"Be a good son while your parents are alive. None can serve his parents beyond the grave."—Confucius
In many ways, director Yasujiro Ozu is the opposite number of that most famous of Japanese filmmakers (in the West, anyway), Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa was the prestige director for Toho Company; Ozu for Shochiku Films. While Kurosawa is known mostly for his historically accurate, minutely observed period pieces and swashbucklers, Ozu sought drama in the simple rhythms of life in the modern Japanese family. Kurosawa's work stands out for his brilliant camera movement, and his use of telephoto lenses to give his actors space; Ozu's compositions are stunningly static, conspicuous for the prevalence of low-angle shots, 180 degree cuts, and the director's lingering on his actors in close-up.
When Kurosawa's Rashomon introduced an oblivious West to the existence of Japanese cinema, the director's work was tainted in the eyes of his country's critics: how Japanese could it be if audiences outside Japan could grasp it? But Ozu's films were slow to be exported because the studios believed them too Japanese to be understood by foreigners. Like most of his greatest films, Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari) wasn't released in the United Stated until the 1970s, two decades after its release in Japan.
Though Ozu is still considered the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers, his work displays an understanding of human nature that transcends cultural boundaries. Certainly, a film like Tokyo Story is full of details specific to the post-war Japanese experience, but the characters are so recognizably human, their dilemmas so fundamental to family living that, in spite of Shochiku's reticence about exporting Ozu, Western audiences have had little difficulty recognizing his genius.
Facts of the Case
Aging couple Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) leave their youngest daughter Kyoko at their home in the small town of Onomichi in order to go to Tokyo for a visit with their oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura), a semi-successful pediatrician; their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura, who runs the Ooh La La Beauty Shop out of her home; and Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their middle son, who was killed in the war.
Busy with the day-to-day demands of their own families, Koichi and Shige find their parents' visit an inconvenience. They struggle to keep the old couple entertained. For their part, Shukichi and Tomi find themselves disappointed in their children's selfishness and their relatively modest standards of living. The family soon finds itself faced with a defining moment that will change the remainder of each member's life.
Tokyo Story is probably the best introduction to Ozu's work for those unfamiliar because it contains all the elements of the director's style, fully formed. It's also the most overtly dramatic of his later works, despite what the plot description above may lead you to believe. I purposely made no mention of a particularly significant plot point because there's a certain joy in experiencing Ozu's use of foreshadowing—a narrative element he rarely employs—and I didn't want to spoil that for the uninitiated. Ozu's typical modus operandi involves keeping moments of high drama off-screen so as not to distract from the subtleties of human behavior, emotion, and psychology to which he wants us to pay close attention. This elliptical method of storytelling is on display in Tokyo Story, but there are also a surprising number of moments (for Ozu) in which we're allowed to bear witness to the drama.
The film is specifically about the post-war Japanese experience, particularly the sociological trends that accompanied the industrialization of the country, and the struggle of its people to rebuild their economy as the end of American occupation approached. With greater frequency, children moved away from their parents' homes and the towns in which they were raised to urban areas, where economic success was more easily achieved. It's this very trend that is central in Tokyo Story, but Ozu's handling of it is such that his film is accessible even if one knows or cares nothing about Japan of the 1950s. The cultural specificity adds texture to the universal themes Ozu seeks to explore: conflict between generations, the central role of change in life, and the cyclical nature of human existence as seen through the lens of family. Every moment in the film, even those most seemingly inconsequential, is focused on these concepts. When, for example, Koichi's young sons become petulant at the last-minute cancellation of a family outing, it has no direct bearing on the plot of the film but it expresses the inevitability of conflict between parents and children as well as the natural cycles of family life, and underscores the story's main conflict between the old couple and their adult children. That the effect of these cycles on individuals is both sadness and joy, often simultaneously, is the root of Ozu's fascination with the minutiae of family life. The contrast is between the individual life, which begins with birth and ends with death, and the life of a family, which offers the opportunity of rebirth. That rebirth doesn't obviate the sorrow of children growing up and leaving home or the loneliness that attends death, but it mingles that sorrow with a joy that comes with knowing this is the natural order of things.
It's not the simple profundity of these ideas that makes Ozu a great filmmaker and Tokyo Story a great film, though. It is the director's ability to mine the mundane for startlingly intense emotion that sets him apart, the relative banality of his characters' lives adding authenticity to that emotion. Ozu can bring tears to one's eyes without any of the cheat of sentimentality. Like all great art, his works are true.
