), from his younger years (when he had an alcohol problem before giving it up). With a third former resident of Onomichi, they go out drinking and get totally plastered, engaging in intoxicated reveries about their respective disappointments with their children. The drunken Shukishi is finally escorted back to Shige’s home by the police, much to her embarrassment. She chides the old man for going back to booze. The next day, Shukishi and Tomi head back home to their peaceful little village.

On the train, Tomi takes ill. By the time they reach home, she is already in a coma and failing. Koichi and Shige dutifully rush home for the death vigil while Noriko attends out of her own desire to do so, not being required by duty to be there. Keizo is so lax that he fails to arrive until after his mother has passed away. He is then so guilt-ridden that he has to skip out on the funeral as well. Shige’s behavior is especially shameless, as she begins haggling over her mother’s possessions even before she has died. Only Noriko and Kyôko remain behind after the funeral to comfort Shukishi in his distress. Noriko also provides some philosophical perspective for Kyôko, who is somewhat upset by her sister Shige’s grotesque self-absorption and greed. Shukishi gives Noriko Tomi’s wristwatch as a parting gift because of the comfort she had been to Tomi during their trip to Tokyo. An elderly neighbor woman stops by to offer her condolences and Shukishi, in a rare moment of self-disclosure, offers that “Living alone like this, the days will get very long.”

Themes: Ozu’s most evident theme in Tokyo Story is the effect of modern technological and industrialized society on the integrity of the family unit in Japanese culture. Multi-generational family dwellings were long the custom in Asian society, more so than in America. As Japan geared up after World War II to compete economically rather than militarily with America, there was an inevitable infiltration of American values and customs. In Tokyo Story, we can clearly observe the increasing Americanization simply by examining the clothing of the three generations depicted. The grandparents continue to wear traditional Japanese outfits, the middle generation combine American-style business clothing with Japanese clothing, but the grandchildren are decked out in baseball caps, blue jeans, and sneakers. Ozu is making a plea, through Tokyo Story, for young adults to take the time to engage with their parents and/or grandparents, while they are still alive, in meaningful ways. Otherwise, one is likely to regret the lost opportunities once the loved ones have passed away. How rare is it for a film to offer a meaningful lesson in life that actually has a chance of impacting the behavior of a viewer in some significant way?

Another theme always inherent in Ozu films (because they are so quintessentially Japanese) is the extent to which Japanese formalities of behavior stand in the way of genuine expression of feelings. The highly ritualized etiquette of Japanese social interactions may serve to create the appearance of order and decorum, but it also makes it very difficult to deal openly and constructively with interpersonal problems.

Production Values: Ozu is one of the most beloved of Japanese directors, especially in Japan itself. While Kurosawa is more accessible to Western audiences (precisely because he was somewhat Westernized himself and in his filmmaking style), Ozu is more fully Japanese in his sensibilities. Even so, his characters have a universality, at least for any and all cultures built around family units. We can recognize our own parents in Tomi and Shukishi and ourselves or our siblings in the selfish children who have too little time to pay attention to their aging progenitors.

Ozu’s style of filmmaking is quite characteristic since he utilized the same general tactics in all of his middle and late films. Ozu loves to interpose brief, evocative segments composed of beautiful shots of ordinary kinds of life situations. Some of his favorite recurrent images include trains, clothes lines, billowing banners, teapots, and pastoral scenes. These filler scenes remind us that the stories takes place in the context of everyday life.

Another hallmark tactic for Ozu is that most scenes are filmed from a camera placement exactly three feet above the floor. Why? Because that is the height of the eye for a typical Japanese person seated on a tatami mat. For that reason, this camera method of Ozu is known as “Tatami shots.” Ozu very rarely allows his camera to move during a scene. His shots are static but his characters sometimes move through the shot. Ozu often begins a scene with an empty room or outdoor space and allows people or vehicles to enter the space. He then sticks with the shot until the conversation or activity has reached a conclusion, sometimes even waiting for characters to exit the room, leaving viewers to contemplate the empty space. He does not cut away in the middle of action or dialog. He does not use overlapping dialog where a conversation begins or end in another scene. This approach is in keeping with Buddhist philosophy that conceives of an eternal emptiness through which current transient events and people briefly pass.

Ozu often violates the rule of opposition and eye contact during dialog, preferring whenever possible to line up his characters so that all are simultaneously visible to the audience. Frame composition is very carefully conceived in Ozu films. Most shots are framed at the edges to give the impression of miniature paintings. The look of Ozu films promotes a contemplative response from viewers.

Ozu’s minimalist tendencies can also be seen in the simplicity of his narratives. There is little action, almost no special effects, relatively little dialog, and few earth-shaking plot developments. Out of the ordinary events of life, Ozu extracts meanings that are at the core of our human existences. We study such basics as love, rejection, selfishness, and selflessness. Most of what is important in an Ozu film is conveyed beneath the surface, precisely because that is the nature of Japanese culture. The intricate etiquette and formalities of Japanese social interactions provide a false surface appearance of order and complacency that masks a seething cauldron of emotions beneath. Viewers are challenged to deduce the wide range of feelings that underlie the familiar stock repertoire of bows and simple verbal acknowledgements.

Chishu Ryu plays Shukishi with quiet dignity and a slightly downtrodden demeanor. He was one of Ozu’s favorite actors and had credits in Late Autumn (1960) and The Funeral (1984), as well. Chicko Higashiyama was not a well-known actress but was excellent as the overweight and rather ordinary Tomi. The best known actress in the film was Setsuko Hara, who played Noriko. She also appeared in Late Autumn (1960) and Chushingura (1962). All of the secondary roles are performed quite well.

Bottom-Line: Ozu’s art is rendered beautiful by its simplicity. What more can one ask of art than that it find truth from the ordinary, natural elements of everyday life and relationships? The Criterion DVD version of this film should be every movie-lover’s target when looking to borrow or purchase this movie. The high-definition restored digital transfer is as good as it can possibly be, given that the original negative of the film was destroyed by fire. It significantly improves on previous versions. The extras in the two-disc set are also exceptional. There is a high quality commentary track provided by David Dresser. It is highly authoritative and scholarly without becoming dry or tedious. His analysis covers virtually all aspects of the film, including themes, performers, and the film’s place in Ozu’s body of work. On disc #2, there are two superlative documentaries. One, called I Lived, But . . ., provides insight into the great director’s life while the other, called Talking with Ozu, offers commentary by other directors from around the world, including Wim Wenders and Lindsay Anderson. There is also a theatrical trailer. Tokyo Story is in Japanese with English subtitles and has a running time of 134 minutes.


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