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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.
Ozu's 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.
There 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 alone.
Of 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.
"Tokyo 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 to Ozu.
It 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.
This 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 remarks.
"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.
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