Tokyo Story aka Tokyo Monogatari (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
Topping the recent Directors list of the Sight and Sound 2012 poll, Yasujiro Ozu’s, the most Japanese of all Japanese directors, Tokyo Story is another amazing depiction of his understanding of human relationships, representing the evolution of the generational gaps, the dehumanization of the cities, and the selfishness of the modern human. When someone is getting into Japanese Cinema, one must enter with Akira Kurosawa’s Sword plays that invented the whole action genre with the following of Sergio Leone’s Westerns and most of the Americans major movie makers. While Kenji Mizoguchi isn’t the hardest Japanese filmmaker to discover after being wowed by Kurosawa’s mise en scène and tremendous camera placing. However, when one gets to Ozu he must enter without any preconceived vision of Japanese films. Ozu is like an old man telling old tales who knows every trick but is satisfied with his effective formula of simple and direct storytelling. He made almost only contemporary films depicting family issues and the little moments of the everyday life. A while ago, I remember reading the line that Ozu is compared with a tofu maker that doesn’t need to be handling hot subjects or very expensive fish or meat to make you an unforgettable offer.
Tokyo Story’s plot follows a family that the elder are coming from the country to visit their children now working and raising their own kids. However, two of the old couple’s children don’t have time to spend with their parents and only their widowed daughter-in-law takes the time to be with them and do some activities. On their way back, the mother fells critically ill and it brings the whole family together and it is clear that the parents have a sense of being a weight on the shoulders of their children. At some point, there are some elements of the plot involving elders that can be compared to Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow. Film producers aren’t very keen on making films about the third age. But those two examples are tremendous efforts and I am not ashamed to call both Make Way For Tomorrow and Tokyo Story masterpieces.
Ozu understood’s Mies Van Der Rohe’s saying that Less is more and that is well reflected in the mise en scène with the use of almost no camera movement, except one moment and just like Roger Ebert wrote : it is pretty surprising for a Ozu film, a low placing of the camera and few edits. What you need to see is in the frame and most of the action is not depicted but discussed in the dialogues. For what it is, the viewer is like looking at family pictures and portraits and is almost a part of this story while being swept into the universal paradigm of the family reality. There is such a finesse and an economy of means that Ozu is straight to the essential with a direct and natural cinema.
As a cinephile, I wanted to get myself into more of Ozu’s work, and most of his talkies are set at the same pace and evolve around the same themes. It is difficult to take an Ozu film and rank it amongst all his other work because they form an ensemble and complete each other. In World Cinema, an expression I despise, Tokyo Story is the quintessence of the film who put you into another world and make you feel as if you were born in Japan and lived there with all your family since forever.