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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Japanese Cinema

‘Tokyo Story’ (1953): When Life Ends Quietly


Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu || Produced by: Takeshi Yamamoto

Screenplay by: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu || Starring: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyoko Kagawa, Eijiro Tono, Nobuo Nakamura

Music by: Kojun Saito || Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta || Edited by: Yoshiyasu Hamamura || Country: Japan || Language: Japanese

Running Time: 136 minutes

The British Film Institute’s main poll (voted by academics and critics) of the 2012 Sight and Sound 50 Greatest Films of All Time placed Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story at the number three spot. The director’s list surveyed by the same BFI organization elected this film to its number one spot as the best film of all of time. Ever.

Now to dial down the hype, controversy, praise, and backlash that inevitably comes with “Best of” lists like these, particularly by well renowned organizations like the BFI, we should always keep in mind that these assessments of what types of cinema are the best or most artistic are reassessed every so often. In the case of the BFI Sight and Sound list and the American Film Institute’s greatest American or English-language film lists, these well advertised compilations are repeated every decade to chart the changing attitudes and legacies of various films, filmmakers, and film movements. Preferences and legacies do change over time, and one must accept lists like these with a grain of salt. In general, academics, critics, and filmmakers give precedence to older films that influenced them and that have had time to accumulate a legacy; films need time for viewers to come to a consensus on their influence and artistic worth.

22 tokyo story

The family grandmother (played by Chieko Higashiyama, left) and her husband (Chishu Ryu, right) meet with their widowed daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara, center), who treats them far more respectfully than their any of their blood-related children.

With all that said, we can discuss Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a movie that has had a long time to accrue its legacy and is widely regarded as the director’s greatest film. Roger Ebert remarked about Tokyo Story (TS) that the camera moves maybe once in the entire film, which is “more than usual [for an Ozu film].” It’s true. There is almost no camera movement in all of TS and, for that matter, in most of Ozu’s filmography. There are no camera-pans, perhaps the single tracking shot Ebert mentioned, little music, and no elaborate editing or voice-over sequences of any kind. Perhaps the best word to describe TS is “simplicity.” Simplicity can be a negative descriptive word, but not here — here, Ozu uses simplicity in both his screenplay and his direction (but most of all his cinematography) to communicate his movie’s message and wrap his cinematic experience into a cohesive whole.

TS uses a limited cast of intimate characters to speak to larger issues of social change in Japan and the world. His story follows an extended Japanese family that have lost touch with each other through generational divides, an implied imperfect family upbringing, and the changing ways of the modern world. Ozu, throughout his career, analyzed how societies change, particularly the contrast between Imperial and post-World War II Japan; later in his career and specifically in TS, he gave thought to the idea of growing old in the face of modernity, and how this personal development relates to societal growth. Throughout much of TS, he seems distrustful and frustrated with modern, increasingly Westernized Japanese society, but also readily admits the imperfections of and naive rosy-eyed lenses through which older generations view the past; he demonstrates the faults, shortcomings, and poor influences of the older characters’ generation.

To summarize a small story in the simplest of ways, TS is about grandparents coming to the big city (Tokyo) to visit their children and grandchildren, who have become estranged to them. The visit doesn’t go well. The grandchildren have never met their grandparents and don’t seem too interested in them. They prefer to be wrapped up in their own immediate world, acting spoiled and “modern.” Later in the film, as the grandparents reminisce openly and honestly to their colleagues about their family, they admit to preferring their children to their grandchildren, readily discussing their disappointments with their childrens’ career achievements and how they’ve treated them, but also citing them as “better than average.” The children at least try to show their parents a good time, but for the most part are too busy with their own commitments to pay them much mind. The old ways of showing respect to elders, as well as other family traditions, seem to have passed by the wayside.

The effective simplicity of the film is reflected in the intertwined nature of both the movie’s script and Ozu’s distinct directorial style. His cameras are immobile for almost the entire film, and he prefers his frames at medium length shots about three feet above ground at all times. Since most of the film’s dialogue takes place between characters sitting on tatami mats inside houses, many viewers have referred to Ozu’s preferred framing as “tatami shots,” the point of view of a person sitting on such a mat. When Ozu cuts between speakers, he doesn’t use the standard over-the-shoulder shot/reverse-shot technique most filmmakers employ, instead cutting to takes directly in front of each character when they say their lines, having each character look and talk straight into the camera.

tokyo story 2

Hara and Ryu reminisce after a family tragedy. Life is so disappointing, isn’t it?

