Many of the films seen in today’s theatres can be a sensory overload. Everything is kept in motion to try and salvage the interest of less engaged audience members. There is little value placed in composing a shot so well that the camera does not need to move, and thus the camera is almost always moving. With that in mind, today’s cinema-goers would have a hard time knowing what to make of Yasujirō Ozu, a director whose name is synonymous with the cinematic image of Tokyo, the same as Federico Fellini is known for the cinematic image of Rome.
Ozu had a very simple setup for his films: the camera would be placed at two varying height levels on the ground (around eye level if you were sitting) and then it would not move for the whole shot. To make up for the lack of camera movement, his shots are meticulously composed and could easily pass as photographs if you saw a still from one of his films. This is evident in some of his classics, such as Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Twilight (1957), and Floating Weeds (1959), but never is it more apparent than in his timeless masterpiece, Tokyo Story (1953).
Shukichi (Chishû Ryû, a regular Ozu star) and his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) are leaving their hometown of Onomichi to visit their son, daughter, and widowed daughter-in-law in Tokyo. Everyone is happy to see each other, but the grandkids (who have never met their grandparents) seem only disinterested and treat their grandparents as if they’re in the way. The grandkids continue to behave irrationally, and soon this behavior transfers over to Shukichi and Tomi’s biological children who begin to neglect them during the visit.
Curiously, the only people making an effort to make Shukichi and Tomi feel welcome are their children’s spouses and their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara, another Ozu regular). Shukichi and Tomi’s own children keep working, claiming they could not get time off, which is juxtaposed by Noriko simply calling in for a day off to show the pair around. The children chip in to send the pair to a hot spring spa in Atami, but that goes awry when it becomes subject to a late night wedding party. When they return early from the spa, their daughter, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), seems visibly upset that they have returned and even tells a customer in her beauty salon that her parents are “just some friends from the country.”
The drama continues from there, but the heartbreaking theme of deconstructing the traditional Japanese family unit becomes evident early on. This is something that Ozu portrays in several of his films; and while you would think that the traditional family portrait in 1950s Japan is more closely-knit, it could not be further from the truth. The overwhelming disingenuous behavior is enough to make anyone upset, and you will soon be rethinking your own relationships with your family long after the film is done.
Tokyo Story is Japanese poetry in film format.
Stitching all of these events together is something that Roger Ebert calls “pillow shots.” Similar to the use of “pillow lines” in Japanese poetry, pillow shots will break up the scenes with shots of the scenery, making a film that could have been exhaustingly philosophical a lot more palpable. Although some pillow shots are used to build the world around the characters, Ozu goes the extra distance to use the same shots during some outdoor scenes, which demonstrates a commendable amount of planning and editing on his part and makes the film’s universe feel that much more alive. Combined with the actors behaving like people in real life, the story feels less like a story and more like a documentary.
This is a slower film, but give it a chance. Take time to appreciate the beauty of the shots and how small phrases in conversations circle back around to stun you by surprise. Tokyo Story is Japanese poetry in film format. Students wishing to see that film can find a copy at VIU’s library.