Japanese theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Yasujirō Ozu|
|Produced by||Takeshi Yamamoto|
|Written by||Kōgo Noda|
|Music by||Kojun Saitō|
|Edited by||Yoshiyasu Hamamura|
Tokyo Story (東京物語 Tōkyō Monogatari) is a 1953 Japanese drama film directed by Yasujirō Ozu and starring Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama. It tells the story of an ageing couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their grown children. The film contrasts the behavior of their children, who are too busy to pay them much attention, with that of their widowed daughter-in-law, who treats them with kindness.
Ozu and screenwriter Kōgo Noda wrote the script in 103 days, loosely basing it on the 1937 American film, Make Way for Tomorrow, directed by Leo McCarey. Noda suggested adapting the film, which Ozu had not yet seen. Ozu used many of the same cast and crew members that he had worked with for years. Released in Japan in 1953, it did not immediately gain international recognition and was considered "too Japanese" to be marketable by Japanese film exporters. It was screened in London in 1957 where it won the inaugural Sutherland Trophy the following year, and received praise from US film critics after a 1972 screening in New York City.
Tokyo Story is widely regarded as Ozu's masterpiece and is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made. In 2012, it was voted the best film of all time in a poll of film directors by Sight & Sound magazine.
A retired couple, Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama (played by Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama respectively) live in the town of Onomichi in southwest Japan with their daughter Kyōko (played by Kyōko Kagawa) who is a primary school teacher. They have five adult children, four living. The couple travels to Tokyo to visit their son, daughter, and widowed daughter-in-law.
Their eldest son, Kōichi (So Yamamura), is a pediatrician, and their eldest daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimura), runs a hairdressing salon. Kōichi and Shige are both busy, and do not have much time for their parents. Only their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the wife of their middle son Shōji, who was missing-in-action and presumed dead during The Pacific War, goes out of her way to entertain them. She takes time from her busy office job to take Shūkichi and Tomi on a sightseeing tour of metropolitan Tokyo.
Kōichi and Shige pay for their parents to stay at a hot spring spa at Atami. Shūkichi and Tomi return early because the nightlife at the hotel disturbs their sleep. Tomi also has an unexplained dizzy spell. When they return, Shige explains that she sent them to Atami because she wanted to use their bedroom for a meeting. The elderly couple have to leave for the evening. Tomi goes to stay with Noriko, with whom she deepens their emotional bond. Tomi advises Noriko to remarry. Shūkichi, meanwhile, gets drunk with some old friends from Onomichi, then returns to Shige's salon. Shige is outraged that her father is lapsing into the alcoholic ways that overshadowed her childhood.
The couple remark on how their children have changed, and they leave for home earlier than planned, intending to see their younger son Keizō when the train stops in Osaka. Though they originally had planned to see him without leaving the train, Tomi takes ill during the journey and they decide to disembark, staying until she feels better the next day. When they reach Onomichi, Tomi falls critically ill. Kōichi, Shige, and Noriko rush to Onomichi to see Tomi, who dies shortly afterwards. Keizō arrives too late, as he has been away on business.
After the funeral, Kōichi, Shige, and Keizō leave immediately; only Noriko remains. After they leave, Kyōko expresses to Noriko her anger about her siblings by deriding them over their selfishness toward their parents. She believes that Kōichi, Shige, and Keizō do not care how hard it will be for their father now that he has lost their mother. Kyōko believes that strangers would have been more respectful. Noriko responds that while she understands Kyoko's disappointment, she explains that everyone has his own life to lead and that the growing chasm between parents and children is inevitable. She convinces Kyoko not to be too hard on her siblings because one day she will come to understand how hard it is to take time away from one's own life.
