The old man and his wife meticulously pack for their trip to Tokyo. They plan to spend time with every one of their adult children. Once arrived they find their children live in modest comfort, but have little time to spare for their parents. The old man and wife spend their trip waiting for events that never happen. It becomes immediately clear that the grown children are too busy with their own affairs to truly afford their parents any attention. So they send their parents to an affordable spa that turns out to be loud and boisterous. Eventually the parents decide to end their vacation early, but on the trip home the mother falls mortally ill.
Tokyo Story is shot in full frame. Ozu renders the homes and businesses of the Hirayama children as very constricting, very cluttered. Sometimes the full frame will be reduced to a vertical gap barely wide enough for a single person, let alone two grandparents.
Chishu Ryu was one of Ozu’s favorite actors. He always seemed like a ghost of another man, floating through a modern era that passed him by. In Tokyo Story Ryu is the living remains of a once wicked man, a drunk who tormented his family for decades. He only sobered up after the birth of his last daughter, for reasons never divulged.
Actually, Tokyo Story allows for the Hiriyama clan a degree of secrecy. There’s very little blatant exposition in the film. All the characters speak in code, even when alone amongst themselves. True intentions are buried quite deep under layers of politeness and careful smiles. We are to guess that this trip is the first time the grand parents meet at least one of their grandchildren, now of school age. Was the distance between them the only reason, or was it something else?
The audience is not informed up front that the most dutiful of the adult children, Noriko, is only an in-law. Her direct connection to the family was lost in the war. Whether the spouse was confirmed as killed or merely just disappeared during the conflict is never directly addressed. Though even more curious than Noriko’s selflessness is why she lives alone in Tokyo with just a simple shrine to her missing husband to keep her company. By the customs of the era, widows would move back in with their own families. That Noriko doesn’t implies something darker to her character than the film ever reveals.
The mother is the one character of personal virtue, although she suffers the most in life. Her sin is one of the most common in literature: not embodying the feminine ideal. Overweight by Japanese standards, she’s openly mocked by her children. Her illness and death eventually gather all of the family together in one place, but even in this setting they don’t seem to acknowledge the matriarch. They speak of regret, of not spending enough time, but not of memories of their mother. In the end her death is sad for them because they were unable to perform their duties as respectful children, not the loss of a loved family member.
Ozu contemporary Akira Kurosawa loved extreme weather. Heat so intense sweat poured from his actors faces. Deluges that could cause flash floods. Thick snow accumulations. In the final act of Tokyo Story, Ozu shows his own take on extremes. In the last conversation between Hirayama and Noriko both speak their lines directly to the camera, each alone in the frame. The conversation reduces Noriko to tears while Hirayama beams his defensive smile. The effect is devastating as the camera cuts pull the two characters to differing poles.
Later, the darkest exchange in the film (“Life will be lonely now”) is exchanged between grinning, polite neighbors. There’s such a discrepancy between the delivery of the words and their meaning that the audience can’t help but be startled by the juxtaposition whether into a shocked laugh or into tears.
Is this the best of Ozu’s films? Tokyo Story has an unfair advantage. There’s a certain type of story that resonates more the deeper we move into life. Whether King Lear or even Eraserhead. Tokyo Story manages to weave together three generations of inter family relations. There’s something in this film that could speak to each age demographic, no matter when the film is encountered in life there’s an indictment waiting specifically for you.