Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu: one of the best family dramas ever

An elderly couple comes to town to visit their grandchildren and children. Their children are hectic and the elderly are a problem for their daily life. Even the children will have to travel. From these two aspects, Yasujiro Ozu made one of the greatest films of all time. Tokyo Story (1953) has not nostalgia and sentimentality. A film that lasts more than two hours and that can help us find greater awareness, like many films and books created in the East.

It was made 50 years ago in Japan and is about our families, our natures, our flaws and our clumsy search for love and meaning. Our lives make us too hectic for our families. When there is a chance at a family event to share our dissatisfactions and hopes, we talk about the weather and watch television or social networks.

Ozu is not only a great instructor, but also a great director and, after understanding his films, a good friend. If we understand Ozu, we understand that dizzying camera movements are not necessary, that music will never be used to comment or highlight feelings, that community could be where the story unfolds, however it doesn’t matter. Ozu uses “pillow strokes” as the pillow words in Japanese poetry, making his films with expressive images of everyday life.

The Plot of the Movie

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His camera isn’t always 3 feet above the floor (the eye level of a Japanese sitting on a tatami), but it usually is. We are much more able to evaluate a structure thanks to the fact that Ozu allows us to observe its weights, lines and tones, which constantly show its specific feel on the scene.

He hardly ever moves his camera. If there is movement in an Ozu film, it comes from nature or from individuals, not from the camera. The space is framed before people enter and the cut of the scene occurs after they leave the frame. Often the characters speak little but make us understand a lot about them; the old dad in “Tokyo Story” says “yes”, in some cases no, he chooses to keep his ideas to himself.

Does anyone go to the cinema to enjoy the sets? An elegantly refined design like the faces of the characters and the locations of Ozu is a journey into the intangible subtleties of everyday life. Shukichi, the grandfather, is played by Chishu Ryu, one of Ozu’s favorite stars; Tomi, the grandmother, is played by Chiyeko Higashiyama. He has a simple expression, a noble and fallen grace . We find out he was under the influence of alcohol as a young man, then he quit.

Living in the house with them is their youngest daughter Kyoko. In Tokyo, their first child Koichi is a doctor in a community center, but not quite like imagined by his mother and father. Second child was killed in World War II; their daughter-in-law Noriko (excellent star Setsuko Hara) has never actually remarried and lives in Tokyo.

When mom and dad arrive in the city Ozu describes us in just 2 words of discussion between the characters as the generations of this family are long gone. The elderly spend most of their days “resting” at home because no one is completely free to take them around the city. When Koichi brings the sweets home for his parents, Fumiko states that they are too expensive and that old people would not appreciate them; while they discuss it, they eat them.

Shukichi and Tomi didn’t come to Tokyo to go to a spa, however they agree when their children offer them a vacation. In the hotel we see young people dancing and playing cards, and then, 2 pairs of shoes pulled together outside the door of the old couple. The two elders spend a lot of time sitting side by side. 

Tomi goes to Noriko’s house, and Shukichi joins an old friend in town. While the old father drinks with his friends, the men complain about their children and their lives, and we see how alcohol makes their oriental masks of imperturbability fall: conflicts are stirred within them too. Throughout the film, Tomi and Shukichi discreetly discuss their frustration with non-verbal language, while their authentic feelings are hidden beneath the surface. 

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Tokyo story: the themes of the film

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In terms of family drama, was there any film more moving than Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, in Japanese and world cinema? Children need moms and dads and they need to outlive them. As conditions change and everything goes on and your kids will end up being moms and dads, so your life will close and you won’t be there to see your kids looking back and coming to understand parents when they’re gone.

Is it a disaster or is it fun? Ozu is never sure enough. He seems to be wondering if any development can lead to catastrophe, or if it is not just as inevitable as the passage of time. The audience has to go through Ozu’s reflective style, looking at the low-level shots, where Japanese domestic life takes place.

The film is a milestone in world cinema but still caused some critics to drop out at its first screenings, and there were many even in Japan who said Ozu was out of style. What unique qualities made Tokyo Story so immortal? And why does this story about family and generations resonate with audiences so much, even beyond Ozu’s other excellent films?

The Sight & Sound poll of the “greatest movies of all time” in 2012 saw critics from around the world jointly vote it as the best non-English language film, ranked number 3 behind Vertigo (1958) and Citizen Kane ( 1941). It was subsequently voted best film ever, while a previous poll by Japan’s flagship film magazine Kinema Junpo in 2009 saw critics declaring it the best domestic production ever, just prior to Seven Samurai (1954).