After Kyōko leaves for school, Noriko informs her father-in-law that she must return to Tokyo that afternoon. Shūkichi tells her that she has treated them better than their own children despite not being related by blood. Noriko protests that she is selfish, and Shūkichi credits her self-assessment to humility. He gives her a watch from the late Tomi as a memento. Noriko breaks down in tears and confesses her loneliness. Shūkichi encourages her to remarry as soon as possible, stating that he wants her to be happy. At the end, Noriko travels from Onomichi back to Tokyo, contemplating the watch, as symbol of the passing of time and uncertainty of her future, while Shūkichi remains behind, resigned to the solitude he must endure in his home in the harbor town of Onomichi.
Hirayama family tree
- Shūkichi (Grandfather) and Tomi (Grandmother)
- Kōichi (eldest son)
- Fumiko (Kōichi's wife)
- Minoru (Kōichi's son)
- Isamu (Kōichi's son)
- Shige (eldest daughter)
- Kurazō (Shige's husband)
- Shōji (2nd son, deceased)
- Noriko (Shōji's widow)
- Keizō (youngest son)
- Kyōko (youngest daughter)
- Kōichi (eldest son)
Tokyo Story was inspired by the 1937 American film Make Way for Tomorrow, directed by Leo McCarey. Noda initially suggested the plot of the older film to Ozu, who hadn't seen it. Noda remembered it from its initial release in Japan. Both films depict an elderly couple and their problems with their family and both films depict the couple travelling to visit their children. Differences include the older film taking place in Depression era US with the couple's problem being economical and Tokyo Story taking place in post-war Japan, where the problems are more cultural and emotional. The two films also end differently. David Bordwell wrote that Ozu "re-cast" the original film instead of adapting it.
The script was developed by Yasujirō Ozu and his long-time collaborator Kōgo Noda over a period of 103 days in a country inn in Chigasaki. Ozu, Noda and cinematographer Yūharu Atsuta scouted locations in Tokyo and Onomichi for another month before shooting started. Shooting and editing the film took place from July to October 1953. Filming locations were in Tokyo (Adachi, Chūō, Taitō and Chiyoda), Onomichi, Atami and Osaka. Most of indoor scenes were shot at the Shochiku Ōfuna Studio in Kamakura, Kanagawa. Ozu used the same film crew and actors he had worked with for many years. Actor Chishū Ryū said that Ozu was always happiest when finishing the final draft of a script and that there were never any changes to the final draft.
Release and reception
It was screened at the National Film Theatre in London in 1957. It is Ozu's best known film in both the East and the West. After the success of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, Japanese films began getting international distribution. However Japanese film exporters considered Ozu's work "too Japanese" and unmarketable. It was not until the 1960s that Ozu's films began to be screened in New York City at film festivals, museums, and theaters.
In 1958, it was awarded the first Sutherland Trophy for the most original and creative film. UK critic Lindsay Anderson wrote that "It is a film about relationships, a film about time, and how it affects human beings (particularly parents and children) and how we must reconcile ourselves to its workings."
After a screening at the New Yorker Theater in 1972, it received rave reviews from several prominent critics who were unfamiliar with the film or Ozu. Charles Micherer of Newsweek said it was "like a Japanese paper flower that is dropped into water and then swells to fill the entire container with its beauty." Stanley Kauffmann put it on his 10 Best list of 1972 and wrote "Ozu, a lyrical poet, whose lyrics swell quietly into the epic."
The film holds a 100% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 42 critical reviews, with an average score of 9.7/10. John Walker, former editor of the Halliwell's Film Guides, places Tokyo Story at the top of his published list of the best 1000 films ever made. Tokyo Story is also included in film critic Derek Malcolm's The Century of Films, a list of films which he deems artistically or culturally important, and Time magazine lists it among its All-Time 100 Movies. Roger Ebert includes it in his series of great movies, and Paul Schrader placed it in the "Gold" section of his Film Canon.
