Throughout the history of cinema, a selective canon of “classics” has slowly been curated through the opinions of film lovers and critics alike. Western works such as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” have cemented their positions among the greatest pieces of art ever created. However, Yasujirō Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” is possibly the most prominent Eastern film to have consistently been featured in the British Film Institute’s prestigious “Sight and Sound Poll of the Greatest Films of All Time.” Inspired by Leo McCarey’s 1937 Hollywood classic, “Make Way For Tomorrow,” the heart-wrenching portrayal of familial relationships spanning multiple generations not only speaks for those who first saw the film in 1953 but to all those watching today.
“Tokyo Story” is widely considered to be Japanese auteur Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece. His distinct directorial style is fully formed, with the film’s slow pace complementing the fundamental importance placed on dialogue rather than a heavy plot-driven structure. A sense of realism is maintained by the naturalistic framing and minimal use of camera movement. Over-the-shoulder shots are cast aside to spotlight the labyrinthine conversation, with transitions often maintaining the same composition. Ozu’s signature technique of passageways grants the viewer the opportunity to wander through time, escorted by the characters. Scenes are infused with ambient landscapes, emphasizing his philosophical inclination toward minimalism, a technique that coincides with the intricate architecture featured on screen. Takanobu Saitō’s score reinforces the swinging pendulum of emotion present within the prominent events chosen to be depicted off-screen, inching ever so slightly to their breaking point.
Taking place in post-war Japan, westernization spreads throughout an ever-changing industrial landscape, beginning to work its influence on the middle class. Regarded as a Shomin-geki film, meaning a common people drama, Shūkichi and Tomi’s growing divide between them and their children represents the universal struggle of traditional values dwindling in the face of modernity. While the parents aim to instill the fabric of respect to their kin, this unknowingly damages their integral tight-knit bond with the obligation of upholding societal norms proving to be a needless burden for the children. Chishū Ryū (Shūkichi) and Setsuko Hara (Noriko), both Ozu regulars, portray this struggle with a refined level of elegance. Ryū mannerisms are reminiscent of the past, a nod to a period of peaceful stability; his tired smile masks the growing sadness brewing within his soul. Hara’s acting contains an innate capacity for empathy, as exhibited through her frequent, intimate, and often unbroken discussions.
Fundamentally omnipresent experiences are explored through the passage of time and its inevitable clash with the core ideal of familial connection — honesty. As this once-restrained realization comes to light, it parallels how society expects our closest blood relatives to show the most understanding. However, those who are outside the confines of their own bias can see how our world operates — for the better or worse.
While those who live in the West consider westernization to be a beneficial process, the unintentional destruction of, in this case, Japanese cultural tradition, damages the core of familial foundation while furthering the divide between parents and their children. This effect is merely a byproduct of time passing. Should the children strive toward an independent lifestyle, even if it means separation from those who raised them? Ozu’s reluctance to explicitly portray this sentiment or answer our questions through both the characters’ actions and imagery serves as a testament to his faith in the audience. Our emotions fill the narrative gaps purposefully left along the journey, guiding us on a path of acceptance we all must undergo.
How does one balance taking care of their family while simultaneously living their own lives? The answer isn’t so simple, as derived from the final conversations in the third act. This ever-expanding rift is unavoidable in many circumstances, leading to the truth surfacing. As the days go by, the only guarantee in the Hirayama family is impermanence. Perhaps this change is predestined, and only those with the capacity for true empathy and understanding will be able to grow alongside the linear construct of time.
The film’s inherently humanistic ideology only solidifies the notion to let go of the past and the burden it carries. Parents and their children drift away, and it simply coincides with the evolution of globalization. Despite the strain of society and its tenets, there is hope that life will improve, and hope that we will understand our elders. In another world, in another lifetime, everything will be just the way it was.