Saturday, August 11, 2012

Short Take: Tokyo Story

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Over the last few decades, the 1953 Japanese film Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujiro Ozu, has become a fixture of consensus best-films-of-all-time lists. A viewer may be initially puzzled as to why. It’s a quiet family drama, and Ozu displays no conspicuous filmmaking dazzle. The story begins with an elderly Japanese couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), who live in a small town with their youngest daughter (Kyoko Kagawa), preparing to travel to Tokyo. The couple are going there to visit their eldest son (So Yamamura) and daughter (Haruko Sugimura), who live in the city with their families. But once the couple arrive, they find the son and daughter are so busy with their daily lives that they cannot pay the parents much attention. Resentment of the parents, particularly from the eldest daughter, also rears its head, and it’s not entirely out of place. The only person who goes out of her way to entertain the elderly couple is the widow (Setsuko Hara) of their middle son. The couple eventually returns home before they planned. But tragedy strikes soon afterward, and three of the family members come to terms with the truth of their family’s internal problems. For all their remorse, they realize one can only move forward, and the additional pain of that must be accepted. Ozu concerns himself entirely with serving the story, and he presents it with considerable understatement. The rigor of that understatement is extraordinary, and the thematic core of the film--the tacit conflicts that arise between parents and children over the years, and how the generations invariably drift apart--is so resonant that one cannot get the picture out of one’s head. Ozu’s bravura isn’t in flashy camerawork or epic story construction. It’s in finding drama in the mundane and realizing it with the utmost precision. In many ways, his sophistication is the most impressive kind. Tokyo Story is a great picture, and well deserving of its inclusion on the short list of all-time best films. The screenplay is credited to Kogo Noda and Ozu.

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