Tokyo Story may not have the grandiose vision and stylistic exuberance that can be expected from a work of its stature. His characters are neither hooligans nor heroes, but members of a normal bourgeois family. Their behavior is quickly recognizable by anyone.

Tokyo Story comes from a category to which, in the post-war period of his profession, Ozu was almost exclusively dedicated: domestic drama. Its inspiration was loosely based on an earlier American film, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey. The style, however, is unequivocally that of its creator.

Key to this work is the contribution of Kogo Noda, Ozu’s longtime screenwriter in over half of his works, from The Sword of Penitence (1927) to his latest film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Ozu thought of the film’s script as a plan to be followed precisely.

Tokyo story: Ozu’s style

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Ozu’s style begins with Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941). The director later invested the rest of his life to refine it. That film, which illustrates the various generations of an extended family affected by the death of its patriarch, can be seen as a precursor to Tokyo Story.

Tokyo Story is the third film in the Noriko trilogy featuring the character of Noriko played by Setsuko Hara. In Late Spring (1949), she is the devoted daughter, persuaded by her aunt to marry and leave the house to her lovely widowed father. Early summer (1951) once again sees Noriko, who lives with her mother, father and her brother’s family. She is a single girl pushed into a marital relationship, while in Tokyo Story, Noriko feels obligated to live alone, married only in memory of her late husband, despite the old couple’s pleas to start a new life.

This type of intertextuality is underlined by Ozu’s casting of the same actors within his work. Just 15 years older than Hara, Chishu Ryu played his father in Late Spring, his older brother in Early Summer and his father-in-law in Tokyo Story, which highlights the adaptability of this member of Ozu’s entourage, who was then just 47 years old.

Ozu has discovered the purest, most relentless and cruelest looks of children than those of adults, wrote director Kiju Yoshida in Ozu’s Anti-Cinema essay, a re-evaluation of a director seen as old-fashioned and conservative by his peers over the years. ’60. “Adults want children to be adorable and innocent, yet children do what they want.”

The reception of the public and critics

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Much false mysticism overshadowed Ozu and proved disheartening for those unfamiliar with Japan and its creative customs. Words and ideas such as Zen, transcendentalism, a term often cited as “mono no mindful“, typically understood in relation to the pathos or transience of things, are often heralded by critics, creating a smokescreen around the clear simplicity of its narrative and its method.

Ozu’s procedure is that of poetry, in a context that ruins routine and family, putting its freshness and seriousness in every word, in every image. Regardless of supporting the universality of Ozu’s work on his superficial exoticism, the director is close to the masters of ink drawing of Japan, the masters of waka and haiku.

Referred to as the most Japanese of all Japanese directors, Ozu made no secret of the impact of Hollywood directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Harold Lloyd in his early films. Part of its difficulty in distributing around the world can be attributed to the studio head Shochiku, where Ozu made all of his 54 films. The studio manager was worried that foreign audiences would not understand his work, at a time when westerns far outstripped the box office takings of Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi dramas.

Thus Ozu, who practically worked exclusively in the field of modern dramas, or gendai-geki, ended up being the last of the masters to make a name for himself worldwide. Tokyo Story was his very first film screened overseas, at the opening of the London Film Festival in 1957. The very first retrospectives outside Japan came later, in 1963, the year of Ozu’s death on his 60th birthday.

Tokyo story, a timeless story

Many in Japan have judged Ozu’s meticulous focus on the microcosm of the family as conservative, out of history and reactionary during the postwar years of great financial development and urbanization. Historical real-world occasions never seem to intrude on Ozu’s home performances. In later films, the whole world exists in a family, the characters are members of the family rather than members of a society.

Moms and dads see, although they may not say it out loud, that their children are not the successful people they thought they were. The message is clear: life in postwar Tokyo is financially very difficult and not at all attractive.

Ozu’s cinema is a meta-critique of cinematic dramaturgy, a rejection of great stories and the artifice of cinema. His films look at humans from alternative perspectives. Tokyo Story is not a story about Tokyo, however it can be seen as a look at the old couple from a Tokyo perspective.

Why, we might ask, is Tokyo Story so typically singled out as the best of many other post-war films? Despite the naive simplicity of Ozu’s characters there is a timelessness in their behavior that makes Tokyo Story much more than just a story of a generational space gap in a certain era. Modern life applies its pressures on the family. and this is even more true today. The characters in the film, their relationships, their interactions and their expectations remain recognizable over the centuries.

Adele Resilienza

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