Tokyo Story (1953) – Yasujirō Ozu

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.

The elderly Hirayama, Shukishi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), leave their rural home to visit their son and daughter in Tokyo. Both children are married; the son is a doctor and their daughter is a hairdresser. Almost from the beginning the parents are politely pushed aside. Their grandchildren are annoyed by the minute changes their house undergoes to accommodate Shukishi and Tomi, and their children make excuses about being busy with work, shuffling the couple between each other and relegating them to the out-of-the-way parts of their houses. Eventually, the children decide that Shukishi and Tomi would enjoy a trip to a trendy spa, one at which they can, hopefully, stay for days. The children have missed the point: Shukishi and Tomi didn’t come to Tokyo to relax or to see the city; they wanted to see their children and grandchildren. Soon after the spa, the couple decides to return home.

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.

Having recently rewatched John Ford’s The Searchers (1956)I was struck by what naturals of composition Ford and Ozu were. Ford was, in many ways, an outdoor filmmaker, and he seamlessly suggested how the natural world put up barriers in the way of man’s progress. Ozu was a mainly interior director who brilliantly suggested the ways our society puts up barriers to human connection. I think of a passing moment in an inconsequential character’s home, and a shot that features an infant child under a mosquito net. The net is for the child’s protection, but it effectively puts him in a cage. If the mother here is happy to trade the work of protecting her child from bugs herself for the convenience of the mosquito net, how can we blame the adult children who want to hurry their parents back out of their daily lives?


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 [1939]).

Ozu also suggests that families take each other for granted. Truly, the people who treat the couple on their visit with the most decency aren’t even related to them. Their daughter’s husband brings home nice cakes for his parents-in-law and is immediately chided by his wife for wasting money on expensive foods when “they like crackers just fine.” The tenderest moments of their visit are between them and Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their son who died during the war. She is thrilled they are in Tokyo and goes to great lengths to put them up and entertain them. The movie is quick to point out that it’s easier for Noriko because she doesn’t have a family of her own, but just the same Noriko seems to connect with them genuinely and for the same reasons they respond to her; they are a connection to her lost husband.


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.

Chishu Ryu, who plays Shukishi, is an Ozu regular (he appeared in 52 of Ozu’s 54 films; three times he played characters with the last name Hirayama, including in my beloved An Autumn Afternoon), and in his nods and warm grunts can express a wide range of emotions and meanings. He quickly internalizes his wife’s passing, giving his children the emotional excuse to leave him. A neighbor casually stops by to give her condolences. “She was a headstrong woman,” he says, ever smiling. “But if I knew things would come to this, I’d have been kinder to her.” He says this in the same tone as all the other small talk that has distracted the characters from each other throughout the movie, but in those words are the soul of the movie. In a similar exchange, a character asks Noriko “Isn’t life disappointing?” Noriko smiles as she says, “Yes, it is.”


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.

Western audiences were late to recognize Ozu, who was deemed too Japanese, whatever that means, though now he has been placed ahead of his national contemporaries in critical estimation. His stories are culturally Japanese but their messages are universal. Ozu was inspired to make Tokyo Story by an American film called Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), which shares similar narrative elements but is decidedly American. The point is, insensitivity doesn’t recognize a nationality and the too-often difficulty of being decent isn’t cultural. We all have parents, and Ozu attempts to honor them.

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