Every decade, the British Film Institute conducts its Sight and Sound poll of the Greatest Movies Ever Made. In 2012, the top two films were familiar: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, but third was a dark horse: Yasujirô Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story.
If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry. Though Tokyo Story was made when film fans were eating up the works of Akira Kurosawa, Ozu was deemed “too Japanese,” and his work remained dormant on the Western stage for years. The persistent writings of film critics Donald Richie, David Bordwell, and Roger Ebert brought exposure to Ozu films, but it was Ozu and his gentle nature that made the movies so timeless. Ozu’s films deal with middle-class people, focusing primarily on family dramas with a universal and timeless appeal. Tokyo Story is over 50 years old, depicts a foreign land and culture, and yet continues to resonate with audiences far and wide.
Tokyo Story is quietly simple: Two elderly parents leave their small country town to visit their children in the city. The children are happy to see them but too busy with their jobs and their own children to pay them any real attention. The parents feel guilty about being in the way, and the children feel guilty for neglecting them. Manners keep everyone from stating the obvious. The children decide to send them to a hot springs spa for a vacation, but the parents decide to go home. On the train ride home, the mother grows ill and dies, and the children must make a trip.
A summation of the movie makes sound intolerably sad, and it is a sad movie, but only because it invokes genuine empathy. Consider the scene where the mother watches her grandson playing in a field. She wonders if he will grow up to be a doctor. She then wonders if she will live to see it. She won’t, and the look on her face conveys that in a way that words simply can’t. The Japanese call this “mono no aware” or “a bittersweet passing of things,” and Ozu finds the right moments to strike this chord. After the mother’s funeral, two daughters discuss their siblings, mother, and father until the younger one says, “Isn’t life disappointing?” The older one nods, “Yes, it is.”
Yasujirô Ozu directed Tokyo Story as well as co-authoring the script. His style is unique and may seem off-putting to the casual moviegoer, but it quickly becomes invisible and quite effective. His camera is positioned three feet off the ground and remains stationary. When characters have a conversation, Ozu films them talking directly to the camera. This allows them to talk to us and occasionally for us. What these children and these parents on the screen go through, we shall go through too.
Of the 54 films Ozu made in his 60 years, Tokyo Story is the acknowledged masterpiece, which makes it an excellent starting point to the rest of his oeuvre.
Tokyo Story is available to stream on The Criterion Channel, HBO Max, and Kanopy. A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 38, “A lesserknown masterpiece.”