Review: Tokyo Story – Tokyo Monogatari (1953)

Tokyo Story – Tokyo Monogatari (1953)

Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu | 136 minutes | drama | Actors: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Sô Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyôko Kagawa

A synopsis of the story of ‘Tokyo Story’ does not suggest that this is a film known as a masterpiece. The developments and events in the film are almost deceptively simple; something that is usually the case in Yasujiro Ozu’s films. However, within his simple storylines, essential human truths and behaviors are often astutely put to the test.

‘Tokyo Story’, like ‘Late Spring’ (1949), is characterized by an extremely high degree of simplicity, or rather, by an intense concentration on a specific aspect or theme, often reaching strong emotional depths of the characters , with whom we as viewers develop an increasingly strong bond. ‘Late Spring’ focused extensively on the relationship between a father and his daughter, who struggles with her impending marriage because of the necessary letting go of her father. ‘Tokyo Story’ now focuses almost compulsively on the gap that has arisen between parents and children, and how the latter no longer (seem to) have time and place for their parents.

The problem is presented in such an intense and ruthless way that you can’t ignore it, and as a viewer you can hardly help but embrace the parents and their daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and start thinking about the inevitability (or not) and the possible deplorability of the developments in the film.

The undesirability of the parents takes various forms. Some kids (like Shige) seem downright annoyed that the parents are coming to visit, and they don’t show any appreciation or love from their characters towards the parents. Remarkably, however, the impact of the mother’s death is all the more intense with these characters. Keizo’s joking remark to a co-worker when his mother has just fallen ill, Dead and Buried regrets coming too late, becomes a painful truth for him and Shige. Others show that they care about their parents, but here it is mainly their daily routine and obligations that play tricks on them. They would (maybe) want to spend time with Mom and Dad, but there is simply little opportunity to do so in the busy modern lives of the kids. Especially when it comes to a metropolis like Tokyo, it turns out that there is little room for traditionally minded parents who live at a leisurely pace.

It is this contrast between the old traditional, quiet world of the parents, and the more modern sensibility centered on busy schedules and a growing industry that is one of the great strengths of the film, and is reflected in content as well as visually and musically. Shots of the parents’ rustic, natural environment are alternated with various shots of factories or apartment buildings under construction. The scenes in and around the bathhouse where the parents were sent are among the most beautiful and emblematic scenes of the film. We see how they try to rest in their room while it is bustling outside their room: a band playing, a continuous coming and going of (young) visitors. When the two of them sit on the edge of the pier and observe their lives and that of modern Japan, you feel as a viewer that they do not belong here and are much happier together in their own world. Very touching, poetic scenes.

Daughter-in-law and widow Noriko acts as a kind of connection between the old and the new world. She is the contemporary of the actual children of the Hirayama couple and also has a busy job in an office, but knows how to make time for her in-laws. She is extremely loyal to these people, and to their deceased son. She refuses to marry out of respect for the parents, and she also takes the time whenever possible to receive them or show them Tokyo. It is truly heartwarming to see how it can be done, and how the bond between Noriko and her mother-in-law develop in the intimate scenes at her home.

It is ironic that it is precisely the daughter-in-law who shows a lot of love and affection, while the own children fail. But perhaps that is often the case. You often take family or friends for granted, only realizing how much they mean and earn when it’s too late, or when someone else pushes you into the facts. Yet it is particularly poignant and painful to see how the Hirayama couple is treated. Even when the mother has just died, the children are not yet cured. After a moment of mourning, they want to get home as soon as possible to get to work or watch a baseball game. The inheritance is also quickly divided – Shige, for example, is interested in that beautiful summer kimono.

The daughter Akiko, who still lives with the parents and who has stayed at home, expresses this regrettable situation to Noriko by saying that the children only think about themselves and do not know how quickly they have to get away. Although this is very explicit, and it might have been better to leave this conclusion to the (intelligence of) the viewer, Noriko’s answer is valuable and sharpens the theme a bit more. Because, even though Noriko is the nostalgic center here and Ozu seems to prefer the old values, Noriko’s answer is that that’s the way it is, and that children start living their own lives without interacting much with the parents. interfering, makes the viewer think again about the cycle of life and certain unavoidable, natural processes. To what extent this is regrettable, and to what extent the behaviors in this film can be condemned, are interesting and valuable questions to ponder. ‘Tokyo Story’ is a film that touches (and stabs) the viewer’s heart and at the same time encourages reflection. You can’t ask for much more from a film, can you?

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