Friday, March 04, 2011

Tokyo Story (1953)

Tôkyô monogatari, Japan, 136 minutes
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Writers: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Photography: Yuharu Atsuta
Music: Kojun Saito
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Cast: Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Sō Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyōko Kagawa, Eijirō Tono, Nobuo Nakamura, Shirō Osaka

It feels a little funny to start a discussion of Tokyo Story with an explicit warning about spoilers. After all, the movie is 58 years old and already among the best known and most celebrated in cinema history—and one in which it might even fairly be argued anyway that "nothing happens." The warning may be even stranger when you recall (as you may) that I have never before been particularly concerned about offering up such niceties.

But the fact remains that, for me, it was the many small surprises encountered along the way here that led directly to the giant heartache imparted so expertly by this one. It's slow, concerned almost exclusively with the humdrum, transcendent only in the sneakiest backdoor ways. But in the end, suddenly, it takes on colossal proportions and swells into something undeniably great—a towering masterpiece, there I said it, and easily the best I've seen yet from the titles at the loftiest perches of the list compiled at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? And it was the slow and steady accretion of revelations the first time I saw it that contributed a good deal to the effect it had on me. I wouldn't want to take that away from anyone, so listen up everybody, spoilers ahead.

The story is about as simple as could be: an aging couple in their late 60s or early 70s (played with understated yet unfailing charm by Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) takes a trip from their small seaside village to visit their grown children and families in Tokyo. Once there, they find their children and grandchildren busy with their lives, shunting them from place to place, on day trips and at one point to a resort more appropriate for younger people, all the while expressing to them how wonderful it is to see them. In conversations with one another, however, their children tend to roll their eyes and shake their heads over what to do about them. Upon the couple's return to the village, the old woman takes ill. The children assemble for the death scene and the funeral, and then are on their ways again. The end.

Events move along in straightforward fashion, flat and unadorned, echoed and underlined by the banal black and white and gray of the images, with occasional harsh contrasts and patches of dark, focused equally unblinking on the characters in their mundane social motions as on landscape details of trains and boats and smoking industrial chimneys, even turning at one point to examine a sky speckled with clouds. Now they are packing and looking forward to the trip. Now they have arrived. Now they sit and share a small snack, discussing the weather or the fates of old neighbors. Now it is time for baths.

Director and co-writer Yasujiro Ozu is much more concerned with the kinds of things that affect all of us, every day, in the moment: the poignant, confusing balance between resentment and love that defines so many relationships between parents and children, the inevitable cross-purposes causing static across generational lines, the stresses and pressures of daily life. His pacing is steady and relentless all through. The death of the old woman doesn't happen any more or any less deliberately or quickly than anything preceding it. Just as with the events of their visit to Tokyo, so what follows: her symptoms, her failing, her death, her funeral—it is inexorable, and crushing, subtly foreshadowed even in the earliest minutes of the film, when she turns forlornly to the camera and says, "I'm glad I lived to this day. The world has changed so."

The frictions among the family members are nuanced, rarely flaring into anger but always there, grinding, and they are as often understandable as plainly petty or selfish. The children don't know their parents well enough to know what kinds of activities to plan for, a fact both sad and very real, and hardly the fault exclusively of the children. One son is a doctor, called away just before a day trip by the necessity of seeing a patient (if the actual necessity of that particular case is not entirely clear, his responsibilities more generally are). In other instances, however, as when one daughter teases the old woman for being fat, they obviously indulge their resentments with unpleasant behavior. In Tokyo, they live in small quarters and the grandchildren openly rail against the loss of space and convenience because of the visitors, and the interruptions to their daily routines.

The film plunges us into the family relations all at once and requires watchful patience to sort out who is who, to separate the blood children from their spouses, for example. At first one young woman, Noriko (played deftly as always by Ozu regular Setsuko Hara), appears to be a daughter. She is far and away the kindest of them all, humble and ingratiating; gradually it emerges that she is the widow of one of their sons, who was killed in the war. The old couple welcome her thoughtfulness and earnestly counsel her happiness, the opportunities for which, even though she is still young, are so obviously slipping away from her. If she is the noblest character here, she is also the most broken, as her devastating scene with the father shortly after the mother's funeral makes all too apparent.

It is, of course, the universality of such scenes between generations of a family that provides the bedrock for what makes all of this ultimately work so well. Though produced a year before Seven Samurai and set in modern times, it has far less to say explicitly about postwar Japan, even as it becomes obvious what a huge affect the war has had on all the lives of its characters. Ultimately Tokyo Story has more in common with a pop song like Harry Chapin's "Cat's Cradle" than it does with Akira Kurosawa's epic parable of postwar Japan—and I don't mean that as a bad thing, as the Chapin song is similarly sneaky about the ways it can find to take you apart.

Tokyo Story is suffused with sadness and poignancy at every point, even before the various complications of the characters begin to emerge. The sadness compounds itself step by inevitable step, but in the end it is never bitter sadness, only realistic acknowledgment of the inadequacy of life to our desires, the sweetness of those desires and the impossibility of them. Human kindness is as much in evidence here as human indifference. Nothing spectacular happens, just the relentless weight of life in process, the good and the bad, the lovely and the painful, and in the end that amounts to enough to become unbearably overwhelming all of itself.

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