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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Classics Review: Tokyo Story (1953)

Japan has an incredibly rich film history, with some of the all-time greats of the craft hailing from The Land of the Rising Sun. Although there is a large multitude of Japanese auteurs who don’t quite get the attention they deserve, two names always come to mind with film buffs and well, anyone with a memory bank for director names: Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. It wasn’t always like that though. Although not his first film, Kurosawa gained international acclaim and notice with the masterful Rashomon (1950), and from there, his appeal and influence only soared to greater heights. He appealed to international audiences with ease, creating films of massive scope and ambition, managing to influence generations of western filmmakers and reshape genres entirely.

Then you have a filmmaker like Ozu, who unfortunately only started gaining attention outside of Japan in the early 60s, right at the end of his life (he was only 60 when he died, and it was on his birthday). Where Kurosawa had the western appeal down, Ozu was deemed too Japanese for western audiences by Japanese distributors, worrying that his style and stories were too subtle for audiences outside of Japan. Thankfully, his legacy continues to grow, with each one of his many masterpieces getting deserved restorations as well as praise from titans in the industry - reaching more audiences than ever before.

Tokyo Story is just one of Ozu’s many masterpieces. Arguably his most famous and critically adored (along with the gorgeous Floating Weeds), Tokyo Story is Ozu at his most Ozu. It checklists all the trademarks of his repertoire technically and narratively, giving us an incredibly touching taster of what he was all about as an artist and as a person. It’s a simple tale of an elderly couple visiting their children in Tokyo from their small seaside village. Unfortunately, once there, they barely get to spend time with them as their now successful but incredibly busy children just don’t have the time to bond with them as frequently as they would like to. Like most of Ozu’s work, it’s a highly simple set-up that doesn’t need to be overcomplicated with high-stakes drama and conflict. Instead, he opts for stories, moments and revelations that are far more suited in reality: following real people as well as understanding the complexities of everyday relationships within a continuously evolving modernized Japan.

A major strength of Ozu was being able to approach themes with a noticeable sense of love, respect and consideration for each generation’s viewpoint. Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (the elderly couple) are from a different time, whereas their children are adults working in a rapidly changing Japan that is heading more towards the western ideals of work and even family. There is no hatred or discontent between them though, just different mindsets that neither party can fully understand or accept. Two of the four children live in Tokyo, one of them being a doctor while the other is a hairdresser. They’re incredibly busy with their own work and family lives, never quite being able to show their parents around an ever-expanding city and allowing them to fully take in their very rare visit. This obviously touches the parents, expressing sadness over the possibility that their children have changed for the worse. This begins to draw attention to ideas of how Japan’s new sense of work ethic is affecting the traditional ideal Japanese family, beginning to alienate the older generations. We feel this sense of sadness felt by these loving parents who just want their family to be as close as they were when they were all still at home together. They end up spending more time with their daughter-in-law Noriko, who is now a widower after their son and her husband died in WWII. They adore her as one of their owne, while she adores them as if they were her parents, spending more time with them than their own children.

Although it may appear that Ozu is very obviously siding with the parents in their rightful disdain towards this neglect they are feeling, Noriko's character is a wonderful buffer between both generations. She provides an important understanding of her in-law's frustrations but provides that much-needed perspective from her generation as well as their reasons for doing so. The youngest daughter Kyoko, a teacher who lives in the same village as her parents, expresses her bitterness towards her siblings and their supposed lack of care, attention and love for their parents. Noriko reminds her that people change, and while they start their own families, it’s only inevitable that some distancing begins to occur between them as they have their own lives and worries to prioritize. It’ll happen to her as much as it will happen to us, whether we like it or not. Despite the film being released in 1953 and being set in a very specific region in a very specific time, it’s still incredibly relevant regardless of the year we find ourselves wallowing in. That’s the beauty of Ozu’s longevity as a filmmaker: relatable stories being told by realistic characters we can easily see ourselves in.

Ozu’s simplistic themes and stories are matched with what, on paper at least, appears to be an equally simplistic visual aesthetic. Ozu never needed to resort to flashy technical gimmicks, with him very rarely (and I do mean very rarely) moving the camera. He never needed to. Each shot is symmetrically perfect, and the more you study each frame of Ozu, the more you notice the subtleties and sheer level of perfectionism he poured into composing each shot (especially that of Floating Weeds). It's always perfectly balanced, with the foreground, middleground and background meticulously pieced together in telling their own little story.Ozu is the perfect teacher in understanding how to truly use the camera to full effect, proving that simplicity really is the key. A master filmmaker with a true eye for detail.

The unique low-angle placement of his camera is also unlike any of the low-angle shots you are familiar with. Low-angle shots are normally placed well below the subject’s eye line, looking up at our subjects. They’re often used as an effective tool in showcasing a character’s power within the scene, from heroic to villainous(just to name a few). However, Ozu subverts the idea of the common low-angle shot and invented a different kind of one entirely. The ‘Tatami Shot’ (or Ozu shot in some circles) places the camera three feet off the ground with a 50mm lens, best replicating the idea of someone sitting on a Tatami mat. This technique is so incredibly important and vital in how Ozu shoots his scenes - allowing the camera to be our POV into these people’s lives, sitting down with them and viewing them all from an equal footing, willing to see both sides to the generational coin.

Ozu also never conformed to traditional filmmaking commandments, often smashing them in the process, furthering his unique visual style. He would often contort the 180-degree rule, which allows for filmmakers to keep the camera on one side of an imaginary axis. So in most film's cases, one character would stay left of the frame while the other stays on the right as we would cut between shots in a conversation (just as an example). When a filmmaker decides to cross the line, intentionally at least, it's often in order to disorient the audience or change the power balance of characters within the scene. Ozu, however, opted to keep the dynamic of each conversation as intimate and as even as possible, allowing us to feel as though we are right in the middle of these people’s lives and conversing with them, instead of opposing forces and dynamics dictating the framing. No ‘over-the-shoulder shots are present here when we cut to each actor for their dialogue. Instead, the actors' eyeline is just above the lense - feeling as though they are breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us, as we live in these people’s shoes, gaining new perspectives on their lives as well as our own. This is such a fine example of Ozu’s love and respect for each one of his characters, with framing playing an integral part in viewing each individual with a mutual respect. His unconventional style is still unique to this day, with very few filmmakers daring to emulate it.

Tokyo Story is a film I make a conscious effort in seeing at least once a year. It’s a film that provides much-needed nourishment for the soul. It reminds us of the inevitabilities of life: the growth, as well as the degradation, in the relationships we have in our past, present and future. Ozu expertly focuses on key moments that shine a light on the overlooked truths we choose to ignore. It’s beautiful, intimate filmmaking that is the perfect introduction to Ozu’s rich and incredibly rewarding filmography.

Where you can watch it: The Criterion Channel, HBO MAX (USA), Amazon Video, Apple TV (UK), YouTube (Australia)

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