The Cinema of Japan: Tokyo Story

TS poster

After Chris’s fantastic personal introduction to the works of Yasujiro Ozu yesterday, I thought I would take a look at probably his most famous work – Tokyo Story (1953). I was lucky enough to see the film on the big screen at the Arc Cinema here in Canberra where the film got a really great intro from the head of programming. One of the interesting things he said was that back in the day Ozu was considered “too Japanese” to really succeed internationally. Whilst I love this film and Ozu’s fame obviously extended far beyond his own country, it is pretty easy to see why that opinion was held about him.

TS imageNarrative-wise, the film is gentle but not exactly slow. The influence of Ozu on a myriad of artistic filmmakers that would follow him is plain to see in this regard. Tokyo Story’s greatest lesson is just how intriguing an utterly simple tale can be. The script is wonderful, even though it is telling such a simple story. Often it is hard to make these kinds of stories feel authentic, but there are no such issues here. The script allows the plot to unfold languorously in front of the viewer, spiced with an occasional note of humour. There is a sense throughout that Ozu is gently toying with the filmic form in this film. It gently nudges the heartstrings without pummelling them. It also veers in the second half into something of a road movie, where the personal or spiritual journey is accompanied by a physical one. This all builds to an emotional highpoint that I will not reveal except to say that it gives the film a ‘second wind’ of sorts after it had begun to drag for me, ever so slightly.

Visual poetry is one of those film terms that gets thrown around far too liberally when in fact I think as there are actually very few proponents of it. That said, Ozu is definitely part of that select group. Here, he continually incorporates architecture and the lines of buildings into his beautiful shot composition. This is notable due to the fact that much of the film takes place in urban areas and Ozu’s adeptness at incorporating enclosed physical spaces into his work makes it a lot prettier to look at then it otherwise would have been. Like the plot and the visuals, the soundtrack to the film can essentially be summarised as being quiet but masterful. Not at all intrusive, the soundtrack makes itself known through an occasional flourish that really enhances what is on screen.

TS familyWhilst there is much here that supports the idea that Ozu is a distinctly, if not totally “too Japanese” a director, such as the settings and culture which really could be nowhere but that country, there are also a number of universal elements. Thematically, the concern of parents for their children when they leave home is something that permeates much of the film. Just as this was a major theme of life in 1950s Japan, so it was in 2000s Australia when I left home. If you have left home, you know what I am talking about. If not, then trust me it is coming. More broadly, the film touches on a number of issues related to familial relations, especially the notion of the in-laws and the strains they can place on everyone. The joys that having your family extended by the incorporation of said in-laws is also displayed on screen. Tokyo Story also hit home for me in its exploration of the notion of time. More specifically, the way that we always seem far too busy. Too busy for what is really important. It is a real takeaway from the film and a credit that it is a message that gets through to me, despite leading a totally different life to the ones being led onscreen.

Gentle and artistic, but definitely not boring, Tokyo Story is definitely one to tick off for all major film buffs. It did go on a little too long for me, but Ozu is one of the true original maestros of cinema history. There is a fair chance that he has greatly influenced one of your favourite directors with his approach to the artform.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 93/1001

This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of Ace Attorney plus two other Japanese films on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.

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9 responses

  1. Visual Poetry. I loved your article. Never saw it and will now!

    1. Awesome Cindy, keen to hear what you think.

  2. I bought this like a year ago on DVD and still haven’t got around to watching it. This is a timely reminder that I should get off my ass (or, I guess, onto it … on my couch) and watch this.

    1. (Also, the 1001 movies thing inspired me to do a check – I’ve seen 292 of all the films to ever make the list. Only 700 or so to go…)

      1. You should definitely check this out. But I am right there with you. I have films that sit there on my shelf for ages and ages waiting to be watched.

        Glad the 1001 thing has inspired you. I haven’t done a count for a while. I suspect I have seen somewhere around the 180-200 mark. So many classics to catch up on.

  3. Great review 🙂

    I adore Tokyo Story. There’s something about it that just captures my heart. It’s my Best Picture choice of 1953. “Gentle and artistic” is the perfect way to describe it.

    1. Cheers for reading and commenting Ben. Are you a fan of any other Ozu films?

  4. Tokyo Story is one of those movies that could never fail to reduce me to tears. I think it’s an extraordinary achievement. In some ways I prefer Late Spring, but Tokyo Story is a classic for so many good reasons.

    Coincidentally, I just read earlier today that one of my favorite local movie theaters is going to be playing Tokyo Story for an entire week starting next week, to commemorate the film’s 60th anniversary. Lovely news. It’s not the kind of movie that would be easy to recommend to many of the people I know, but if I could find just one person to introduce to “gentle and artistic” Ozu and become a fan, I’d be over the moon.

    1. Thanks for commenting and thanks for suggesting Late Spring. I am keen to see some more Ozu. Hopefully you find that person to give an introduction too. I was lucky enough to see Tokyo Story on a big screen not so long ago. Was a great experience.

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