Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tokyo Story (1953)

#17: Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

So far—well, at least until yesterday—the three of us have shown admirable restraint in using the term "masterpiece," but I'm going to go ahead and break it out for this one. Few such films so uniformly praised to the skies by critics have worked on me so powerfully and so consistently, and indeed few others by Ozu himself have either (though I still have a good number of gaps there and have seen at least one, Early Summer, that's certainly in range). It bears a poignant sadness at every point, even before the various complications of the characters begin to emerge, yet carries as well a bittersweet joy that it sustains by staying so rigorously within itself—expertly balancing carefully observed examples of kindness and indifference.

The typical knock on Ozu pictures is that they are slow and "nothing happens" (another couple of ideas that Steven beat me to in yesterday's piece on L'Avventura, followed by Phil, Jack, Dave and everybody in comments). I wouldn't be inclined to characterize Tokyo Story that way myself, but I can see how someone might. In its plot details, it's about as simple as could be: an aging couple (played with understated yet unfailing charm by Ozu regulars Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) takes a trip from their small seaside village in Japan to visit their grown children and families in postwar Tokyo. Once there, they find the 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, even as the children keep exclaiming how wonderful it is to see them. In conversations with one another, however, they tend to roll their eyes and shake their heads over what to do about entertaining their parents. 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.

Ozu's family dynamics are penetrating and universal. He makes it as easy to identify with the children's impatience, plunged into their busy lives, as it is with the parents' uncluttered affection and pride in them, even when they know they have been slighted. Along the way, another Ozu regular, Setsuko Hara, very nearly steals the show as a daughter-in-law and widow of the couple's son who died in World War II (which, by the way, is about as close as the picture ever gets to time-bound historical reference). A conversation near the end in which she opens up and tries to explain her feelings and behavior is among the most beautiful scenes I've ever seen in a movie. And it's all built out of the simple building blocks of family relations, intimately familiar to any of us. The music's good too.


Phil #17: The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005) (scroll down)
Steven #17: L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

I’m pretty bad at following the highest levels of list-making coronations—I can never remember who has won Academy Awards, for example (not least because I’m not even sure what it means, nor does the spectacle entertain), or who is in or out or on the bubble for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But I did enjoy the Sight & Sound poll results this year—this decade. It seems a little silly for Vertigo and Citizen Kane to exchange positions that way, but silly in a way that's fun. It’s like now they’re married, a power couple, Bill and Hillary Clinton. I also like seeing the overripe excesses of Vertigo parked there at #1. And Citizen Kane at #2 makes me feel more like becoming a partisan defender. Obviously I liked seeing Tokyo Story vault up to #3 (#1 on the filmmakers list). It’s the best of a handful of Ozus I’ve seen and makes me want to make a project of him even more, because I understand from people I trust that it’s not even his best (of what I’ve seen so far, only Early Summer has come close).

This is also approximately the point in this countdown where we all started to notice the canonical pressure coming to bear, reacting in our different ways. One strategy I’ve used before, and did some of here, is to stash the most predictable must-includes 11-20, both to get them out of the way and also, I’m sorry, it’s a fact, some of those “Greatest” movies are pretty fucking good. There’s a reason a lot of the same titles start showing up in a lot of lists, which is the genius of the Sight & Sound ballot. So, in a countdown, get them out of the way 11-20. Then spring surprises of one kind and another in the final 10. I don’t know that I did that so much this time (well, at least 6-10). It’s also arguable that some of my canon-oriented picks, such as Tokyo Story, may not actually be all that predictable. Nor are any of ours, which provided some of the most interesting surprises. Such a comfort and pleasure, this list-making.

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