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52 Movies: Week 34 - Tokyo Story

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.


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I had completely forgotten that you wrote about this movie before, it wasn't until I got to trailer at the end of the post that I realized that I had watched it when you wrote about it. Augh!

I did really like the movie and Bill did too. Also, I did not remember that you had written about Early Spring, but I was looking for Japanese movies a while back and noticed several of Ozu's films with the names of seasons in them. So, coincidentally, Late Summer is at the top of my Netflix queue. It's been in my queue for several months.


That is a nice coincidence.

It's very poignant for parents of grown children, isn't it? Early Spring deals with a similar theme. Apparently it was a favorite for Ozu. I didn't realize until yesterday that there are several other seasonally-titled ones like Late Summer.

Well, we sent back Vera #2 yesterday, so we should be getting it soon.

It is surely very poignant.

There's a Francis Ford Coppolla film that deals with the same topic as Tokyo Story, but it's much sadder. I want to show it to my kids and say, "Don't do this!"


I've seen this once, and enjoyed it, but, a bit like you, I find it difficult to understand why seasoned cinephiles hold it in such extremely high regard (#3 on the Sight & Sound list).

It gets better on a second viewing, or at least it did for me. But I wouldn't rate it *that* high, either. I ran across a poll of directors, including a lot of big names, and they had it at #1! I didn't think all that well of the list, though, as it had several in the top 10 that would not make my list of favorites at all.

What's the name of the Coppola movie, Janet?

I should never write anything from work. ;-)

It was Leo McCarey, Make Way for Tomorrow.


Speaking of lists, here's one that a friend sent me yesterday. Some strange choices here, both in presence and in placement:


'Make Way for Tomorrow' came in at no. 6 on this list, which I've just started slowly watching my way through (I've seen roughly 40 of them already):


Conclusion thus far: I don't like Tarkovsky's films, other than 'Andrei Rublev.'

(not sure why everything's italicized)

My fault.

Finding Nemo????


On that first list, almost everyone that I've started to watch, I didn't finish.

On the second I think I counted 33. I'm definitely putting some of those on my list.


I have 'Ordet' (no. 3) on the way for the weekend.

That was the first one I was looking at.


I've seen only a handful of the ones on the first list, maybe 20% or 25% of the ones on the second list. Not going to attack either one in any systematic way, though the second looks very promising.

I seem to be on the same wavelength as whoever put together that BBC Top 100 list: I've seen 2/3 of them, including 24 of the top 25. Not that my own list would be similar, but it's sort of gratifying to know that I've not been spending my limited movie-watching time on complete trash.

I'm surprised to see In the Mood for Love rated #2. I hadn't thought it was so highly regarded.

I've seen just over half of the films on that Arts & Faith list. It looks like a pretty good list. I'm ashamed to say I wasn't able to get through Andrei Rublev. 8-(

Not only do I have Ordet and Dreams on hand, The Human Condition has come in unexpectedly fast through interlibrary loan. Fortunately, it's a 3-week borrow.

Andrei Rublev is divided into eight segments, which makes it convenient to watch in more than one sitting. The final segment, with the epilogue, is the best, I'd say. I've watched the film three or four times, and after the first viewing I've skipped the 6th segment, which I find too disturbing (although I imagine it should be seen at least once.) It features a very graphically done Tatar invasion of a Christian village, and the persecution of its residents.

Andrei Rublev is in the "I'll get to it one of these days" category for me. I recorded it off TCM once and it was so long that the DVR seemed to have trouble with it. Or something. Anyway I've seen the first twenty minutes or so and "interesting" is about all I can say of it.

I finally watched Moonrise Kingdom all the way through. I'm glad Craig convinced me to do it, although that one scene is REALLY uncomfortable.


I couldn't remember what this was about, so I searched. See here.

I also watched the sequel to Crouching Tiger, etc., and although it was interesting enough that I watching the whole thing, it didn't begin to be as good as CTHD.


I watched Late Spring last night and found it very moving. One of the main attractions of the film for me was simply watching the everyday habits of the characters. I've seen quite a few Japanese films, and I'm always struck by their formal ways with one another. This movie mixed it up a bit by showing the also really close intimacy brought about because of their living arrangements. We all lose that shared intimacy when our life situations change, but adding that formality makes the loss seem especially poignant, at least to me.

I just finished watching Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Hadn't really planned to but I had recorded it not long ago as a sort of check-off item (directed by Martin Scorsese) and wanted to get it out of the way and free the DVR space. It's a sort of feminist-y film from the '70s, about a single mother. The contrast with the culture depicted in Late Spring is staggering.

I need to watch Crouching etc again.

When I saw CTHD the first time, I knew I would want to see it again--probably more than once--because it was very beautiful and compelling. That sword-fight in the trees has got to be one of the most beautiful scenes ever shot. I don't regret watching the sequel, but I doubt I'll ever watch it again.


It didn't make that kind of impression on me, I don't know why. Not nearly the impression that Hero did. That's part of the reason why I'd like to see it again.

Watched Ordet (no. 3 on the Arts and Faith list) on Saturday night. Interesting, with very prominent religious themes (it's based on a 1925 play written by a Lutheran pastor), but quite slow. And not just in the pacing -- everything happens slowly here: people talk slowly, walk slowly, the camera moves slowly. Watching the movie is very much like watching a play -- most of it happens in one long room, a farmhouse kitchen. Still, if you're willing to give it a shot in spite of its lack of motion, it ends up being fairly compelling, not least in the way that it deals with faith issues in a very matter-of-fact manner.

