Tokyo Story has an interesting legacy about it. American film critic Roger Ebert lists it as one of his “great movies,” BFI’s Sight and Sound includes it as number three in its most recent “Top 50 Films of All Time” of 2013, and it has seen similarly exceptional attention on an international stage. For its director, Yasujiro Ozu, it is regarded as his masterpiece. However, what makes the story of Tokyo Story so interesting is that its story is so very not-interesting. Rather than a film that relies on its plot to be particularly dramatic or enticing, Tokyo Story follows an elderly couple through a handful of everyday events. They visit their children and grandchildren, they make small talk, they muse over their activities for the day, and not much else. What the film relies on instead of an enticing story is just about everything else.
Despite the distinct lack of any truly noteworthy events within the film, the actors still manage to offer memorable dialogue. What can be learned about the characters is packed into the natural and ordinary decisions they make, in how the elderly couple treat their adult children and how those adult children treat their elderly parents. Some emotions and opinions are made clearer as the film plods along, but for the most part these aspects of the characters trickle out for the audience through actors’ subdued expressions and lines. The acting is only buffered by Ozu’s choice in camera technique.
Ozu uses “tatami shots” frequently throughout the film, where the camera is filming the scene from a lower angle, giving the impression that the audience is viewing the scene from the perspective of someone seated on tatami mat. The camera is kept at this “tatami shot” angle for much of the film, changing only occasionally to capture the faces of characters as they speak. This perspective and the stillness of the camera lend themselves to the film’s quiet and slow progression, placing the viewer not in the audience but bringing them into the everyday that Ozu explores.
Aside from the lack of anything interesting, what might be even more distinct than Ozu’s use of camera is his editing of scenes. To describe the experience of watching Tokyo Story as “in medias res” is correct yet not wholly accurate. It would be partially misleading to claim that there are very many “things” for the viewer to have been placed into, but at the same time Ozu leaves out some aspects of the story. At the very beginning of the film we find that the elderly couple are packing and preparing to go to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren, and in the very next scene we find them already there. The cuts themselves are also immediate, rather than fades or anything of the like. With Ozu’s choices in which scenes to include or exclude, one made seemingly arbitrarily with consideration to how little anything of real “interest” occurs, the sudden cuts can leave an unsuspecting audience taking some time to figure out exactly where they are.
Even though Tokyo Story is a critically acclaimed film throughout the world, Ozu’s various choices in editing and his distinctive style can create a polarizing experience for viewers. For those looking for a less complicated film for entertainment, your attentions might be better suited turned away from Tokyo Story. For those more inclined to watch a film and spend some time trying to figure out its message, Tokyo Story seems to be a film certainly worth the time to decode.