Thursday, 28 March 2013

Tokyo Story (1953)

Tokyo Story
Or “Make Way For Tomorrow Japanese Style”.

For those who may not be familiar with “Make Way For Tomorrow” I strongly recommend it. You can find my comments here.

“Tokyo Story” follows a very similar story. An old couple who lives in a remote region of Japan makes a trip to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren. It has been a while since they have seen them, but while the adult children are making pretense of being delighted to see them it soon becomes clear that they consider their visiting parents a burden. The film focuses on the relationship between adults and their old parents and how much or little room they have for them.

Where “Make Way For Tomorrow” is told with a certain understanding for the children “Tokyo Story” is more raw and direct and there is no doubt where the sympathies are. The opinions are spelled out just in case we did not get it and it is more difficult to find sympathy for the uncaring adult children. That is a bit annoying and makes the last 15 minutes unnecessary, but I suppose it also supply us with some sort of vindication.

The two old people Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), usually just referred to as Mother and Father are the sweetest old couple. They are generally quiet, polite and affable and even when faced with rude indifference or provocations they do not sell out their children. Instead they remain loyal. They have been looking forward to this trip for a while and get all starry-eyed about the prospect of seeing all their children again.

They have 5 children of which Kyoko, the youngest, is the only one living in the village. She goes to school and also takes care of the old couple, but we do not get to see her very much.

Koichi (So Yamamura) is a children doctor with his own clinic. His home is the first stop on the visit to Tokyo and he is the one who “has made it”, although we soon see that work takes priority in a big way. His promise to take them out on a tour is so easily cancelled when he is called out to a sick child that we almost sense his relief. Certainly he does not consider it a big problem to postpone a tour for his parents. We also get the impression that the rest of his household (wife and children) are not terribly impressed with having Mother and Father staying in their house.

Keizo (Shiro Osaka) is a younger son of the old couple. We do not get to see him much, he lives in Osaka, but when they have to stop there on the return journey he is mighty bothered by it. His life is full of his own stuff, young, modern, idle stuff.

But it is Shige (Haruko Sugimura) who is the real bitch. Where the others are merely indifferent she is outright vicious. This is made quite clear in several scenes. She complains that her husband has bought too expensive cakes for the old couple, she cannot make any time for her parents due to her important job as a hairdresser, when a client ask who the old couple are she will not recognize them as her parents, she is busy sending them off to a spa (making sure the brother will share the cost) to have them out of the house and at the death bed the Mother is hardly cold yet before she demands a number of her possessions. On top of that we get her entirely hypocrite concern over her parents and tears at Mothers death that we just cannot take serious. She is painted very black. Her husband really wants to do something for the old couple but she firmly tells him not to bother. Bitch Bitch Bitch.

The fifth son Sjoji died in the war, but his widow Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is still attached to the family. She works hard and lives poorly in a tiny flat, but she is the only one who cares for the old couple. She takes leave of work although she is busy, takes the couple on a tour of Tokyo, get food for them in the evening and when the old couple are effectively homeless after having returned from the spa “too early” she takes in Mother while Father goes to see some friends. She even offers Mother some money even though she has little herself. Clearly she is the Good Samaritan, the one with the least reason who cares the most.

That is also the point of the film. If not already during the Tokyo visit then certainly at the deathbed it is clear who the poor children are and who are the good. Noriko as the standout star and Kyoko as the innocent youth. The fatalistic point of view is that as you get older you get selfish and has enough in your own and cannot take care of your parents and eventually that will happen to Noriko as well. Father seems to agree that this is what must be expected yet we as an audience are supposed to be outraged and think that this cannot be, it must not be so.

The movie has a very slow start and with a running time of 135 minutes it requires some patience to get through it. Though as I got deeper involved with the film it got me very much involved, something I only rarely experience with Asian films. The cultural difference is simply too great to really capture me. But “Tokyo Story” is told in this slow insisting way that sneaks up on you and you get to care, especially for the old couple, and to fume in outrage over Shige, the bitch.

If only the movie had stopped 15 minutes earlier. The problem is that the film needs to spell it out in capitals. It is as if it does not trust that we get the point and that is the weakness of the film. Because of this we do not get the heartbreak of “Make Way For Tomorrow”. Fatalism in “Tokyo Story” is colder, more inevitable.

Still I consider this a very good film and a very nice surprise.   


  1. I saw Tokyo Story a few years ago, but I saw Make Way for Tomorrow just a couple weeks ago. I immediately drew a connection between them, too.

    I respect Tokyo Story, but I don't consider it almost the best movie ever made, like the critics in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll named it.

    1. I think it is a case of "almost there". We are told very specifically what to think and that annoy me a bit. But otherwise I think it is an excellent film.

  2. Ozu is my favorite director and I never met a film of his I didn't like. Even though this is probably his most melodramatic film, I can't believe he is telling the audience what to think. What I came away with is that change is inevitable, life is disappointing, but that there is grace in acceptance of life for what it is. I think Shukichi is the hero of the film, if there is one.

    I agree with you totally that Shige is a bitch!

    1. It may appear from my commentary that I did not like this film or was unhappy with it. Nothing could be further from the truth. I liked it very much. My point of critique was that 15 minutes before the film ends we are left with all the intended impressions of the film and it could end there. Instead Ozu adds 15 minutes extra to let the characters pronounce what we already figured out. That seems unnecessary and to me feel like he is making absolutely sure I got the point. It is no disaster, just a difference to Make way for tomorrow. Make way... ends on that climactic high note that makes it so powerful, wheras I feel that Tokyo Story with the same potential and fundamental story fizzles a bit in the end.