Ceaseless Simplicity


Ozu’s Tokyo Story a vivid chronicle of ordinary life

The Story is simplicity itself—less a plot than a clothesline on which to hang characters, incidents, places, impressions, stray observations, emotions too deep to be spoken aloud. Elderly couple Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) leave their village of Onomichi to visit their adult children, with whom they seem to have largely cordial relationships tainted by obligation, impatience, disinterest and resentment. They also visit Noriko (Setsuko Hara), widow to the son they lost to the war. Noriko has far less reason to maintain relations with Shukichi and Tomi, yet she clearly treasures their company so much more than do their own children. Little in the way of drama transpires in Tokyo Story (1953), yet by the time we reach its ending we’re left with a feeling of having been swept up in a chronicle of vividly rendered ordinary life, with all the fleeting joys and frustrations and lingering heartbreak that entails.

The greatness of this unsentimental, rigorously unimposing film is not easy to convey to those who haven’t seen it or any of the other films by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. It is a greatness that works on you only gradually, sinking in as one scene gently and precisely gives way to another. I’m hardly the first person to declare this greatness—the film has for three decades in a row made the BFI’s Top Ten of All Time list—but I think it bears constant repeating, and the fact that Tokyo Story is now available in a handsome new dual-format edition from Criterion seems as good an excuse as any to do so.

A neighbour stopping by a window to chat; sulking kids fiddling with their father’s medical equipment; a mother sleeping in the bed of her dead son; a trio of drunken men speaking of living for the next generation, even though one of these men no longer has any children, while the others can barely hide their disappointment with theirs; a long, wordless gaze at a young woman’s melancholy smile as she travels by train while we wonder if she will ever move on with her life: such moments, some moving, many amusing, all of them fascinating, accumulate over the course of Tokyo Story, sewn together into a larger vision of family and time by the immaculate camerawork of Ozu and cinematographer Yūharu Atsuta. Their compositions offer us a deep sense of the geography of houses, of rooms leading onto other rooms, of the way people share space. Ozu’s famous intermediary scenes, images of surrounding landscapes, are not mere establishing shots; they give us a sense of a larger world in which these domestic happenings unfold, of life passing by, fluid and ceaseless. Tokyo Story is a masterwork of rhythm and pacing, its time signature perfectly suited to the very subtle build of revelation and emotion.

My favourite of the supplements featured on Criterion’s Tokyo Story is a documentary titled Talking with Ozu (1993), made to celebrate what would have been the director’s 90th birthday. The film contains a series of homages from various filmmakers strongly influenced by Ozu, among them Wim Wenders, who describes Ryu—who appeared in 52 of Ozu’s 54 films—as a sort of “universal father,” Claire Denis, who reads a scene from Late Spring (1949), the film whose story served as a sort of template for her own masterwork, 35 Rhums (2008), and Aki Kaurismäki, who greets a photograph of Ozu and says to it, “I’ve made 11 lousy films, and it’s all your fault.”

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