It was this comment at my post about outstanding movies that made me decide it was high time I saw “Tokyo Story,” a postwar Japanese film by Yasujirō Ozu that’s considered one of the greatest cinema masterpieces of the 20th century.
I’m not a film buff. I’m not into technique; for example, “Citizen Kane,” that black-and-white achievement everyone always raves about, leaves me relatively cold. The same with “Tokyo Story” when I began watching it. It seemed old-fashioned and downright odd, obscure and slow as molasses.
But then—it started to grow on me. At two and a quarter hours of no action at all except for families sitting around (on the floor, mostly) or standing around and talking, it had better.
After a few minutes I thought “Hmm—Chekhov, Japanese style.” And then a bit later, “These people are very different from us, but also very much the same.” There was a lot of smiling and nodding, but the film manages to convey the conflicted and sometimes negative feelings veiled by all that pleasant and socially-prescribed assent.
If you’ve seen the movie (or Ozu’s other movies, which I haven’t) you’ll know that its technical aspects are so idiosyncratic that it’s nearly impossible to ignore them. The camera is static, set as though it were a person sitting on a tatami mat and looking out at eye-level from that vantage point as a sort of voyeur.
Not that anything risque ever goes on here. Not even close. It’s about how familial generations interact, disappoint each other, swallow their hurts, love each other, deal with the mundane frustrations of life as well as the large, absorb tragedy, and keep on going. About how we are all alone and separate and yet not alone at all, although we might feel lonely.
The movie, although intensely Japanese (and Japanese of the postwar era, at that), is also universal. We are all members of families. We are all subject to the passage of time as it takes us along and then ultimately away. Most of us are not as successful, as happy, as whatever it was we thought we’d be when looking at life and the world through the eyes of a child. And most of us go on and manage to extract quite a bit of joy from the whole thing.
Ozu was interested in families, but he never married. He lived with his elderly mother, who predeceased him by only two years, and is buried with her in a shared grave marked with only the character mu (“nothingness”).
Ozu’s leading lady, the luminously lovely Setsuko Hara, also never married. She retired abruptly from film at the age of 43 only a short time after Ozu’s death, to live the rest of her life in seclusion with her sister. Hara (not her real name) is still alive at 93, but has never given an interview or surfaced long enough for the press to get even a photo.
A scene with Hara, who was age 33 here: