Saturday, December 4, 2010

Film #40: Tokyo Story (1953)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Initial Release Country: Japan

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary in Haiku:

Fogies visit kids
The children are too busy
Mama keels over

Uncut Summary (a full plot synopsis)

In 1950s Japan, retired Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama leave their home village in the south of Japan to visit their children in Tokyo. The elder Hirayamas are nearing their 70s and haven't seen their busy children in some time.

When they arrive in Tokyo, however, they are not afforded the pleasure of truly spending any quality time with any of their natural children. Their sons and daughters are all too busy with their work lives to make time or space for their parents. The Hirayama children even send their parents off to a nearby pricey spa, ostensibly for them to “relax,” but in truth merely to alleviate the nuisance of having to accommodate them.

Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama's pleasant demeanors mask deep disappointment.

The only one who shows any form of true welcome is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko. Through the Hirayama's interactions with her and a few of their older friends, we see that the old couple is coming to grips with the reality that they are no longer a part of their children's lives. After several days of being shuffled between houses, the parents decide to cut their trip a bit short and head back to their hometown.

On the train back, however, Tomi takes ill. By the time she and her husband reach home, she is in a coma. The children finally break away from their daily hustles to be with their mother on her death bed. After she passes away, three of the five callously rush to get back to their lives in Tokyo. The two who remain with their father, the widow Noriko and the bachelorette Kyoko, share a sad moment realizing that they both may likely become just as detached from their father as their siblings have, should they start their own families some day.

The surviving Hirayamas make their final farewells & realizations

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

Oof. Good thing I watched this on a grey, rainy day.

Tokyo Story is about as melancholy as they come, made all the more sad by the sheer reality and fatalism of it, as well as the skill with which the story themes are conveyed.

In the same vein as Umberto D., director Yasujiro Ozu turns his gaze toward a younger generation's attitude towards its forebears. It certainly seems that the Hirayama family is meant to represent the larger Japanese society, one in which the modernizing world has no place for maintaining deep, steady ties with anything or anyone, including one's parents.

The thing is, whereas Umberto D. had a quicker pace, a few lively characters, and a cute dog as some comic relief, Tokyo Story gives it to you raw and is much further-reaching. The former Italian film was really about an isolated loner, but Tokyo Story is about a very average family, making it far easier to feel empathy towards the characters. The dialogue and acting is so naturalistic that it almost feels like a film ethnography. In fact, of all the 40 films I've seen so far, this one has the most naturalistic acting. This is what gives it its power, especially to one as myself – a person whose parents are still alive and nearing the age of the Hirayamas. It was impossible for me to not get reflective about so many of the things the elder couple brings to light: their mild disappointment in their children, their sense of loss at their detachment from them, and their sad acceptance that nothing is to be done about it.

Here's a great moment in which Shukishi is at his most unguarded about his children. This is also a scene that reminds me an awful lot of my own time in Japan. A little too much sake in the system, coming down over a steaming bowl of ramen. Start it at time 4:40:

The pace of this movie is something quite novel, relative to the other films from the list that I've watched thus far. I'm sure some people would have a hard time sitting through the measured, quiet moments depicting everyday life. As far as I was concerned, it did get a bit tedious, but I completely understand that this is necessary and intentional. Actually, by the end I found Shukishi and Tomi's slow, almost catatonic speech soothing and very much in keeping with what they were meant to represent: a more carefully, cautiously paced generation that was being left behind in the rapidly booming 1950s.

Part of my interest in this film certainly comes from the fact that I lived and worked in Japan for two years. Very much in evidence is the famed Japanese formality and ostensible kindness, which is a theme that Ozu later explored with his film Good Morning. Most Westerners may find alien the almost mannequin-like smiles that Shukishi and Tomi wear throughout nearly the entire film, despite their growing sadness. This is what makes the few moments that they break the formality all the more potent, if not very dramatic. Were anyone I know to ask what Japanese culture is like, I could show nearly any 10-minute clip from this 57-year old movie and feel confident that it stands as a solid representative of Japanese behavior and culture. One of the several very “Japanese” moments that stood out was an exchange between Noriko and Kyoko, when the latter says, “Isn't life disappointing?” to which a calmly smiling Noriko replies, “Yes.”

As alluded to, the technical merits of the film are beyond reproach, in my opinion. It may not have been the most challenging movie to film, or the most taxing on its actors, but everything is done to perfection. Long shots convey isolation, interior shots give the sense of relative claustrophobia inside the family houses, and it's not hard to buy into the Hirayama family as thoroughly authentic.

All of these accolades aside, this is another movie that I very likely will not see again, and would only recommend with several caveats. A person must be ready for a 2-hour, 15-minute gaze into the very real but very subtle generational tensions of a Japanese family. If this doesn't sound overly entertaining, it's because it isn't. Watching this movie is an exercise of a different sort. It's one that is probably worth making at least once, but not one that's guaranteed to touch everyone.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after further research)

One doesn't have to do much research to confirm just why Tokyo Story has a place in film history: it's that rare and classic thing that does so much in reality while seemingly doing very little. All that's needed is the viewer's careful attention and patience.

In more detail and with more erudition than I could muster, David Bordwell's analysis carefully points out just how subtle Ozu is with his lack of camera motion and his refusal to cut away from a character while they speak. Roger Ebert covers the same ground, perhaps more thoroughly in this review. What both men point to is both just how Japanese the story is, while being equally accessible to any viewer with a marginally open mind.

In reading the essays echoing the theme of a slower, older generation (aren't all younger generations “faster” these days?), I almost can't help but wonder if Tokyo Story is the very thing that it speaks of. In an age when generation gaps and attention spans seem to be shrinking astronomically, will a slow and careful look at such gaps, which is what Tokyo Story truly is, eventually be dismissed and pushed to the side?

Here's a thoughtful clip of the very end of the movie, with the new widower, Shukishi, slowly absorbing his isolation with the same measured calm as everything else. Being at time 8:20:

That's a wrap. 40 shows down. 65 to go.

Coming Soon: On the Waterfront (1954)

“I could'a been somebody! I could'a been a contendah!!” One of the few films on the list that I've already seen and absolutely love. I can't wait to watch old Terry Malloy do his thing on the docks again. Come on back and see how I feel about my latest viewing of an irrefutable classic.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.