Category Archives: Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story

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.

Film Review of Tokyo Story – Brian Pridgeon

Tokyo Story is a tale of a Japanese family with a dark undertone. Shukichi and Tomi, the grandparents of Koichi, Shige, Shoji, Keizo, and Kyoko, are growing old and decide to go visit their children. They have traveled from Onomichi to Tokyo, which is an extremely far distance, especially for an elderly couple, to visit their children. However, upon arrival, they are shocked to find out that their children have no time to spend with them, leaving the question of what will happen to Shukichi and Tomi?

Ozu Yasujiro is a widely renowned, Japanese film director, as well as a screenwriter, who is known in the directing world for his unique style. Tokyo Story is one of his most famous films out of the dozens he has created and directed. His specialty is being especially particular with his directing, giving him a distinct style. Ozu uses the Rule of Thirds, which is the appeal of things being in threes, breaks the 180-degree rule as well as the fourth wall, and is quite famous for having characters look directly into the camera. He uses his characters to the fullest, having them convey emotion with their facial expressions and their actions with full body shots. He captures the real essence of the aging couple whose children are too busy for them, which can be displayed with the themes of the film.

While watching attentively, the main theme that comes out of Tokyo Story is the timeless, Asian theme of filial piety, but in this film it is the lack of respect for filial piety. Once the grandparents arrive in Tokyo they are shifted around from child to child. This is not an acceptable action to do in filial piety and it is heartbreaking to watch in the actual film itself. It is a dark story, due to the underlying theme of time running out and not cherishing what you have until it is no longer there, because the grandparents remain hopeful that their children will wish to be by their side and not find them to be a burden on them. The pawning off of the grandparents comes to a halt once they visit their late son’s wife, Noriko. Noriko is technically no longer related to their family since the death, but she is still hospitable towards them. Filial piety does make a return nearing the end of the film though, when one event forces all of the grandchildren together and helps them realize the error of their way of life by not cherishing their time with their parents.

            Tokyo Story ’s themes are important to drive the story along, as well to learn from personally. Ozu is trying to stress this theme to convey that life is limited and while you may be busy, there should always be time for family. Tokyo Story can even be categorized as a “Slice of Life” style film. That style of film gives insight into daily, non-spectacular, average, life. While it is specifically Japanese life that does not mean that it could not be applied to other nationalities. Family is universal and this scenario could occur to anyone, but it could be interpreted that Ozu used a Japanese family, which is practically based on filial piety, to show that even in the tightest of families, separation is possible. While Ozu does a sort of ellipses within the film, leaving out some rather key scenes, it is still a captivating, emotionally darker film that could leave the viewer moved by the sincerity of the film that Ozu has created with the directing and story.


Tokyo Story

One of Ozu’s famed low-angle shots capturing the faces of Noriko and Shukichi

Tokyo Story is an exceedingly minimalist and personal film directed by legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.  Ozu’s particular style is very different from what one would expect of a Hollywood director and his focus in this film seems to be capturing the awkward, uncomfortable feelings between family members who have drifted apart.

The film centers upon an elderly couple, Shukichi(Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), as they visit their adult children who have moved to Tokyo.   There is little story development of significance, instead the film is more of a character piece, spending most of its time just showing the characters talk and allow their interactions to drive the film forward.  Ozu wants the audience to notice every wrinkle and subtle facial movement of the characters.  He manages this task by using a “tatami shot” wherein the camera is placed a low angle, mimicking the POV of a person sitting just below the characters.  It also let’s him have far more control over his shot, as the camera is completely stationary for most of the film.

This turns out to be a major boon for the film and the actors; by lingering on their faces Ozu allows his actors use more subtle facial expressions than would be typically be used in a film.  That the actors can convey emotions without exaggeration helps highlight the understated tone of the film.   Tokyo Story is a film that rarely shows the important story beats occur, but instead focuses on the reactions of characters to these off-screen events, making the film more personal.

