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.