This is a long movie in which very little happens, which as a rule is precisely not my cup of tea. But it's really good--generally considered a classic, in fact, and consistently places very high in polls of critics and filmmakers. It's by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and was made in 1953. I'm always a little surprised that so many good movies were being made in Japan so soon after the war.
I wrote about it once before, something over three years ago. I decided to include it in this series because it's so good, and because I've changed my view of it somewhat since then. Here's what I said then:
It's a really fine film, but it's so slow and so modest in scope and means that I couldn't help being a little impatient with it. It's widely considered to be the best work of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose Late Spring I wrote about a while back. And my reaction to this one is very similar: I admired it more than I liked it, and I think much of my problem is simply cultural: the characters remained somewhat foreign-seeming to me, to a degree that prevented my feeling as engaged by them and their situations as I might have had it been a European movie (I can't really imagine it as an American one).
I had thought at the time that I might want to see it again sometime. A year or two passed and one day I noticed that it was going to be shown on Turner Classic Movies (yes, we still have that AT&T U-verse service that we hardly use--I don't want to talk about it). So I recorded it and watched it again. And this time I liked it much better. On this second viewing, I didn't feel that the characters and the style of acting were as foreign and as hard to read as they had been. It wasn't only that, though. It was also the same effect that one can experience with any art, and which I find especially frequent with music: it may just take more than one hearing or viewing or reading for it to sink in, for me to really hear or see it, to be touched by it.
As I said in that earlier brief note, the plot could not be much simpler. An old couple, Shukichi, the husband, and Tomi, the wife, (who are about my age) travel from their small city (Onomichi) to visit their adult son, daughter, and daughter-in-law in Tokyo. The children are busy with their own cares: the son is a doctor, with children of his own, and the daughter runs a beauty shop. The daughter-in-law is the widow of a son who was killed in the war. Another son works in Osaka, which is on the way to (and from, obviously) Tokyo, and they visit him briefly, but I'm not sure this is even shown.
When they arrive in Tokyo, the couple find that their children don't really have time or energy to for them. Only the widowed daughter-in-law, perhaps because she is not married, or perhaps because she is just that kind of person, seems genuinely happy to see them and willing to spend time with them. In general, though, the visit is not a success, and the couple return to Onomichi.
There is only one really significant single event, and on the assumption that you haven't seen the film I'll leave it for you to experience. I also won't give you a link to Roger Ebert's review, because it does include that information. But as I'm too busy and distracted to write a real appreciation of this film, the kind of appreciation it deserves, I'm going to quote a couple of paragraphs of Ebert on the movie's craftsmanship:
"Tokyo Story" opens with the distant putt-putt of a ship's engine, and bittersweet music evokes a radio heard long ago and far away. There are exterior shots of a neighborhood. If we know Ozu, we know the boat will not figure in the plot, that the music will never be used to underline or comment on the emotions, that the neighborhood may be the one where the story takes place, but it doesn't matter. Ozu uses "pillow shots" like the pillow words in Japanese poetry, separating his scenes with brief, evocative images from everyday life. He likes trains, clouds, smoke, clothes hanging on a line, empty streets, small architectural details, banners blowing in the wind (he painted most of the banners in his movies himself).
His visual strategy is as simple (therefore as profound) as possible. His camera is not always precisely three feet above the floor (the eye level of a Japanese person seated on a tatami mat), but it usually is. "The reason for the low camera position," the writer Donald Richie explains, "is that it eliminates depth and makes a two-dimensional space." So we are better able to appreciate a composition because Ozu lets us notice its lines and weights and tones -- which always reflect his exact feeling about the scene.
And I'll leave it to you to discover the richness of the simple, subtle portraits of these people which Ozu gives us. The trailer will give you some idea. It appears to be the original trailer. The film itself is visually crisper and brighter than this.
I now very much want to see Late Spring again. I think it may be as good or nearly so.
--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.