‘Tokyo Story’ (1953 movie)

by | Aug 3, 2006

Tokyo Story (1953): Chieko Higashiyama and Chishu RyuLast night we watched Tokyo Story, a 1953 Japanese movie by Yasujiro Ozu which is often included in lists of the best films of all time.

Previously, we had seen Ozu’s 1959 work, Floating Weeds, which included a very illuminating commentary by our favorite critic, Roger Ebert. Ebert showed great affection for the director’s complex style in looking at ordinary people in ordinary lives, his unique camera angles and framing, and his light touch in telling a story. Although I appreciated Floating Weeds much more after hearing that commentary, it still does not rank among my favorites. Tokyo Story eventually may, after I have had more time to think about it.

This movie is another look at ordinary people, in this case a pair of grandparents from the small town of Onomichi who travel to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren, a journey of about 400 miles which meant a full day’s train ride back in the early 50s. Chieko Higashiyama and Chishu Ryu (pictured above) star as Tomi and Shukishi Hirayama, and their faces become the canvas on which the story’s turns are subtly reflected.

Reviewers sometimes comment that Ozu’s films are the sort in which “nothing really happens,” but that is not true of Tokyo Story. Sure, nothing explodes in flames and no one gets shot, but something huge most certainly happens, and a lot of other things happen before that. It’s just that these are ordinary things — the same small slights and kindnesses, awkwardness and grace, pride and humility that we all experience every day — and they happen in a polite culture where it’s customary to absorb an insult without flinching, rather than slap the giver in the face, call her a selfish bitch, and push her off the roof of a high-rise through a glass skylight in slow motion.

Tokyo Story (1953): Haruko SugimuraSetsuko Hara, one of Japan’s biggest movie stars of the period, co-stars as Noriko, the elderly couple’s widowed daughter-in-law, a model of generosity and respect. Haruko Sugimura (pictured) is even better as their colder, more practical daughter Shige, who is busy meeting the demands of her beauty shop.

Tokyo Story (1953 movie)Yasujiro Ozu’s directorial style is unusual. He often keeps the camera low, right down on the tatami mat, which produces an odd sense of perpective and a stronger awareness of the characters’ feet. He likes to frame shots on the architecture, and then let the cast move in and out of that steady frame. He uses reverse angles and even positions his actors with their backs to the camera at times, but the overall effect is one that draws you into his scenes as an unnoticed witness. The Criterion Collection release we watched included a commentary by Ozu scholar David Desser which helped to point a lot of these details out and reinforced some of the observations we had heard Roger Ebert make on Floating Weeds.

Amy and I both enjoyed Tokyo Story, and I would recommend it highly. It’s one of those great movies which does not seem so remarkable at first, but does by the end, and then becomes even more amazing the next day when you think back on it.

Which reminds me: I’ve got to call my mom.

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