Movie Review: Tokyo Story

25 Jun

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Last night my Japanese-culture-obsessed beloved and I treated ourselves to a Japan night.This month, the Film Forum in NY is showing a series of Movies by Yosujiro Ozu. He is one of Japan’s most famous early directors, whose career spanned from silent film until well after WWII. His firms are very different from the huge, dramatic spectacles with banners waving and samurai sword flying that characterize the work of the more familiar (to the West) director Akira Kurosawa. The Seven Samurai was, in fact, one of the first foreign movies we ever brought our sons to (at ages 10 and 13?) and they were enraptured. No ten-year-old I know would be enraptured by the extremely slow and detailed portrait of common life in either of the Ozu films I have seen. But for a seasoned adult, these subtle films show much about human nature.

The plot of Tokyo story could not be simpler. An old Japanese couple leave their faraway town to visit Tokyo where their adult children live for a week. All of their children are reportedly doing well (except for a ne’er-do-well who died during the war), and they want to see how they’re doing.

The war is over, Tokyo is rebuilding, and everyone young is living busy lives, putting the war resolutely behind them.

One of the reasons I found this film interesting is because it was black and white and filmed probably around 1954, the life it shows is very similar to the life we saw in Japan last year. It is sweltering and people are constantly fanning themselves and each other (very true today). People dress in a mixture of western and Japanese dress (still true). Tokyo is gimongous (yup). There is a careful and exquisite presentation of food—rice served in a rustic basket is spooned into a bowl, and placed on a tray before being passed along. There is also a very specific hierarchy of footwear—outdoor shoes, indoor shoes, bare feet or slippers, a necessity for delicate tatami mats. Ozu does not hurry the process of filmmaking along by omitting this endless changing of footwear, the constant opening and closing os fliding doors. As we took care to stay only Japanese style accommodations on one trip, we grew used to changing our footwear quickly—and indeed  it is the custom in our own home.

But beyond the many little cultural details, the story, as it unfolds, is one about the nature of parent-child relationships and about the totally recognizable people who make up the story. The parents seem good-natured (though the father had past history of drinking) and accommodating, but by one child after another, they are treated as nuisances.

“Why did you buy those expensive cakes for them,” snipes one daughter to her husband.

“They’re your parents. I thought they would like them.”

“They don’t deserve them. They can have crackers.”

“They had crackers yesterday.”

“They LIKE crackers.”

Only one daughter-in-law, Noriko, the widow of their bad boy, has the decency to treat them with gentle respect. She is also the only one whose veneer of polite smiles will break into a pensive sadness.

One night, the father gets drunk and one says,  something like, “It’s terrible to lose your children, but they aren’t so easy to live with, either.” That observation says volumes about about the effect of war—which quietly looms in the background as a massive, unspoken shadow. The father says, “Well—times are different.” That’s for damn sure. You wonder . Do the children unspeakingly blame their parents for the war? Does the stoicism required for looking into the future make it hard to talk? Are the values of the younger generation just truly different than the gracious manners of the parents?

When the mother gets sick, we learn even more about these individuals and their characters.

The word “busy” is used again and again. And the contrast of the parents’ slowness and timelessness with the business of the rushing of the children is as poignant today as it was then. Although I found this movie almost soporific at times, its influence  grew on me and I felt deeply touched.

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