Notes on film: Tokyo Story

“We can’t expect too much from our children”.

Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari) is generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. It regularly appears at the top of most credible film polls and there are an endless number of film critics and filmmakers who speak of it in complete awe and admiration. While director Yasujiro Ozu was not known outside of Japan until much later than other important Japanese directors such as The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954) director Akira Kurosawa, he is now regarded as one of the world’s foremost filmmakers.

Ozu directed his first film in 1927 and was a prolific director in Japan until he was conscripted in 1937. Ozu did make a couple of films during the war years but he would not start filmmaking regularly again until the late 1940s. However, the films that he then went on to direct, which include Tokyo Story in 1953, are the films that developed his distinctive style and are his most acclaimed. Some of these films include Late Spring (Banshun, 1949), Early Summer (Bakushu, 1951), Floating Weeds (Ukigusa, 1959) and An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, 1962). Ozu’s films from this era tended to be concerned with issues of family, marriage and domestic life. They are distinctively different from the grand narratives of Kurosawa’s films and they also have little resemblance to the Hollywood melodramas that explored similar issues with an excess of emotion and style. Instead Ozu’s stories are simple and calm affairs that are tinged with nostalgia. Zen-like and sad, Ozu’s films offer the audience an opportunity to reflect and contemplate their own life and how it mirrors that of the characters on the screen.

The dominant theme of Tokyo Story is the generational conflict between parents and their children. It depicts the visit of an elderly couple who come to Tokyo where they wish to spend time with their adult children, and their families, and the widowed spouse of another son who was killed in the war. Despite best intentions the children find that their parents’ visit is a burden to their busy lives, something that the parents then feel bad about. Tokyo Story is the perfect example of Ozu’s gentle approach to storytelling. It is an open narrative, in that there is no great all encompassing resolution, and none of the characters are delineated as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, with the possible exception of their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (played by regular Ozu actor Setsuko Hara) who is one of the most heartbreakingly kind and generous characters to ever appear on screen.

Ozu’s desire to ensure that the audience focus on the small nuances of character interaction is apparent by examining what is left out of the film. Despite its importance to the film, the city of Tokyo is barely depicted. There are the occasional establishing shots of industry to distinguish it from the rural setting where the film begins and ends but otherwise the only time the audience really gets to see the city is at the same time as the elderly couple during their brief bus tour. In terms of plot development, major turning points that a more narrative driven film would have included, are left out. The audience never sees any of the train journeys that the parents take and key events towards the end of the film all occur off-screen. Instead Ozu focuses on how the characters respond and interact with each other rather than the actual dramatic moments.

The meditative quality of Tokyo Story is further enhanced by Ozu’s approach to film style. Conversations in films are typically shot in the shot-reverse-shot pattern where the camera is placed over the shoulder of the character that is speaking. This gives the impression of a naturally flowing conversation that the audience witness from a detached position. Ozu, on the other hand, places his camera right between the two people conversing and films each person directly so that the audience feel that they are standing in the middle of the conversation and are being addressed directly by the characters. Furthermore, Ozu films from a far lower height than audiences are accustomed to. This technique has been described as the tatami shot as the camera is placed as if it were a person kneeling on a tatami mat. This technique increases the sensation of the audience being within the space of the film and therefore makes them far more receptive to the characters.

Perhaps Ozu’s most innovative approach to filmmaking in the period when he made Tokyo Story was to strip away all stylistic devices associated with camera movement and editing. Ozu’s camera is static – once a shot begins the camera does not move except on very rare occasions, such as the slow, steady and unobtrusive tracking shot in Tokyo Story­ that goes along a fence to reveal the parents waiting outside for Noriko to come home. Ozu also discarded editing techniques such as dissolves, fades and wipes to instead have simple direct cuts. Transitions between scenes were created through a series of insert shots. This pared down approach to filmmaking further heightens the reflective quality of Ozu’s films and brought the humanity of the characters further into the foreground.

Tokyo Story is a masterpiece that leaves the viewer in a serene state of thoughtfulness long after the film has finished. It is a distinctly Japanese film, depicting the sad inevitability that children develop a degree of selfishness in order to become independent from their parents. Tokyo Story may be a slice-of-life type of film but it also conjures up some of the big questions in life such as how we deal with grief, death, aging and change.

Originally appeared in the film notes for the Region 4 DVD box set A Beginner’s Guide to Cinema 2, released by Madman Entertainment

© Thomas Caldwell, 2008