Having said that, it is one of those films, like Tarkovsky's work, that has me scratching my head as to why it ranks so highly on various lists of great films. But I guess there is some consolation in knowing that such an expressly religious movie gets that measure of attention. It seems that much of its praise is based on the cinematography and lighting, and there's no doubt that in that regard Dreyer was masterful. But it's hard for me to see how that, for most viewers, those aspects would override the sheer slowness of pace (and I'm saying this as a person who generally doesn't mind deliberately-paced movies.)

I just read the description of it at the Arts & Faith list. It does look interesting.

I put it on my Netflix list and was offered as a related recommendation a movie about Ragnarok. That sounds intriguing. ;-)

I watched Ragnarok several months ago. I thought it was a good scary movie. As I remember, it was all story and not much character development at all, but enjoyable.


I'm with you on Ordet, Rob. It has a kind of slow cumulative power, but the emphasis falls very much on "slow". I had difficulty sticking with it even though, like you, I generally prefer films that are at least sort of slow.

I wonder if there might be an ideological reason why films like Ordet rank so highly for some cinephiles. (For the record, Ordet was ranked #24 on the most recent Sight & Sound list.) For instance, I recently had occasion to glance through a book called Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action, which was an academic exploration of slow movies but also something of a manifesto ("countering the cinema..."). I wouldn't be at all surprised if some people keen on cinema want to stress ways that movies can be different from the standard Hollywood model, and for such people a film like Ordet could serve as a useful reference point: it is certainly very different from most movies, yet it has a clear artistic vision. But this is just speculation on my part.

That's plausible. Speaking for myself, I've come to have a strong dislike of the fast cutting that tends to be standard now. Especially the really fast cutting, where no single image is on the screen for more than a few seconds. I realized several years ago that every time I tried to watch what seemed as if it might be an interesting documentary on tv, I got irritated, and that it was because of that. I actually timed it on several occasions. The average time the camera stayed put on one image was under 5 seconds. 5 or 6 was pretty much the max. "Notice the intricate patterns on this Viking sword hilt"--and then before you can really take it in they snatch it away. GRRR.

It didn't occur to me that Ragnarok might actually be a good movie, Janet. I assume if you like it it's not *too* scary.

Neither can I abide habitual rapid cuts. It's disorienting for me, and I tend to lose interest in whatever I'm watching if it becomes too prevalent. I prefer a gentle andante.

I recently watched a very good film called Stations of the Cross. It's interesting thematically, but also formally: it's split into 14 parts, and each part is filmed in a single long take. Moreover, almost every take is static; only on a couple of occasions does the camera move. I like this because (a) a static shot, if well composed and choreographed, encourages one to really pay attention to what is happening on screen, and (b) if the camera does move it is obviously doing so for a reason, which gives one something to think about. For me, deliberate filmmaking of this sort really helps to highlight how form and content can be closely related in a film.

In fact, I might write about this film for the 52 Movies series, if I can get around to it.

Speaking of static shots, I believe that in Tokyo Story every shot is static. Ozu was sort of famous for that (and for the low, hip-level placement of his camera).

I can't swear to *every*, but certainly by far most of them. The low camera placement is said to have been the point of view of someone sitting on the floor, as is (was?) customary in Japan.

There are plenty of open slots left in the 52 Movies series. Almost all of them.

You can put me down for Sept. 21, Mac. Can't do one before then, unfortunately.


It didn't occur to me that Ragnarok might actually be a good movie, Janet. I assume if you like it it's not *too* scary.

Well, it's not more than good at best, but I think I thought it was good scariness. Not *too* scary.

I remember that I watched during a sort of film marathon that I had around Christmas, or maybe Christmas before last. I don't know why, but I think I watched about 6 movies in two days. Maybe I was sick.


"an academic exploration of slow movies but also something of a manifesto"

Like the Slow Food movement, except for movies. I sort of get that, at least in theory. You do have lots of people who think that a movie is "slow" if something isn't blowing up every five minutes, and Hollywood does tend to cater to that mentality, especially for foreign markets.

I watched Ikiru last night and *loved* it.


Yes! Great, great movie.

Oh, I see that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is streaming on Netflix now. Dare I?


Just checked our Netflix; it's not an option here. Instead, its algorithms suggest, I might want to see "Sleepy Hollow", "Vampire Diaries", or "Stories of Rabindranath Tagore". That last one I will have to look at at some point.

Watched Late Spring last night and liked it a lot. Like Marianne I found it quite moving. It was the first Ozu film I've seen but will be watching more, for sure.

I've only seen this and Tokyo Story. After seeing both one time, I said I liked Late Spring better. Having seen TS again, I was inclined to prefer it. But if/when I see LS again, I may change again. At any rate they're both really good.

I have watched quite a few of Ozu's films. Several are a lot like Spring. So much so that I can't remember which is which, but I like them all.

One interesting thing about his movies is that some were made during the occupation, and while he can't complain about the Americans, he puts little things in there so that you will notice.


It sort of amazes me that these were made within ten years or so of the end of the war.

Watched Early Summer over the weekend and liked it even more than Late Spring. Tokyo Story is next.

Also watched Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, which is very good, but almost overwhelmingly sad.

I want to see Late Spring again. Then Early Summer, maybe.

Watched Tokyo Story last night and liked it very much. It's fascinating (and wonderful!) how much drama and emotion Ozu can get out of the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Pure antithesis of the comic book movies.

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