BASIC TRAINING: Tokyo Story (1953)

In which I muse on classic films I’ve just watched but really should have seen ages ago, in whatever order seems to make sense at the time.

I hadn’t heard of Yasujiro Ozu until my second year of university, when I took one of my all-time favourite subjects: ‘Film Movements and Genres’. Each week we would focus on a different movement or genre (appropriately enough) or a national cinema. In the week on Japanese cinema we watched Kurosawa’s Rashomon, whom I was already familiar with, and Ozu’s Ohayo (Good Morning). The low-key but relentlessly charming domestic comedy blew me away, particularly that it was made in 1959. Ozu’s straightforward shooting style didn’t date the film at all, and its everyday concerns were not period-specific. The biggest impact was in how serene and peaceful Ozu’s world was. Like Studio Ghibli, Ozu presents a Japan that invites you in to relax and contemplate the gentle issues it raises. Ohayo, at least, is also sweetly funny, as two boys stage a speech strike to force their parents to buy a television set.

Ever since, I’ve wanted to see more Ozu and I have no idea why it’s taken me this long. I knew that Tokyo Story was Ozu’s most significant film. Most of the fuss around Sight and Sound‘s latest ten-yearly poll of critics’ top ten films was that Vertigo took the top spot from Citizen Kane. Yet Tokyo Story was up there at number 3, beating better known films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Searchers, and it’s been in the top ten for the last two decades. Its ardent admirers include Roger Ebert, Paul Schrader, and Wim Wenders. So how does it stack up?

Handsomely. I wasn’t as gobsmacked as when I finally saw Citizen Kane, but that this elegant, melancholy film isn’t aiming for that. The serenity and domestic beauty of Ohayo is here again, but there is less comedy. A retired couple from a coastal town visit their adult children in Tokyo, but beneath the meticulous good manners Japanese society demands, the children are clearly too preoccupied with the details of their own lives to show much interest or regard for their parents. Only the widow of their dead son shows them kindness, and the couple show a remarkable tolerance for the poor behaviour they endure, philosophically accepting it as inevitable. The film doesn’t favour one generation over another, however. The couple are less concerned with their children’s attitudes than their professional success, lamenting that their son is merely a neighbourhood doctor rather than, presumably, a surgeon or some other high flyer.

Ozu stands at great remove from the film, merely presenting these characters and their subtle interactions to us rather than making a damning indictment. The characters’ wistful acceptance of their situation seems to extend to Ozu himself; I’d be curious to read more on his attitudes to Japanese society.

That said, the film’s concerns are universal. Like Ohayo, this film is strikingly contemporary, if in relevance rather than visual quality this time. The dominant theme of children too busy to embrace their elders is terribly applicable to today now that life has sped up and we have so much to occupy and demand our time and attention. Ozu never gives the sense that the children are bad or hateful; their responsibilities and interests have merely made them forget to be respectful and appreciative of those who came before. How the climax of the film compounds this is terribly sad, but hardly surprising.

Again, I’m so struck by how peaceful Ozu’s films are. Watching them feels like meditation, as the precise focus on detail and movement is so powerfully centring. That Ozu largely shoots low to the ground and only moves the camera once in the entire film is no doubt a key reason why. But his themes are profound as well, and I’m determined to not let more years lapse before I enter his world again.

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