Continuing my fascination with Japanese cinema, we dug out Tokyo Story, available on Amazon Prime. Made in 1953, and shot in rather jumpy black and white, Ozu’s film was rated fouth by the Guardian in its 2010 listing of Best Art House Movies. I suspect it would still be right up there, despite the intervening years.
Like our current favourite director, Kore-eda, Ozu also studies Japanese family life. Here we have an elderly Japanese couple, Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) who are excited at the prospect of visiting their four children in Tokyo, a long journey and one they have not made before. They still have one daughter at home to look after them in a dutiful Japanese daughter way, with much bowing and formality.
Stopping off in Osaka en route to see one of their sons, they begin their stay in Tokyo with their oldest son, Koichi (Sô Yamamura) a paediatrician, his stay-at-home wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake) and their two unbelievably spoiled and rude children – unbelievable for Japan I thought, at any rate. On the first evening when his other daughter Shige (her idea of a treat for the oldies is to bring some rice crackers) and daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) come round for a light supper (no beef, chicken teriyaki will do, they don’t eat very much), we get the uneasy feeling that the elderly, despite being honoured parents, are an imposition interrupting busy lives. The oldest grandchild throws a tantrum when his desk is moved to accommodate their sleeping mats; a planned excursion round Tokyo is postponed by Koichi having to see a patient – cue another tantrum by youngest: ‘it’s not fair’. The parents don’t even have time for their kids, it appears.
Moved on to beautician daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimura), and her well-meaning but weak husband, it is soon clear that they are unwelcome; shunted off to a downmarket hot spring resort as a treat, this soon turns into a nightmare (although the view from their bedroom was nice as they report back, too embarrassed to reveal why they left early) as it is full of noisy young Japanese couples, possibly of a rather sleazy variety. Moved from pillar to post, the only person who shows them any compassion and love is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko, who lives in a single room in an apartment complex with shared kitchen and bathroom. It is left to her to take them on a guided tour of the city, to feed them and entertain them with tea and sake.
At one point left without a bed for the night by their shameless offspring, the couple split up, Tomi to spend the evening and night with Noriko and Shukishi to meet up with two old cronies from home, now in Tokyo. They go on a drinking spree and as they say, in vino veritas, two of the old men admit that their children are a disappointment – they even lie to their friends about their true profession and status to hide their shame.
In true Japanese style, the characters say little but it is their gestures and actions that subtly convey the emotional conundrum – the battle between duty and familial love. The young who have gone to the cities see looking after their parents as a chore and a duty, with the exception of Noriko who, perhaps in experiencing the loss of someone she truly loved, understands the fragility of these precious old people in her life. She is the only one to have any physical contact with the old couple; their own children are seemingly unable to touch them or show any real affection.
Ozu’s skill in telling his Tokyo Story is to be non-judgmental. He delights in stunning cinematography with his simple outdoor shots of cityscapes – of factories belching out smoke, of washing on lines, of the skyline – and interiors, keeping the camera at low-level, recording the family interactions as they drink tea, eat and observe the cultural niceties without any emotion – save perhaps that of stoical disappointment by the dignified parents. It is for us, the audience, to decide who are the heroes and who the villains in this piece of cultural observation.