Hailed as Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece, Tokyo Story is a stylized exploration of the erosion of family values and tradition in 1950’s Japan. With expert cinematography and minimalist dialogue, Tokyo story will reward any audience that makes an effort to understand and appreciate it. The film is based on a simple premise: elderly parents travel from a small village to visit their estranged, now adult, offspring who live busy lives in Tokyo. During their visit, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, confront the fact that they have become incompatible with the urban lifestyles of their successful children. Tokyo story can be heart wrenching as the old couple slowly realize that the older generation is irrelevant and unwanted in a disappointing, modern Japan. Excellent direction and quality acting set a perfect tone throughout Tokyo Story.
The themes of the film are offset by bizarre exchanges between characters: conversation is polite and lines are delivered with sugary smiles. Beneath this veneer, the elderly couple are deeply hurt by their children’s behavior as they realize they are no longer welcome. Tokyo Story documents the transitional period between early 20th century Japan and modern Tokyo and Ozu constantly underlines the superficiality of relationships within the Hirayama family. The film warns about the dangers of a departure from traditional Japanese life for modernity. It is interesting to see how the core attitudes of the younger generation have changed, however they still live and act, publicly at least, in a traditional way. One particular scene captures all of this: from a distance a doting Tomi is enjoying the company of her grandchild in the sun. However, upon closer inspection, Tomi is struggling to make a connection with the disinterested child, as she wonders aloud about her place in his future. In a similar fashion, as the Hirayama family goes through the motions with their elderly parents, all appears well. With more consideration, it becomes clear that there is neither a place nor desire for an older generation in the emerging modern Tokyo.
The grandparents’ relationship with their widowed daughter-in-law, who also lives in Tokyo, provides further insight into the lifestyle of the rest of the Hirayama family and is another comment on Japanese modernity. Noriko’s husband died whilst serving in the Japanese military. She lives alone and has to borrow food, drink and cutlery to entertain Tomi and Shukichi. Despite her lonely and humble living conditions, she seems more at peace than her in laws, who waste their abundant food and constantly argue with their children. Ozu uses Noriko’s character to point out the importance of selfless living for a cause greater than yourself to attain fulfillment. However, ultimately we see that Noriko takes this mantra too far as she is wracked by guilt and suppresses the hopes she has for herself: it is important to find a balance between selflessness and selfishness. Tokyo story is a film about contrast and balance: between urban and rural, old and young, different visions of family values, and different paths to happiness.
Tokyo Story is a highly stylized, but subtle and slow paced watch. In scenes, characters’ movements are distinct and deliberate. The low angles and unmoving camera further contribute a unique and uneasy tone. Character’s dialogue and mannerisms create a stiff, traditional atmosphere that sits uneasily with the rejection of Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama by their family. Also: listen for the use of background noise to add depth and punctuation to scenes. Repetitive noise is used throughout to increase tension and mark the passage of time. Tokyo Story is a thought provoking movie, which will reward those who watch it with an open and interested mind. However, its slow pacing and traditional style is not for everyone.