Now Ozu’s stylistic choices would be worthless if the acting was bad, which it isn’t.  Ryu and Higashiyama turn in very subdued performances, making the audience guess what they are really feeling, but their children the performances can be said to be perfunctory if a bit flat.  Koichi (Sō Yamamura) and Shige (Haruko Sugimura), the eldest children, are largely one note in nature, each is too busy to care for their aging parents.  Because they are so busy, the audience rarely gets the close ups shots that are the film’s biggest strength.  Yamamura and Sugimura do get some chances to shine, albeit briefly, in the latter half of the film.

The real standout among the supporting cast is Setsuko  Hara as the widowed daughter-in-law Noriko.  Hara turns in a masterful performance, and she gets plenty of chances to express complex emotions.  She is smiling throughout the film, but the shots linger long enough for the audience to guess at what the smile truly means, and her facade is fascinating to watch, especially as events wear it down.

The films biggest flaw is that, by and large, nothing happens.  It is a film with an exceedingly small scale attempting to tell an incredibly personal story about the destruction of familial bonds.  This means that film can sometimes fall prey to an overwhelming sense of malaise as the characters do  ordinary things.  This not an edge-of-your seat film.  It is a very slow burn.  If you’re looking for a fast paced film I suggest you look elsewhere.  Tokyo Story absolutely shines as a slow-burn character drama, but you’ve got be ready to do some mental work to understand the characters.  A great film to just sit down and analyze, but if you’re just looking for a fun way to kill a couple of hours this is not the right choice.

Tokyo Story

The Family Seated Together
The family seated together

Regarded the world over as a masterpiece, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story makes extensive use of the director’s characteristic unique style.  Inspired by films such as Make Way for Tomorrow, the film examines universal concepts with a unique spin.  A film set in the period after WWII, Ozu’s film looks not at the dramatic but rather, at the everyday happenings in life.  Unconventional camera angles and scene transitions, compounded by Ozu’s unique plot progression serve to create an experience that completely upends western expectations of film, all through the familiar lens of the family unit. Important events are often not shown on screen, only being revealed later through dialogue. For example, the train journeys to and from Tokyo are not depicted. A distinctive camera style is used, in which the camera height is low and almost never moves, creating a slow paced film perfectly juxtaposed with the times after war.

Set in 1950’s post-war Japan, Tokyo Story follows the adventures of the aging couple Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama as they journey from rural Onomichi to metropolitan Tokyo to visit their now adult and semi estranged children. However, unfortunately for Shukichi and Tomi, their now adult children do not have the time for them. Ozu’s  use of the camera to dramatize everyday experiences is the embodiment of his unique style.  By placing the camera at an extremely low angle, Ozu’s “tatami shots” set the viewer’s eye at a point that mirrors that of what would be seen by the natural eye when seated on a tatami mat, rather than using the typical over-the-shoulder shots. Through this clever camera placement, Tokyo Story creates a more intimate experience for the viewer with the characters, much that one feels as if they are a part of the action, not just a bystander.

While one would expect scenes to transition from one to the next seamlessly, this is not the case in Tokyo Story.  In fact, Ozu’s “ellipses” show major gaps in the film.  Rather than using continuity editing , Tokyo Story’s transitions are shots of certain static objects or use direct cuts, rather than fades or dissolves. Most often the static objects would be buildings, where the next indoor scene would take place. All of this contributes to the slow pacing of the film and the indirect progression of scenes expected in western cinema.

By rejecting Hollywood film conventions, Tokyo Story serves as the embodiment of a style free from western influence. Rather than being considered a japanese film, audiences should approach the film as enforcing Ozu’s position as an auteur to examine his ideas about the family. Tokyo Story highlights the relationship between blood relatives, that of a lack of concern, and juxtaposes it with the relationship between the old couple and their devoted, widowed daughter in law.

A cinematic experience that is both comfortingly similar and drastically foreign,  Ozu’s Tokyo Story examines the universal concept of family.   Through his use of “tatami shots,” and “ellipses” Ozu delivers a film focusing on gazes and the deconstruction of the common adage “blood is thicker than water”that is well worth watching.