First published by Little White Lies
“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Tokyo. Let us trace the history of this great city”.
So says the unseen guide on the Tokyo tour bus, before pointing out how the 500-year-old Imperial Palace “contrasts strongly with the bustle of modern Tokyo.” Elderly couple Shukichi (Ryû Chishû) and Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) are on board with their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Hara Setsuko), seated like cinemagoers as they crane to see the clash of old and new before them – and if this is Tokyo’s story, it is also their own, as the aging tourists find themselves awkwardly sharing space with adult children who consider them an unnecessary inconvenience and expense, and young grandchildren from whom they are utterly estranged.
Only Noriko shows the pair real hospitality and devotion, but her attitude is one that both of them will, at different times and in rather different contexts, encourage her to abandon in the interests of a future where there can be little place for the past and the dead.
Nowadays, Tokyo Story is the best known work from Ozu Yasujiro’s vast filmography, repeatedly finding its way into the top five of critics’ Greatest Ever Film lists – but it was not always thus. Released in Japan in the same year – 1953 – when Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon and Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari were winning unprecedented international notice for Japanese cinema on the festival circuit, Ozu’s film, though successful at home, was deemed too localised in its concerns for foreign audiences, and would not be seen outside of Japan for many years to come.
If, however, Tokyo Story is a resigned expression of the disappointments that were accompanying Japan’s post-war modernisation, it is also a more general elegy for the loss that comes with change, as well as a closely observed dramatisation of the way that generations – inevitably and eternally – drift apart, so that its themes resonate with viewers from any age or culture.
This film may be concerned with time (and its chief symbol may be Tomi’s old-fashioned, albeit still ticking, timepiece), but Ozu’s carefully framed, quietly sedate mise-en-scène makes Tokyo Story seem timeless – an effect aided by some masterfully understated performances, as Ryu and Hara, ringing the changes on roles that they had already played in Ozu’s Late Spring and Early Summer, both show the full range of human emotions that can be concealed behind a smile. Ozu has made a film as simple in form and complex in nature as life itself. Here, every viewer is cast as a tourist, and yet will feel right at home.
© Anton Bitel