Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

November 24, 2011

Japanese film: "Tokyo Story" (1953) by Ozu

Many critics have called Tokyo Story the best film Ozu ever made - it also features in the top 10 of an influential list of best films (Sight & Sound). The subject is - as in many other mature films by Ozu - the decay of traditional values seen in the lives of the members of a family. The rite of passage this time is not a wedding, but old age and death.


The Hirayama's, an elderly couple (played by Ryu Chishu and Higashiyama Chieko) are living with their youngest daughter Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko), a school teacher, in Onomichi, in Western Japan (near Hiroshima). They have three other children: Koichi (Yamamura So), a local physician, married to Fumiko (Miyake Kuniko) and with two children; Shige, a beautician, with husband Kaneko Kurazu (Nakamura Nobuo); both these live in Tokyo and so does daughter-in-law Noriko, the widow of their son who has never returned from the war; a younger son lives in Osaka. They haven't seen their busy children in a long time and now plan a long trip to both cities to spend some time with them.

You may already be able to guess what happens, for this is a perennial the world around: the children are busy, busy, busy with their own lives and have no time for the parents they have not seen in many years; their egoism is so gross, it becomes even funny; the two oldies are obstacles which are shoved from the house of the son to that of the daughter, and then packed off to Atami, a vulgar and noisy spa town on the Izu coast, about two hours from Tokyo, where they are kept awake by partying youths. When they return unexpectedly early from Atami, they are at first nowhere welcome and almost become "homeless," as they joke among themselves.

There is one exception: daughter-in-law Noriko, who has an office job and lives in a tiny wooden flat. Like a traditional widow, all those years since the war she has kept the memory of her missing husband alive and refuses to consider remarrying. She takes a day off from work (although she is the one who can least of all miss the income) to guide her parents-in-law through Tokyo - we see them on a sort of "Hato bus tour." She also takes them for dinner to her flat - she is so poor she has to borrow not only the sake from a neighbor, but also the sake cups and flask. And when the parents have no home, she takes in the mother, who spends the most valuable moments of the whole Tokyo visit talking with Noriko (the father from his side has gone to visit some old friends, with whom he gets pleasantly drunk, after which the police brings him and one friend to the house of daughter Shige - the egoistic daughter gets her deserts having to take care of two totally plastered old men!).


The mother has had an attack of dizziness in Atami, and on the return trip, again in Osaka. When the parents arrive back home in Onomichi she falls seriously ill and soon dies. Now the family has to make the reverse journey for the funeral. This is done with the same blatant egoism. They stay as short as possible. Shige steals some clothes of the dead woman, "as a memory." And again, only Noriko is different. She stays as long as possible with her widowed father-in-law, who gives her the watch of his wife - and remonstrates with her in a kind way to be sure to remarry. Kyoko, the youngest sister, is shocked at the coldness of the family, but Noriko tells her serenely that is "how the world is." In the train on the way back to Tokyo, she looks pensively at her gift - will she remarry?

Some other points:
  • Onomichi is a port town on the Inland Sea, with narrow alleys, steep slopes and many old temples. There is still a lot of atmosphere left, making it a great place to visit.
  • In 1953 there was no Shinkansen yet (it started services between Osaka and Tokyo in 1964). Today the trip from Onomichi to Tokyo by ordinary trains (skipping the Shinkansen) would take more than 12 hours, in 1953 it was probably even longer - a heavy trip for two elderly people. 
  • Atami is a large resort town with hot springs. Now past its prime, in the fifties and sixties it was a fashionable - though even then already quite vulgar - destination for group tours and newly weds ("Atami" has been jokingly called "tatami" - where Tokyoites travel to do things in a horizontal position).
  • The scars of the war are still visible in 1953: Noriko's husband is missing in action, his body has never been retrieved. 
  • During funerals in Japan, both men and women should wear black clothes, including the tie.

Thanks to the various locations - from Onomichi to various places in Tokyo, to Atami, Tokyo again and finally again Onomichi - this is a film on a big scale. It has all the typical Ozu trademarks I discussed in a previous post. Due to the subject matter, it is a bit darker than for example Late Spring, but happily, it is full of humor as well. This is a very humane film, of great universal value.