Judge Daryl Loomis will only talk to people while sitting on the ground.
Our review of Tokyo Story: Criterion Collection, published November 17th, 2003, is also available.
Isn't life disappointing?
Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring) directed over fifty movies before his death on his 60th birthday, but it's the ones from late in his career that made people regard him as one of the giants of Japanese cinema. Unlike such contemporaries as Akira Kurosawa, though, whose action-packed period movies could succeed overseas, Ozu's work was considered too Japanese for foreign audiences. On a certain level, they were probably right; his type of filmmaking takes a little more patience than most. If there's one thing we can say for certain about an Ozu movie, it's that there is no action scene on the way. Instead, his movies are about the subtle emotion and beauty of real life, ideas that are best represented in Tokyo Story. As emotionally resonant as it is slow, it shows the universality of family better than probably any other movie ever has.
Facts of the Case
Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishû Ryû, An Autumn Afternoon, and Chieko Higashiyama, Early Summer) have decided to travel from their little hometown to visit their children, all of whom live in different areas of Tokyo. Each in turn is happy to see them arrive, but the day to day lives of their kids, along with changing personalities, impudent grandchildren, and modern life reminding them of their advancing age, the couple finds their welcome quickly worn thin.
The first sentence of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Kerenina reads, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Tolstoy is right and people write stories and make movies almost exclusively about the unhappy ones. Alfred Hitchcock once said, "Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out." He was also correct; people want the exciting stuff, not all the normal stuff that happens in their own lives. Yasujiro Ozu is the answer to both those statements, though, has he made movies about happy families and included all those dull bits.
Hearing that, it's easier for somebody to believe that his movies, then, are completely boring than it is to believe the truth, that Ozu's work is consistently heartfelt and beautiful, with a mastery over his craft that is singular in film history. With our view almost always from the floor, as if we're sitting in the house on the tatami, we sit with a family that, culture differences aside, looks much like our own and, even if that isn't the most exciting time in the world, the emotion Ozu bleeds out of the simplest situations is uncanny.
In a movie about family, it's one thing to throw in a bunch of big drama and fighting to move the story along, but while Ozu's method of letting the drama emerge naturally from realistic situations takes more patience, it's far more rewarding in the end. There's nothing about Tokyo Story that feels cheap; every emotion feels earned, whether it's a chuckle at one situation or a lump in the throat at another.
Ozu has a strange style that is best encapsulated here. Not only does he film long takes from that one tatami angle, conversations are performed in a measured way in which every statement is made in full with the character looking directly at the camera before a 180 degree cut to the person being spoken to, who then responds in kind. At first, it's jarring and, being so different from what we normally see, it almost seems like he doesn't care how the movie looks, but then he makes subtle changes to the angle and distance of the shot, making it clear that he actually does care quite a bit, but has a consistent style that, in its own way, is quite beautiful.
His style shows his trust in his actors to give him what he needs, as well. Using a virtual repertory company of actors throughout his career, he could set the camera down and let them go because he knew they would deliver the nuanced performances his stories required. At the forefront here is Ryû, who was the lead in many Ozu films playing characters of widely disparate ages and, in all of them and especially here, feels exactly right. His simple, direct style of delivery is perfect for Ozu's aesthetic, whether he's a middle aged father or an aging grandfather.
The story itself, while not particularly noteworthy, is perfect fodder for the realizations and emotional discoveries that these characters and us as viewers will discover in Tokyo Story. These are little things, trifles really, that come up after decades of seeing your family grow and change, which Ryû and Higashiyama display perfectly, at least from the perspective of one at the end of the road. Those spots in between are a little bit tougher to discern, but with Ozu as a guide, even if the primary perspective is with the older generation, there is a place for everyone to learn.
Even if it's a small thing, something to do with perfecting dumplings or something stupid like that, Tokyo Story makes it make sense because it's a movie about the small stuff, things that seem like day-to-day trifles, but when heaped upon each other, becomes something much greater. It doesn't feature heavy action scenes or bitchin' car chases, but Tokyo Story does feature a rare kind of quiet truth that resonates better than any other movie of its generation and certainly more than much of what we see in theaters today.
Criterion lives up to all expectations in delivering a strong Blu-ray upgrade to their 2003 DVD release of Tokyo Story. While the old version was a great improvement over anything that had been seen on video, this new 4K master is superior in every way. While the circumstances around old Japanese films mean that the original source isn't as good as something from the west might be, but all things considered, it looks fantastic. The 1.33:1/1080p transfer is better in every way, from significantly improved contrast to deeper black levels and brighter whites. Nearly all the little bits of damage have been removed and detail has been increased without sacrificing the grain structure at all. The single channel PCM sound mix is very nice, as well. It's nice and clear with crisp dialog and no audible hiss or pops, which allows the quiet of the movie to shine.
All the extras from the old DVD have been brought over to the Blu-ray with nothing new included, so you're upgrading for the A/V improvements, but here's a rundown.
• An audio commentary with Ozu scholar David Desser is an excellent look at the career of the director, both in general and through the lens of Tokyo Story. Its level of detail makes up for its general lack of entertainment value.
• I Lived, But…: a 1983 feature length documentary on the life and career of Ozu, directed by Kazuo Inoue. This series of interviews with his regular cast and crew members is an intimate look at the director from the people who knew him best.
• Talking with Ozu: a forty minute series of interviews with various directors about how Ozu's work influenced them, with interesting and funny results. Speakers include Wim Wenders, Paul Schrader, Lindsay Anderson, Stanley Kwan, and Claire Denis.
• 1988 documentary about Ryû's work with Ofuna Studios, featuring a relatively long interview with the actor.
• The customary trailer and booklet.
If you're unfamiliar with Yasujiro Ozu, there's no better place to start than this release of Tokyo Story. Not only is it the seminal Ozon movie, it's the best release of any of his work to date. If you already love the film, then do yourself a favor and upgrade from your old Criterion discs; it looks and sounds better here than it ever has and, for everybody regardless, this comes highly recommended.
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