I'm moving steadily along posting reviews from my 2016 list of 10 Classics! Today it's Yasujiro Ozu's TOKYO STORY (1953).
TOKYO STORY, called TOKYO MONOGATARI in its native Japan, is widely considered Ozu's masterpiece, and yes, it's as great as advertised.
TOKYO STORY is the third of the "Noriko Trilogy," in which the brilliant and beautiful Setsuko Hara played different characters who were all named Noriko. The first of these films was LATE SPRING (1949) and the next, which was probably my favorite, was EARLY SUMMER (1951).
Though I favor EARLY SUMMER because I especially enjoyed how Hara's independent young woman takes her destiny into her own hands, all three films are superb, and I couldn't argue with anyone who thinks TOKYO STORY is the finest of the three. Like all of Ozu's films, underneath a relatively simple story the movie has a great deal to say about the universal human condition.
The children are initially glad to see them yet haven't made any arrangements to take time off work, and they're feeling rather harried fitting time with their parents into their already busy schedules. The oldest son (So Yamamura) is a doctor, and his wife (Kuniko Miyake) helps with the business he runs out of their home while caring for their sons.
Their daughter (Haruko Sugimura), a hairdresser, is the most selfish of the children, treating her parents with blunt rudeness at times and even begrudging what her husband (Nobuo Nakamura) spends to treat them to some nice cakes; she remonstrates that he should have bought crackers instead.
Ultimately the older son and daughter decide the "solution" to keeping their parents entertained is to treat them to a stay at a spa -- which would be nice except that it rather defeats the point of the visit, seeing the children.
The parents decide to head home, briefly seeing another son (Shirô Ôsaka) along the way, but soon after arriving home, the mother becomes seriously ill, and the children are once more pulled out of their daily routines to spend time with their parents.
Ozu's films fascinate me in part because they dramatize human situations to which anyone can relate, yet the story is told in what is, for me, a fresh and interesting setting, postwar Japan. The cramped homes, the juxtaposition of modern trains with Japanese architecture, the ancient customs alongside American baseball caps -- it's all fascinating.
Though one of the children is clearly more selfish than the rest, for the most part these are good people just trying to muddle along and figure things out; sometimes they get it right and sometimes they mess up -- including the father, who once had issues with drinking. Life can be both beautiful and challenging.
All of Ozu's films, including this one, address dealing with inevitable life changes. Given the multigenerational aspects of the story, I suspect it's a film which would be rewarding to revisit at different stages of life.
Though TOKYO STORY, like other Ozu films, is very deliberate, taking 136 minutes to tell its story, it's never slow, holding the attention throughout.
Last summer my friend Kristina wrote something terrific about Ozu's films: “The solid settings and framing, and the mostly grounded, static camera give the impression that all concerns and people will pass, and we’re here for just an instant, on a permanent landscape, among scores of others with the very same issues.” Beautifully stated and so true.
Viewers will recognize many members of Ozu's "stock" company, starting with Hara and Ryu. Hara has a very powerful scene late in the film when her cheerful facade finally breaks down and she confesses to unhappy loneliness, and Ryu, facing the same issue going foreward, is equally moving. There are scenes here which are as poignant as that famous scene where he peels an apple at the end of LATE SPRING.
Very highly recommended.
TOKYO STORY is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. Many extras are included including documentaries and a commentary track.
Previously reviewed Ozu films: LATE SPRING (1949), EARLY SUMMER (1951), EQUINOX FLOWER (1958), GOOD MORNING (1959), LATE AUTUMN (1960), and THE END OF SUMMER (1961).