I’ve learned a lot from the movies, so I wasn’t sure exactly at first what I wanted to write about for this Blogathon. Looking back at some of the movies that had a tremendous impact on me and my way of life, there were so many to choose from. I could easily have talked about how “Sullivan’s Travel’s” taught me the transcendental power of laughter, or how films like “Chinatown” or “No Country for Old Men” taught me that there is evil in the world and sometimes no matter what you do to prevent it, bad things happen. Conversely I could have also written about films like “Schindler’s List” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” which taught me that one person can make a difference. I could’ve gone on about the films of The Marx Brothers which taught me that anarchy can be a very potent weapon in the face of repression, or films like “Superman” or “Seven Samurai” taught me how heroism itself no matter what the situation can bring out the best in you even if it’s only seen as a public service. I could easily write about any of these films and their impact on how I see the world, but it for me there is no second choice, there is really only one. A film that kinda brought me back to life by showing me just how beautiful, heartbreaking, and delicate it can be. Its director and his body of work inspired the name of this blog, so there’s really no question, I must write about “Tokyo Story.”
An elderly couple go visit their children in Tokyo but when they get there, the children are too busy to spend much time with them; the couple then return home where the mother dies and then the children must make the trip for her funeral. In a nutshell that is the entire plot of “Tokyo Story”, which is something director Yasujiro Ozu didn’t spend much time worrying about, but with this simple premise he was able to make a masterpiece.
“Tokyo Story” is really about a universal truth: the passage of time, how we grow, make new lives for ourselves, and sometimes move apart from the people we were once close to, that’s usually the way life is, and as Ozu depicts it in “Tokyo Story” it’s something inevitable and profoundly sad.
The elderly couple the film focuses on live very far away from their children, we get the sense they don’t get to see them as often as they want to. They still have their youngest daughter who lives with them, she takes care of them but eventually even she will have to leave the home as well. For the couple, the trip to Tokyo is something they have been looking forward to, we get the sense that, to them it could be the last time they see all of their children.
When they first get to Tokyo, they are greeted by their oldest son who is now a local doctor and is married with children, and their oldest daughter who is also married and runs her own beauty salon. The grown children are seen running busy lives and sometimes they are depicted as just not having enough time for their parents, and sometimes they are seen as seeing their visit as a nuisance. Ozu doesn’t really judge his characters in any way, there aren’t any real villains in his films, a lot of the scenes depicting the children as rather selfish or even ungrateful are to me painfully real.
The children do find ways to keep their parents occupied and entertained during their trip which usually doesn’t include spending any time with them. The one person who does take the time to be with them is their daughter in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Noriko was married to the couple’s second son, who is referenced as being missing for eight years since the war and presumed dead. Noriko is very kind to them, she is seen asking for the day off from her job so she can take them sight seeing.
Even though Noriko does show the couple kindness, the children still feel they can’t keep bothering her with their parents, so they decide to send them to a spa outside of Tokyo. Even though the spa is seen as a luxury to the children, the parents are annoyed by the loud music and constant noise by the younger guests, they stay one night and decide to return to Tokyo. It’s here in the smallest of moments when the mother struggles to get to her feet and says she feels dizzy, we sense that all is not right with her.
Ozu’s running theme in nearly all of hi films is the dissolution of the family, this usually has to do with children moving away from their parents, getting married, and finding lives of their own. Once you get to know his films,( and if you’re any kind of a film lover you should) you will see these types of scenarios played out time and time again. Very often you see similar visual motifs show up in an Ozu film, he placed his camera usually three feet from the ground, which was roughly the same height a person would be sitting on a traditional Japanese tatami mat, it gives his scenes an observational perspective. Ozu also very rarely moved his camera, it’s usually kept secure on a tripod, he also never goes in for a full close up on a person, only going as far as a medium close when focusing on a character. It’s as if he’s trying not to influence your feelings on the film, or the people, big emotional scenes aren’t very common for Ozu, he aims for a mundane reality, but he able to find beauty in it. The compositions in each shot are wonderfully put together and precise, Ozu loves doorways, which thanks to Japanese building architecture creates frames within frames, we seeing these people as living portraits of every day life.
But I’m here to talk about what “Tokyo Story” has taught me, and I can’t whittle it down to one defining idea. I first saw it when I was in my mid-twenties, a time I thought I had seen everything cinema had to offer. I had exhausted my library of Hitchocks, Truffauts, Kurosawas, Bergmans, Scorseses, and Spielbergs to name a few, I felt I understood every film out there. But Ozu introduced me to something very profound, and something no other filmmaker has duplicated for me, no matter how much I would love their kinds of film. Ozu, starting with “Tokyo Story”, showed me with no compromises or any manipulation whatsoever that life is full of small tragedies. In the simplest way I saw for the first time in film life as it is, full of the many subtle moments of joy and sadness we take for granted in our own lives. The idea of not paying enough attention to your parents when they are around enough to spend time with you, or the thought of a loved one you were once close to and has moved away to a new life and you don’t get to see them as much as you used to, or even the notion that when you are together with a loved one, you can repress your true feelings and fill them with mundane talk about the weather or business, things that are deemed pointless in the grand scheme of things. Ozu hones in to these ideas with his films, and he sees the tragedy of it, he’s aware of the passage of time, how we wish we had more time with the people we love, he never judges his characters, he sees how they can grow into different people with different needs, but they all long for the past.
In one of the final scenes in “Tokyo Story”, Noriko, who again is the only who has been there for the elderly couple confesses to the father that she has been basically trying to hold on to the memory of her dead husband, but that she sometimes stops thinking about him for days, she feels so alone, as she says “In my heart, I seem to be waiting for something”. For me that’s what we all seem to go through at one time or another, we are all waiting for something, whether it’s permission to let go of the past and move on with our lives, or something else. “Tokyo Story” is a lament for the past, which once was and what can never be again, it shows how things change, and how life still goes on once someone is gone. It’s quiet, yet angry, sad, yet comforting, serene, yet powerful, it’s a masterpiece about life, how it is celebrated, and how it is mourned. It’s a film that fills my heart, it reminds me how beautiful and fragile our moments in life are, the smallest thing can have the biggest meaning, and it sweeps me with emotion.