Yasujirō Ozu is obsessed with the generational divide. He made countless pictures about the way parents and their children relate. Many filmmakers tinker with their films, revisiting them and releasing parades of different editions. Ozu simply revisited the same idea, working the problem from different angles. A complaint about Ozu is that his films are too slow. The thoughtful viewer thinks otherwise. There’s as much human drama in an Ozu picture as there is in a soap opera, but Ozu has the restraint to treat that drama realistically. He doesn’t want fireworks; he’s not interested in gotcha surprises, but his aversion to these things doesn’t make his messages less true. Another complaint is that all his films are the same, yet favorites emerge among thoughtful viewers. Mine is An Autumn Afternoon (1962), about a widower who watches his children grow up away from him, but I’d be a fool not to recognize the greatness of Tokyo Story (1956), about a parents’ visit to their children in the city, which is Ozu’s masterpiece.
Ozu is a master of empathy and his story isn’t designed simply to expose the callousness of the children. Most likely, they have their parents’ interests at heart. In fact, there’s very little to object to in their behavior. They give their parents a place to stay, they schedule their days with things to do, and on the surface the suggestion of the spa seems like an altruistic one. It’s only clear that they think of them as a nuisance when Shukishi and Tomi return from the spa early and unannounced, interrupting a function the daughter is hosting. Their behavior only seems insensitive because we are allowed to see their parents’ reaction to it.
The children are giving the minimum amount of effort it will take for them to avoid feeling guilty and that’s clear to Shukishi and Tomi. All this is done with subtle glances and outwardly ambiguous behavior. The dialogue rarely reveals what characters are thinking and the parents never confront their kids about being squeezed out of their own visit. Why would they? Better to quietly accept the indignities than to press the issue just to find out they are intentional. When they decide to leave, it’s because they are tired and homesick, not because their visit has been unfulfilling.
Of course, when Ford went inside he was capable of remarkable relational compositions; it was the home where humanity lied in Ford’s camera. When Ozu shot exteriors, he emphasized how civilization has created its own natural world, giving us bridges and smokestacks as if they were the buttes and bluffs of Ford’s Monument Valley. Rarely is there an exterior shot in Tokyo Story without the inclusion of some manmade structure. It’s the ultimate generation gap, the children casting aside Mother Earth. Kurosawa famously said that he learned composition by studying Ford’s Westerns, but it’s clear his countryman was aware of Ford as well (in Tokyo Story, a character whistles the theme from Stagecoach ).
On the trip back home Tomi falls ill and it soon turns serious and the children are asked to travel now. The children grumble but arrive anyway, just in time to watch their mother die. Another son from a different part of Japan shows up a little too late and Noriko has come too. There is real sadness at the funeral, as all the children genuinely grieve, but it isn’t long before they begin jockeying for their mother’s things and go. Only Noriko remains and in a sad scene Shukishi implores her to find a new husband, to let his son go. The moment echoes a similar conversation Tomi had with Noriko while in Tokyo. We wonder if Shukishi will follow his own advice.
Despite this potentially incendiary material, we are never being manipulated, nor are the relationships simple. The children seem cold to be sure, but we find out that Shukishi was a drunk when the children were little, which may explain some of their resentment now. Ozu’s editing is fair; his movie observes, it doesn’t editorialize. As much as it is possible, we are getting the whole story, so much so that Ozu holds on shots after doors are closed and the action is over or shows us an empty room for a while before it is filled. The effect is one of impassivity; we’re not being asked to judge but just to watch, and perhaps to recognize ourselves. Ozu is certainly there. The man never married and his films often included an unmarried child living at home (Shukishiand Tomi have an unmarried daughter who lives with them in the rural community). It’s telling that Ozu lived with his parents until they died.