To experience a Yasujiro Ozu film is to immerse in the reserved, quiet grace of a disappearing traditional culture. Tokyo Story is a languidly paced, subtly poignant, and exquisitely realized story of the Hirayamas, an aging couple from the provincial town of Onomichi who travel to postwar reconstructed Tokyo in order to visit their children, who, in turn, seem to have little interest or time to be with them. Their pediatrician son promises to take them sightseeing through Tokyo, only to be called away on an emergency. Their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) promises to take them to the theater, but cannot leave her beauty salon. Only their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), seems genuinely pleased to see them, and takes a day off from work to show them around Tokyo. Not knowing how to entertain their parents (and to save money), the siblings decide to send them to a noisy, crowded spa. Unable to enjoy themselves, the elderly couple return early, only to be sent away for the evening when their unexpected arrival interferes with Shige’s scheduled club meeting. Consequently, Mrs. Hirayama (Chieko Higashiyama) spends a final evening with Noriko before heading back to Onomichi, and Mr. Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) finds some old friends in town, hoping to be invited to spend the evening, but in the process, gets hopelessly drunk. On the following day, Mrs. Hirayama offers the adult children some words of reassurance at the train station, and the couple leave. There are no external catalysts in the film, no psychological deconstruction of a dysfunctional family. It is a story about generational fractures – culture, tradition, and people – left in the wake of modernization and consuming self-absorption.
Ozu uses low camera height and breaks the rules of conventional cinema using 360° space, creating an intimate, familial atmosphere, to draw us into the lives of the Hirayama family – through subtle gestures and mannerisms, mundane conversations, daily rituals, and simple acts of kindness. Throughout the film, there is a pervasive sound of movement: ticking clocks, churning steamboats, passing trains. Yet within each framed composition, Ozu’s camera does not move (there is only one tracking shot as the camera moves from a brick wall to the image of the evicted elderly couple). It is a figurative reminder that modern life is in perpetual motion, and that the beauty of life is often found in standing still. Tokyo Story demands little from the viewer, except to sit back and absorb the sweeping, beautiful images that gradually unfold before us towards its muted, heartbreaking conclusion, and from it, derive meaning for our own frenetic existence. But, in the culture of fast cars, internet access, and prescription panaceas, that is, perhaps, too much to ask.
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