Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tokyo Story (1953) - Yasujiro Ozu

Setsuko Hara as Noriko.
An elderly couple are disappointed with a visit to Tokyo, where their children's busy lives and attitude make them feel neglected. Only their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), goes out of her way to be nice. Her husband was presumed killed in the war eight years ago. The children send the parents to a resort but it proves too noisy and unpleasant, prompting the couple to cut their visit short. On the train ride home, the woman falls seriously ill, and the children are notified to come quickly.

In a simple story about family relationships, aging, and loss, Ozu creates an extraordinarily  poignant and moving film, filled with quiet moments. Conversations are short with long pauses for thought, and with but one exception, Ozu's camera is stationary, letting the languid pace of life unfold for the characters and audience. A motif of time and travel plays behind the action: a watch, trains in motion, and a tug floating down a river. The pacing serves to remind us there is a universality about how parents and their children grow apart, about how we are all affected by loneliness at one time or another, and about the expectation of death and regret afterwards. Ozu shows this all without maudlin sentimentality in a passive and minimal style that demands your attention and reflection.

Setsuko Hara gives a captivating and beautiful performance as Noriko, a kind, smiling  woman scarred by loss. Pre-war cultural norms say she remains part of her husband's family, and she has put her life on hold with his death, keeping his photo displayed on a shelf. This is a troubled soul. Yet throughout, she manages to show great compassion to all the characters in sharp contrast to the couple's own children, who act distracted and inconvenienced by the visit as they mostly ignore the parents, eventually shuffling them off to a spa to get them out of the way. One daughter even scolds her husband for buying cakes for the occasion, saying crackers are good enough for her parents. After a kindness, the old woman encourages Noriko to forget her dead husband, saying she should remarry. But Noriko is resigned to her lot in life. She works in a tire factory and her apartment is small and sparsely decorated. It is a lonely existence. When asked, "Isn’t life disappointing?" she smiles and says simply "Yes, it is," as if nothing can be done to change it.

A revealing scene occurs at the post-funeral meal. The conversation is awkward. None of the siblings express real regret to their father for his loss. One even asks for pieces of her mother's clothing as keepsakes, and they are all in a hurry to get back to their own lives. Director Ozu does not seem to be judging them so much as saying their reaction mimics real life.   

Noriko is overcome with emotion.
Several journeys are developed over the course of the film: that of the parents to and from Tokyo; the father's realization that life is forever changed; and Noriko's transition from the past to the future. This is not a happy film to watch, but it is an honest one. Hara gives one of film's all time great performances. She has a quiet dignity, but the quiver in her voice suggests a brave front. Her final conversation with the father is a catharsis; she finally admits her profound loneliness. Overcome, she buries her face in her hands. The shift is sudden but subtle. In the hands of a different director and actress, the scene might have been overdone; here it is deeply affecting. The film ends hopefully for her. En-route back to Tokyo, she holds her mother-in-law's watch, a gift from the husband; and from her expression, you can believe she is finally ready to move on.

Noriko serves as substitute for their own children. Here she treats the Hirayamas to sake in her modest apartment after a day of sight-seeing.
The supporting performances are strong, especially  Chieko Higashiyama as the old wife. She has a wonderful scene with Hara, reluctantly accepting a small gift of money, knowing the girl can ill-afford to give it. The gesture sparks genuine affection in her for the girl, and shame.  Elsewhere, the old woman tries with little success to bond with a grandchild she has never before seen, strolling along a ridge. It is another nearly speechless moment where Ozu comments on the difficulty of generations to communicate. 

The film contains little music beyond the haunting melody that opens the action and brings down the curtain. The film is notable for its use of the "tatami-mat" shot, in which the camera height is low and remains largely static throughout. The style necessitated all the sets to be constructed with ceilings.

What Makes Tokyo Story Special:
Often in real life, love between old couples remains largely unspoken, yet it's there in their little mannerisms and exchanged glances. The film captures that sweet reality perfectly.     

For Western audiences, one of the more interesting aspects of the film is getting a glimpse of Tokyo a few years after the war. It is economically depressed and socially repressed by Western standards, incredibly crowded and claustrophobic. The only baths are public. It is a fascinating setting and look into another culture.

Deservedly so, Tokyo StoryHara not winning as actress, and the director and film not being nominated.

Inside Story:

American audiences did not get to see the film until 1964, by which time Ozu was already dead.

This was Ozu's third pairing of Hara and Chishu Ryu, who plays the old man. Four years earlier they appeared in Late Spring, and two years earlier in Early Summer. As with this film, Ozu's style was simple story telling, as an observer of ordinary people, without camera tricks and complex plots. Hara retired from acting in 1963, just 43 years of age and shortly after Ozu's death at age 60. As of this writing, she is still alive. 

Ryu and Ozu collaborated in 52 films, surely a record for a director and actor.

Other Films of Interest by Ozu/Hara:

Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo boshoku (1957), Late Autumn (1960), and The End of Summer (1961).

  twice named on Top Ten List of greatest films by BFI critics (Sight and Sound magazine)  

 on Time's All-time list of Great Films

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