Frequently, when people die, the people who are left behind will comment at the service regarding what the departed valued most in life, and almost inevitably family is at the top of that list. Families, however, are complex, a source of both joy and sorry, pride and disappointment. Perhaps no one knew this better than legendary Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu, who in the early 1950’s explored this complexity in his film Tokyo Story.
Tokyo Story is not particularly entertaining. The pace is glacial. Nothing much happens. An elderly couple travel by train to Tokyo to visit the families of their son and daughter as well as their daughter-in-law, a post-war widow. The visits with the children are, at best, awkward. Having families of their own now, they are either unable or unwilling to untangle themselves sufficiently from their day-to-day affairs to spend any meaningful time with their aged parents and eventually send them away to a spa. Only the daughter-in-law makes their visit a priority, and though all express some genuine joy and concern for their well-being upon seeing them, hers alone is unmitigated by other concerns. This contrast is the primary source of tension in the film.
Most if not all of us have an innate need to belong to something larger than ourselves. And while this need may come to fruition later in life through political associations or memberships with various social and civic organizations, it is with families that it begins and also ends. Families, however, may become fragmented. This is the great tragedy of Tokyo Story, and perhaps of our lives as well.
I enjoyed many things about Tokyo Story. It is fascinating simply as a glimpse into 1950’s era culture and life in Japan, and Ozu’s proclivity for a motionless camera provides an interesting contrast (and correlative) to modern films. Setsuko Hara is disarmingly beautiful and a pleasure to watch on screen. Still, I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. “Enjoyed” just isn’t quite the right word. This film is about as art house as it gets, and I suspect “endured” would be closer to the mark for many people. I’m glad I watched it though. It has many sources to recommend it as a great film. For me, the fact that I find myself still thinking about it some days later is the surest. I can tell it’s one I won’t forget.