Arthur Nolletti, Jr, writing an essay in the book titled Ozo's Tokyo Story compared the film to its USA predecessor film, McCarey's 1937 Make Way for Tomorrow, and indicates that: "David Bordwell sees Ozu as 'recasting' the American film -- borrowing from it, adapting it -- and briefly mentions that there are similarities in story, theme and plot structure. Indeed these similarities are striking. Both films focus on a elderly couple who discover that their grown children regard them as a burden; both films are structured as journeys in which the couple are shuffled from one household to another; both films explore much of the same thematic material (e.g., sibling self-centeredness and parental disillusionment); and both films are about the human condition -- the cyclical pattern of life with its concomitant joys and sorrows -- and the immediate social realities that affect and shape that condition: in McCarey's film, The Great Depression; in Ozu's, the intensified postwar push toward industrialization. Primarily sober in tone but possessing rich and gentle humor, both films belong to a genre that in Japanese cinema is called shomin-geki, films dealing with the everyday lives of the lower middle classes."
Tokyo Story is often admired as a work that achieves great emotional effect while avoiding melodrama. Critic Wally Hammond stated that "the way Ozu builds up emotional empathy for a sense of disappointment in its various characters is where his mastery lies." Roger Ebert wrote that the work "lacks sentimental triggers and contrived emotion; it looks away from moments a lesser movie would have exploited. It doesn't want to force our emotions, but to share its understanding." In The Village Voice, Eric Hynes argued that "time itself is [Ozu]'s most potent weapon. Protracted sequences make you impatient for forward motion, but then, in an instant, you’re left to mourn beauties hastened away." In 2010, David Thomson rhetorically asked whether any other family drama in cinematic history was more moving than Tokyo Story. Ebert called Ozu "universal", reported having never heard more weeping in an audience than during its showing, and later stated that the work "ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections."
Tokyo Story has appeared several times in the British Film Institute polls of "greatest films" of directors and critics published in Sight & Sound. On the critics' poll, it was third in 1992, fifth in 2002, and third again in 2012. On the directors' poll, it was 17th in 1992, tied at number 16 with Psycho and The Mirror in 2002, and in 2012 it topped the poll, receiving 48 votes out of the 358 directors polled.
Style and themes
Like all of Ozu's sound films, Tokyo Story's pacing is slow. Important events are often not shown on screen but revealed through dialogue. For example, the train journeys to and from Tokyo are not depicted. A distinctive camera style is used, in which the camera height is low and almost never moves; film critic Roger Ebert notes that the camera moves once in the film, which is "more than usual" for an Ozu film. The low camera positions are also reminiscent of sitting on a traditional Japanese tatami mat. Ozu rarely shot master shots and often broke the 180-degree rule of filmmaking and screen direction. Characters, who often sit side by side in scenes, often appear to be facing the same direction when speaking to each other, such as in the first scene with Shūkichi and Tomi. During some transitions, characters exit a scene screen right and then enter the next scene screen right.
Ozu favored a stationary camera and believed strongly in minimalism. David Dresser has compared the film's style and "de-emphasized plot“ to Zen Buddhism and the modern world's fascination with surface value and materialism. Many of the transitional shots are still lifes of non-human subjects, such as smokestacks and landscapes. In his narrative storytelling, Ozu often had certain key scenes take place off camera with the viewer only learning about them through the characters' dialogue. The audience never sees Shūkichi and Tomi visit their son Keizō, and Tomi's illness begins off-screen.
Themes in the film include the break-up and Westernization of the traditional Japanese family after World War II and the inevitability of children growing apart from their parents. The film takes place in 1953 post-war Japan, a few years after the new Civil Code of 1948 stimulated the country's rapid re-growth and embraced Western capitalist ideals while simultaneously destroying older traditions such as the Japanese family and its values. Ozu was very close to his own mother, living with her as a surrogate wife and never marrying. Ozu called Tokyo Story "the film that tends most strongly to melodrama." It is considered a Shomin-geki film for its depiction of working-class people.
The film was restored and released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection (Region 1) and by Tartan Video in Region 2. In 2010, the BFI released a Region 2 dual-format edition (Blu-ray + DVD). Included with this release is a standard definition presentation of Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family.
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