Dir. Yasujiro Ozu. Starring Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara
I’ve never seen a movie which wanted me to notice the power lines as much as Tokyo Story, and the more you look for them the more you find them. Ozu doesn’t need to work very hard to differentiate Onomichi, the quiet town where Shukichi (Ryu) and Tomi (Higashiyama) live, from Tokyo, where two of their children and a daughter-in-law live. Onomichi is breathtakingly idyllic, with great hills rising above the water where the boats pass slowly. A black steam locomotive comes through the town regularly, chuffing along speedily but not hastily. There are trees in abundance in Onomichi, practically on top of the houses themselves. (The crowding in Onomichi of houses and trees subtly speaks to a slightly more peaceful wartime experience than what the big cities faced.) And there are a few power lines. Tokyo is, like Shukichi and Tomi’s children, the place to relocate the power lines. They are everywhere, like auras on the sky, both in front of and behind great smokestacks. Little children go to school and bow to their elders in Onomichi. In Tokyo, the first sign we see is for a doctor who specializes in diseases affecting children. Tokyo Story does not frequently aim for laughter, but it’s hard not to chuckle a little bit when Shukichi and Tomi take a bus tour of the city. The speakers laud the beauty of the Imperial Palace and its importance to Japanese history while Shukichi looks for it; the following shot reveals that it’s so far away that it doesn’t look like anything at all. It stands in for the relationship between the parents and their children. Doubtless the children understand their responsibilities to their parents. In fact, one of the Hirayama sons thinks long on the proverb that one should care for one’s parents while they’re still alive. But Onomichi is nearly five hundred miles to the southwest of Tokyo, a daunting enough distance in our own time. The children know attention must be paid to their parents, but there’s no interest in it; the parents are like the wispy outline of a temple in the distance without form or specificity.
Much is made in the film of what happens to one’s children once they’ve grown up. After having been shuttled around between his children and, indeed, to a resort where their children are not, Shukichi finds himself with old friends from Onomichi. One of them, Osamu (Hisao Taoke), has lost both sons in World War II. Drinking makes him tired and maudlin, and he gives up on it before his buddies. The other, Numata (Eijiro Tono), used to be a police chief in Onomichi; he tells people his son is a bigwig at a publishing company but confesses, blasted at midnight, to Shukichi that his son is a mid-level manager with no real hope of promotion. Of the three men at the bar, Shukichi’s children are probably the most successful. His son Koichi (So Yamamura) is a doctor in the Tokyo suburbs, and his daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) owns a salon with her husband. His younger children are a railway officer and a teacher. Like Osamu, Shukichi lost a son to World War II. No one says much about the war one way or another – it’s been nearly ten years since it ended, after all – but everyone in the back of their mind seems to remember the immense cost of the conflict. Yet Shukichi is himself a little disappointed with where his kids ended up. Koichi is a pediatrician, not a surgeon, for example. All the same he tries to remain philosophical with his old friends (who he hasn’t seen in nearly two decades). We can’t expect too much of a our children, he says. It’s not fair to put all of those expectations on them. It’s a sentiment that Tomi echoes as well. And yet there is an ocean of sadness for those sage words to float on, as the parents creep closer to seventy and their kids become more and more estranged from them. Their grandchildren, the sons of Koichi and his wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyawe), are total strangers to their grandparents. Tomi tries to engage the littler one several times, but he runs from her. Even when they ostensibly take a walk together, her attempts at conversation fall on the deaf ears of a boy ripping up the plants from the ground, totally insensible to his grandmother’s attempt at conversation.
Isamu’s ignorance of his grandmother is reflected over and over again in this film, but not by Tomi’s grandchildren. Koichi and Shige are both busy people, and see their parents’ visit to Tokyo as more of an inconvenience than a celebration. Realizing that their presence is something of a bother to Koichi and his meek, inward-looking wife (whose own children, doubtless, will forget her), Shukichi and Tomi go to stay with Shige and her husband, Kurazo (Nobuo Nakamura). Koichi and Fumiko seem apathetic about his parents’ visit; Koichi had planned for a trip into town with the whole family, but when he’s called away to see a sick patient he cancels the whole thing. Kurazo is more hospitable than Fumiko, who seems cowed by her husband and children. He brings his parents-in-law little cakes to eat and makes plans to take them out places; it’s Shige who complains. The cakes are too expensive, she says grabbing one for herself. They can eat crackers instead. Koichi and Shige ultimately send their parents to the hot springs at Atami, to stay in a spa, but they’ve miscalculated not only what their parents want but what they’ll think of the place itself. The spa is for a younger clientele; Shukichi and Tomi are kept up late by a man singing and playing guitar, by the bustle of the baths and the crowds of youthful folks on holiday. Through it all, Shukichi and Tomi are patient. Neither one of them complains too much about their children foisting them off on other children before foisting them off on a spa out of town. They stoically bear the disappointment of the trip. Ironically, the person in Tokyo who is kindest to Shukichi and Tomi is not a blood relative. Noriko (Hara) was wife to one of the Hirayama sons before he was killed in the war. She has never remarried, works at a business which has taken up a great deal of her time, is clearly not as well-off as Koichi or Shige, and of all the people Shukichi and Tomi see, Noriko gives the most of herself to her in-laws in time, money, and feeling.
Hara stands out among the other performers in the film not necessarily because she’s the best actor, but because her mannerisms are so different. Shukichi and Koichi both have a habit of making a deep, throaty noise when they’re thinking or killing time, and Shige and Tomi are both pretty straightforward in their speech. The children do not smile at their parents, although their parents frequently smile at them, or at the very least make good-natured faces at them. Noriko’s teeth are as essential to this film as the power lines. She smiles with her teeth out and speaks in a breathy voice, as if she fears that at any moment she might accidentally do something abominable and be exiled from the presence of someone she respects. She is perpetually submissive; when Shukichi and Tomi eat at her apartment one night, she borrows sake from a neighbor and orders food in. While the old folks eat, her own meal sits aside as she fans them. There is no analogue to her in the film; among her generation she stands out brilliantly. Tokyo Story is difficult to define in terms of optimism or pessimism, but the film allows her to radiate as the best of what postwar Japan, and what the generation of late-20s, early-30s adults ought to remake themselves in a remade nation.
What gives the film its power is a plot which unfolds slowly and delicately, a series of letdowns repeated over and over again, and the emphasis on loneliness. But what fills the film with an absolutely unquenchable beauty is Ozu’s direction. Ozu will repeat images separated by a week or two in time, signifying a repetition in the lives of the characters and, in the end, signifying deep absences. The loneliness that people are all too willing to ascribe to the old folks is brought to the forefront in shots where they look out on the water from a concrete bar, sitting in their special robes from the spa, speaking little or not at all. Ozu, with an utterly rigorous dedication to a stationary camera, makes us first into spectators as we witness the initial family drama, then into observers as Noriko becomes more important, and finally into congregants during the film’s woe-inspiring last act. There is a holiness in the acceptance that the film’s saddest characters have for the fates which have befallen them, and the fact that those who surround them seem oblivious to their trials, let alone their acceptance, makes them all the holier.