This method of shooting is jarring upon first viewing, as it violates the common eye-line match rule of cinema. How you accept or reject these visuals largely depends on your comfort level with non-traditional cinematographic techniques in general, as well as your number of viewings of characters in other films breaking the 4th wall. Since most characters are directly addressing the audience when looking into the camera in most instances (e.g. many French and American New Wave films), I can’t help but balk at this technique beyond an allergic knee-jerk reaction. Having characters speak into the camera while addressing other characters in the film, not disrupting the enclosed narrative, is something I find awkward. Everything else Ozu does cinematographically I appreciate, because he lets the scenery, characters, and restrained editing tone in ways  most European mise-en-scene tries and fails. It’s this one idiosyncratic technique of which I remain unsure.

Of all the many films I’ve seen, there’s little here that would urge me to proclaim Ozu’s Tokyo Story as the “best” of world cinema. My own pick for the pinnacle of film as an art form (and also great entertainment) goes to another film. But regardless of the endless hype films like TS or Citizen Kane (1941) or Vertigo (1958) achieve, and the exact consensus of their places on the list of great films worldwide, most of us can agree they are all fantastic films. Tokyo Story is a great film and one of the most subtly powerful movies you will ever watch. In many ways, it represents a cinematographic evolutionary off-shoot, a directorial style of framing, blocking, and editing that no one else ever imitated, and perhaps no one will at this point. It says much by saying little, and silently observing much more. In its utter, stunning simplicity, it notices not only are the times a-changing, but that they have already changed… and will never be the same.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDED: Ozu’s timely, personal story about a family disconnected by generational misunderstanding resonates within all who recognize its message: Family is fleeting and we hardly appreciate what family is in this dynamic, changing world. Tokyo Story’s cinematography and reserved camerawork enable the story to speak volumes more than it could with traditional editing and, yes, even those moving cameras. I may have a beef with those lines addressed to the camera (… but not really to the camera), yet the soul of the film’s technical charm lies in its director’s steadfast refusal to abandon his artistic signature.

However… why the looking at the camera, Ozu?


? Seriously, I know you’re a genius, but like, why?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


6 thoughts on “‘Tokyo Story’ (1953): When Life Ends Quietly

  1. I saw that movie a while ago! I have mixed feelings about this one. By the end I found it very interesting at how modern it was by showing an old couple that had difficulties with the “change of times” and the relationship with their sons and daughters. I was impressed by that.

    But for the rest I thought the pacing was reaaaallly slow and there’s no action or any excitement moments in this film. It’s really pure about a japanese family and their porblems, no more, no less. And it had some awkward camera angles I remember. It was like if they almost looked into the camera every time someone talks. It feels freaky after a while…

    That’s my two cents in it. In a way interesting and recognizable by times, but pretty boring because they mostly “talk” you throughout the movie instead of showing.

    Posted by Dries | October 24, 2014, 5:32 am
    • That’s definitely true. There’s little that’s “cinematic” about people just sitting in talking, and in that respect TS is pretty one-dimensional.

      I think the strength of the film is in the symbolism and cultural changes behind the character interactions. A lot more is being said and exchanged than just the words in the dialogue, and moreover the characters saying those lines are extremely well written and feel like real people — some of the “real-est” I’ve ever seen in a movie.

      It’s definitely not my kind of film, I’ll give you that, and it’s not a film I’ll be amped to watch again given the pacing, but for what it’s worth I’m really glad I saw it the one time and haven’t forgetten about it once in the time since.

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | October 24, 2014, 5:00 pm
    • Another thing worth noting about this film (and Ozu films in general) is their magnificent framing. Look at the picture just above, for example, how so many parallel lines are guiding us to the characters’ POV and everything is wonderfully symmetrical. Ozu rarely, if ever moves his camera in a movie, but he frames each “painting” beautifully and in a way that tells us what each character is doing, what they are saying, and how they are feeling without actually saying one word. You can watch TS and still follow the story without subtitles or even listening to the dialogue — that’s great cinematography and direction.

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | April 1, 2015, 1:33 pm
  2. Yup, you got a point there.I’m not familiar with Ozu but yeah he does have some unique camerawork!

    Posted by Dries | May 19, 2015, 8:09 am


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