Tokyo Story's actors are Ozu regulars, familiar with his sensibilities and cognizant of the delicacy with which their performances need to be delivered. Chishu Ryu, who plays the old man Shukichi, was in nearly every film the director made, from his silents in the late '20s until his last film in 1962. Ryu, Haruko Sugimura (Shige), and Setsuko Hara (Noriko) form the solid foundation upon which the other actors' performances are built. Ryu is convincingly placid yet morally authoritative as Shukichi (despite hints of wild times in his early adulthood), an affect that makes us feel both warmth and pity for the old man. The performances of Sugimara and Hara are vital because their characters cut to the heart of Ozu's theme of family duty by way of their contrast with one another. Sugimara's Shige is the most selfish person in the film, while Hara's Noriko—not even a blood relative of the old couple—is the most selfless. While Shige shows little warmth for her own parents, in Noriko we have a reversal in the post-war generational conflict at the center of the film. Though she lives in Tokyo and works for a tire manufacturer, Noriko takes a traditional stance with regard to her status as a widow: she is a member of her late husband's family, and she will not remarry despite her loneliness. Shukichi and Tomi, normally representative of rural Japanese life before the war, take on more modern sensibilities as they urge Noriko to forget about her duties to them, forget about their lost son, and remarry if the opportunity to do so presents itself. They feel guilt over her loneliness. It's in this sort of relational complexity, which emerges out of keenly-observed characterizations, that Tokyo Story transcends a simple, didactic exploration of the culturally specific, and moves into the realm of the universally human. Particularly telling is how divided critics and viewers are over Shige's behavior. Certainly, she doesn't treat her parents as well as she should, but is she despicable or is she merely an adult with a life and a family and a career of her own, misguided but worthy of our grace? That such things are debatable is proof the actors' performances achieved a keen delicacy in perfect keeping with the director's sensibilities.
I could go on and on, but the bottom line is Tokyo Story is a great film made by a great director. If you haven't seen it, do so. This Criterion Collection DVD is, without a doubt, an excellent way to experience this masterpiece. The presentation of the film itself is beautiful, and the ample supplements provide a substantive background on both the film and its maker.
The movie is presented in a full screen transfer that looks great, all things considered. When assessing Japanese films, it's important to understand that studios like Shochiku didn't have a lot of money until American and European interest in Japanese films began to kick into high gear in the mid-1950s. Films prior to that were shot using cameras and film stocks of a lower quality than what was used in Hollywood at the time. One should reasonably expect a Japanese film of the late-'40s or early-'50s to look a lot like a Hollywood film of the 1930s in terms of deterioration of the negative and source elements. With that in mind, Tokyo Story's image on DVD is a high-contrast black-and-white with a narrow gray scale, noticeable grain, and many instances of emulsion damage in the form of nicks and pocks. Major damage has been digitally repaired; the stuff that's left is the sort of minor but ever-present damage that would be cost prohibitive to digitally remove and, even if Criterion spent the money to so, the result would be a transfer that looked like it came from a video rather than a film source. If you're familiar with Criterion's release of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, you've got a reasonable idea what to expect—Tokyo Story looks slightly better overall. This is the best the movie has ever looked in a home video format. It's likely the best it'll ever look. In light of the difficulties inherent in Japanese film sources of this period, the transfer is beautiful.
Audio is similarly limited. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono in Japanese sports plenty of hiss and crackle, especially when the score is active. Dynamic range is as narrow as expected, but dialogue is always clear. All flaws are from the source.
The list of supplements contained in this two-disc set isn't long, but the quality of each extra more than offsets the small quantity. Along with the feature itself, the first disc houses a theatrical trailer and a feature-length audio commentary by David Desser, an Ozu scholar who edited Ozu's Tokyo Story, a collection of essays about the film. The track is highly substantive, covering everything from Ozu's career to an in-depth analysis of his narrative construction of the film as well as his unique approaches to shot composition and how they contribute to the psychology of his storytelling. If you know nothing about Ozu, you will after listening to this track.
Disc two offers two films about Ozu. The first is writer-director Kazuo Inoue's feature-length biographical documentary, I Live, But…. The film runs 122 minutes, and is indexed into 26 chapters. The presentation is full screen with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio in Japanese. Made in 1983 to celebrate Ozu's contribution to Japanese cinema and commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death, the film presents a history of his life and career, and contains interviews with his actors and crewmembers, including Chishu Ryu and director Shohei Imamura (The Pornographers) whose career began as an assistant to Ozu. It's an excellent primer on Ozu, and its best feature is lengthy clips from some of the key entries in Ozu's body of work, like Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Twilight (1957), Equinox Flower (1958), Late Autumn (1960), and, of course, Tokyo Story.
The second film on disc two is Talking with Ozu, a 1993 short film that drives home the director's importance in international cinema. It's a simple piece in which filmmakers from around the world—Aki Kaurismäki, Claire Denis, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien—discuss Ozu's influence on their own art. There's much less substance here as the filmmakers mostly offer personal reflections and little in the way of analysis of Ozu's films or style, but it successfully communicates the scope of his influence. All of the filmmakers interviewed are mellow, reserved, and a bit stiff, maybe because the conceit of the film is that they're talking to Ozu not about him (though none really plays along). The film runs 40 minutes, and is indexed into seven parts. The presentation is 1.78:1 non-anamorphic with mono audio.
The final supplement is an insert essay about Tokyo Story by David Bordwell, author of the book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema.
What can I say? Tokyo Story is a masterpiece. See it!
Ozu, his film, and the Criterion Collection are all found not guilty.
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• Audio Commentary by Ozu-Film Scholar David Desser
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