Tokyo Story serves as my personal introduction to Yasujiro Ozu’s esteemed body of work. Highly lauded as one of cinema’s best films by directors such as Martin Scorsese, its status has only risen to these heights within the past few decades. Initially, distributors of Ozu were skeptical of how his films would be received by western audiences as they were viewed as being too Japanese and not containing the mainstream appeal of his contemporaries, such as Akira Kurosawa. As a result, it was not until the 1960’s that his films would finally be shown stateside, either at festivals or other screenings and there they would receive high praise from critics and audiences alike. That being said, these distributors were partially on the right to have the concerns they did. The reserved style of filmmaking that Ozu provides is a far cry from the swashbuckling efforts being seen from his peers and thus may not have captured audience’s attention the same way those other films did with thrills and excitement. These distributors made a mistake, however, which was looking at what a film like Tokyo Story couldn’t provide while ignoring what it did. While it may be lacking the excitement of Japan’s extremely popular Samurai flicks, I found it does carry a wide appeal by focusing on a topic relevant to all cultures: the human condition.
The plot of Tokyo Story seems rather mundane and can be summed up in the sentence of “parents visit children who have no time for them”. Under the surface though, there are many complex emotions to be found. The setting shows a post-World War II Japan that is at odds with itself. While traditional Japanese culture is on full display, there is an intrusion of western society. This is prevalent in the many shots that show the Tokyo mainland being invading by smokestacks and other western technology. These serve as a constant reminder to its world’s inhabitants that the times are-a-changing. This isn’t the typical story with a protagonist facing off against their antagonist, but if there was a villain in this film it would be time itself. Specifically, in how time affects us all, especially in our relationships with our parents/children. Parents can possess almost magical qualities in the view of their children who are, in many cases, also entirely dependent on their parental love and care. That child grows up though, and as an adult, they take on certain new responsibilities such as jobs or children of their own. With so much to do, how can they find time to dedicate to their parents? It’s not that they don’t love them anymore, it’s just that they don’t need them as much in their lives. What about when their own children grow up, will they be ignored in largely the same way they ignored their own parents? This is what Tokyo Story is interested in conveying. The circular pattern of parents expecting too much from their children who, in turn, will grow up to cast them aside. It’s a timeless story that remains just as relevant today and for future generations.
To visualize this story, Ozu directs in a style that is purely his own while also being very Japanese. His methods subvert those seen normally in cinema, particularly when regarding typical camera placement and editing. One of the first things I noticed upon starting Tokyo Story was the camera was put in some odd positions. Scenes with characters interacting with one another were shot from the ground level, which makes sense when considering traditional Japanese table sitting as that would put the camera close to eye level. The camera is also kept stationary and there aren’t many, if any at all, shots with movement. It’s as if Ozu is presenting this world as a playground for the actors to interact with, who can come and go as they please. Conversations between characters make use of having the actors face and speak directly towards the lens of the camera.
This contrasts with the usual filmmaking methods where the actors may face left or right to designate direction and space. The results of this method made the film’s various conversations feel more intimate as if the viewer is invading the private moments of the characters which very well suits the story that is being told. The editing benefits with a sense of timing that demonstrates a level of maturity and confidence from its director. I liken it to music with how holding a certain note for an extended amount of time can elicit different types of feels from the listener. The same is done here with shots being held long after the characters have exited the scene. This gives a viewer a chance to reflect on what they have just watched while also offering another twist of added emotion.
Tokyo Story is a drama capable of eliciting many different types of emotions from its audience. While that is usually the goal for these types of films, Ozu managed to accomplish this task by using rather unconventional means. The space around a character’s dialogue is just as important as the written words as it gives the viewers a chance to contemplate and interpret the character’s motivations and emotions. Whereas a contemporary Hollywood production would attempt to communicate these feelings with big moments in dialogue, Ozu was more interested in the silence before and afterward. His distributors may have incorrectly assumed that his films would not resonate with western audiences, but they were correct in their assumptions why. There is a definite language barrier here with general western movie audiences, and this is not in reference to the language the characters are speaking. Instead, Ozu seemed to be speaking in his own cinematic language which has the chance of seeming alien to the viewer. However, when dealing with a subject involving human beings like existentialism, his ability to relate is universal.