Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story" tells a tale as simple and
universal as life itself. It is about a few ordinary days in the lives of some
ordinary people, and then about the unanticipated death of one of them. What it
tells us about the nature of life or death is not new or original -- what could
be? -- but it is true.
story can be summarized in a few words. An old couple make the long train trip
to Tokyo to visit their children. During their stay of a week or 10 days, they
are treated politely but with a certain distraction; life moves quickly in the
big city, and there is not always time for the parents and their courtly
provincial ways. On the train journey home, the mother falls ill. The children
are summoned, and all but one are at the bedside when she dies.
is great sadness, of course, and sympathy for the old father. But life must go
on. The children were casually indifferent to their parents in life. Now that
the mother is dead, they speak of their regrets that they didn't do more for
her; but they also maneuver quietly for some of her possessions, and within a
day after the funeral they have all returned to the city, leaving the father
all the relatives, the one who is most considerate of the father is not even a
blood relative: a daughter-in-law, the widow of a son who died, was the warmest
toward the old couple when they were in Tokyo, and now she is the kindest to
the old man. He tells her, after his wife's funeral, that she should remarry as
soon as possible. "My son is dead," he says, "and it is not
right for you not to marry." He says he would feel better if she forgot
his son; he does not see any irony in this attitude, so soon after his wife's
funeral, and perhaps there really isn't any.
Story" was made in 1953, or at about the same period that a group of great
Japanese films was beginning to make a first impression on Western audiences.
The best known are "Rashomon," "Ugetsu Monogatari" and
"Gates of Hell." But "Tokyo Story" was not imported at that
time, and its current national release represents a kind of posthumous tribute
is clear that "Tokyo Story" was one of the unacknowledged
masterpieces of the early-1950s Japanese cinema, and that Ozu has more than a
little in common with that other great director, Kenji Mizoguchi
("Ugetsu"). Both of them use their cameras as largely impassive,
honest observers. Both seem reluctant to manipulate the real time in which
their scenes are acted; Ozu uses very restrained editing, and Mizoguchi often
shoots scenes in unbroken takes.
objectivity creates an interesting effect; because we are not being manipulated
by devices of editing and camera movement, we do not at first have any very
strong reaction to "Tokyo Story." We miss the visual cues and
shorthand used by Western directors to lead us by the nose. With Ozu, it's as
if the characters are living their lives unaware that a movie is being shot.
And so we get to know them gradually, begin to look for personal
characteristics and to understand the implications of little gestures and quiet
"Tokyo Story" moves quite slowly by our Western standards, and
requires more patience at first than some moviegoers may be willing to supply.
Its effect is cumulative, however; the pace comes to seem perfectly suited to
the material. And there are scenes that will be hard to forget: The mother and
father separately thanking the daughter-in-law for her kindness; the father's
laborious drunken odyssey through a night of barroom nostalgia; and his
reaction when he learns that his wife will probably die.
We speak so casually of film "classics" that it is a
little moving to find one that has survived 20 years of neglect, only to win
Western critical acclaim nine years after the director's death.