A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, July 8, 2016

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

Tokyo Story has everything we love about great short stories: a profoundly human situation, a delicate narrative restraint, and -- in the place of literature's powerfully evocative prose -- powerfully evocative images. It also has what literature can't give us: the joy of watching actors bring to life the characters they play. It is certainly one of my favorite films of all time, and while I've listed it at No. 1 on my Great Movies page, I think any horse-race competition to validate greatness does a film of such quiet power a disservice. How can you rank movies of such variety of tone as this subtle family drama, the violent picture of a disintegrating society in the first two Godfather films, the delicious intrigue of Notorious, and the epic portrait of medieval Russian life in Andrei Rublev, all of which currently constitute my so-called top five? I think Tokyo Story earns its place by establishing that there are universal constants in family life, things that transcend particular cultures: the gulf that widens between generations, the inability to face even those to whom one is closest without dissimulation, the tension between what one is obliged to say and do and what one actually feels at a moment of loss, and so on. Ozu and co-screenwriter Kogo Noda do a masterly job of gathering these and other themes and placing them in due order. This is one of those Ozu films where his technique of placing the camera almost at floor level seems like more than just a mannerism: It emphasizes that what we are seeing is rooted and basic, while at the same time we have the feeling of contact with the performers that we usually get only in the theater. Yuharu Atsuta's camera rarely moves, causing us to feel enveloped by Tatsuo Hamada's sets almost like participants in the lives of the Hirayama family, even though they are strangers to us, and their secrets and the flash points in their relationships -- such as the past drinking problem of the patriarch, Shukichi (the magnificent Chishu Ryu), or the deep loneliness of Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widowed daughter-in-law -- gradually become known to us. This is a film that trusts its audience to stay and learn, something that has become lost in contemporary movies, which have to nudge audiences into awareness.