Monday, May 14, 2012

Tokyo Story

I watched Yasujiro Ozu's movie, Tokyo Story, on DVD a couple of days ago.  It dates from 1953, and I kept having the strangest feeling that I'd seen it before, though I certainly don't remember doing so.  But at the beginning, in particular, and occasionally throughout, there would be a shot that clicked as being one I'd seen in the past.  Some of them seemed strikingly familiar, yet the film as a whole doesn't ring any particular bells.

Be that as it may, this film comes with a considerable reputation: Sight and Sound is quoted as saying (on the DVD cover) 'One of the three greatest films of all time...' (unfortunately we don't know what the other two are, though critics 'worldwide' voted it amongst the top five best films ever made); BBC Films says, 'A simple story simply told...widely considered one of the great classics of world cinema.'   And Halliwell, that doyen of movie-listing, puts it as Number One in his Top 1000 movies.  With all that, like it or not, you're coming to a masterpiece, when you sit down to view this movie.   And it's certainly a striking movie.  Shot after shot is visually satisfying; there are many shots where there's hardly a human in sight, but they add to the overall atmosphere.  The cast is uniformly good, right down to the bit players, and the story, for all its simplicity, is moving and detailed.

I saw it in several bits, which didn't help its reputation, and, as a result, found it longer than it actually is -it runs to 136 minutes.  Nevertheless, even interruptions couldn't stem its strength, and it's a movie worth watching, and one I'd probably watch again.

The story is straightforward: an elderly couple take the long journey from their small coastal village to Tokyo, in order to see their older son and daughter.  The younger daughter lives with them at home, still, and we only see her at the beginning and the end.  There is another younger son (living in a town closer to his parents) who doesn't appear at all in the movie until more than three-quarters of the way through - and comes as a surprise.  We thought we knew who all the family members were.  Then there is the daughter-in-law - her husband was killed in the war, some eight years before the story takes place.   There are sundry other in-laws and grandchildren (one of them the most obnoxious you'll find in a movie).   The older daughter's husband has no opinions of his own, and all his ideas are put aside by his wife: there is no doubt she considers herself the future matriarch of the family.  What's more, she can never open her mouth without grumbling about something, or without causing offence, however hard she tries.  The older son is a doctor whose wife does as she's told, and struggles to control the obnoxious grandchild mentioned above.

Both the older daughter and son work from home, so their lives are often interrupted with work.  Worse, the elderly parents are seen as just another interruption, and neither the son or daughter can wait to move them on to someone else, or to a hotel by the sea.

The only one of the family who is different is the widowed daughter-in-law; try as she might, she can't help showing love to her mother and father-in-law, and takes time off from work to show them the city, and cares for them quietly.  She is the one most affected at the end of the story by the elderly mother's sudden death.  

So it's mostly a study of people - and not just the family; there are a few other minor characters who appear for short periods, notably the elderly father's old friends who live in Tokyo and with whom he goes on a drinking binge (for the first time in many years).  Of course his older daughter is appalled, especially when he arrives home drunk - with one of the other drinkers - and assumes that she'll put them both up for the night.

Much of the movie proceeds at a quiet pace - there's no 'action' a la Hollywood, no surprising denouement.  Everything we learn about these people we learn early in their first scenes, and there are only occasional further revelations.  So what makes it so watchable?  It's hard to know, except that people-watching is something we all do if we're willing to give the time over to it, and the people here, for all their ordinariness, are immensely watchable.  The mother and father are a lovely couple, well-past the quarrels and difficulties of their earlier lives; the children are a mixed bunch and their selfishness is a bit surprising, but perhaps not as much as we think.  The one shining star, the daughter-in-law, may be a bit too good to be true, and yet she doesn't come across that way.  We believe in her, and her modesty, humility, generosity, and warmth, which are consistent in every appearance until the very end, when she breaks down because of her mother-in-law's death.  The fact that her husband had been somewhat brutal to her should have put her against this family, yet she has somehow surpassed all that, and is even resigned to loneliness, if necessary.  (Her parents-in-law are both insistent that she should forget her former husband and make herself available to a new man.)  It's interesting that Ozu uses one of his particular techniques with this character, that of showing her almost full-on when she's speaking to another character (especially the older couple).  This has the effect of making her seem to be speaking to us, the audience.

But beyond the people there is the detail in the movie: each house is a little box full of all manner of household items carefully placed not only for the residents, but to delight the eye of the viewer.  Each garden with its rustic tables and particular flowers and urns and decoration is part of an overall vision. The photography is the best of black and white, although it lacks that sharpness of definition that seems superior.  Interestingly enough, the music has a distinct Western feel to it; though there's a element of the Japanese style, the score could easily be used in a film made in the USA or Europe.

I've got the movie out for a week....I may try and watch it all in one go, if I get the chance!




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