In a conversation with long-time cameraman Yuharu Atsuta, director Yasujiro Ozu—whose movies were often deemed “too Japanese” for export—remarked, “Someday, I’m sure, foreigners will understand my films.” Per Atsuta’s recollection, reported in the New York Times in 1994, he then smiled before adding: “Then again, no. They will say […] that my films aren’t much of anything.” While the latter statement might’ve derived from modesty, Ozu never lived to see the day history proved him wrong. A handful of his pictures made sporadic appearances overseas in the 1950s and early ‘60s; historian Donald Richie notes in his audio commentary for 1951’s Early Summer that Ozu appreciated learning of positive notices from London. But at the time of his death in 1963, the maker of Late Spring (1949) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) remained largely unknown outside Japan. And he likely never imagined filmmakers polled for Sight and Sound magazine would one day vote his 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story the greatest movie of all time.
Neither, evidently, did most Japanese film personnel; Mark Schilling’s biography on studio executive Shiro Kido notes that Ozu’s picture wasn’t submitted to the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. Like much of this director’s output, Tokyo Story—which follows an elderly couple visiting their grown children during a trip to Japan’s capital—is a work of quiet minimalism. The characters lead basic, unextraordinary lives. The acting is rigorous and restrained. Melodramatic storytelling tactics ordinarily taken for granted are tossed aside (the mother becomes terminally ill in the third act, but her actual passing occurs off-screen; a widowed daughter-in-law is encouraged to remarry, but no man enters her life by drama’s end). All supervised by a camera situated low to the floor and often locked in place—tracking twice in 136 minutes and not once tilting, panning, or zooming. In the 1950s, Hollywood films dominated the global market, and the handful of Japanese features to gain overseas attention consisted of elaborate period dramas. A picture so simple, so simply filmed, so “Japanese” seemed alien.
And yet, whenever Tokyo Story was shown abroad—especially in the wake of early-‘70s New York screenings—spectators who knew little to nothing about Japan were moved to tears. “We speak so casually of film ‘classics,’” wrote Roger Ebert in 1972, “that it is a little moving to find one that has survived 20 years of neglect, only to win Western critical acclaim nine years after the director’s death.” Like many Ozu gems, it is an honest depiction of the joys, sorrows, and disappointments of everyday life, and the characters—as well as the tribulations they endure—are ones audiences, regardless of race and culture, see in themselves and people they’ve known. Tokyo Story depicts the emotional disconnect between families, through children who’ve left the nest, settled into their own routines, and distanced themselves from aging parents.
The film begins with Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) journeying to the capital to visit their eldest son (So Yamamura) and daughter (Haruko Sugimura). There, they are greeted impersonally: by grandkids with no desire to socialize, and by a grown middle generation unable—or unwilling—to make time for family. The couple’s son, a neighborhood doctor, is preoccupied with patients; their daughter, a hairdresser, sees her progenitors as a nuisance, dismissing them to a client as “friends from the country.” She even sends the couple to a neighboring city claiming they’ll enjoy the hot springs—only to admonish them for returning early and disrupting her social plans.
The only receptive family member is Noriko, the widow of a son killed in World War II. Played by the luminous Setsuko Hara, Noriko takes a day off work to escort her in-laws around town and even houses Tomi when the latter refuses to impose on blood relatives who don’t want her around. Following Tomi’s death, the biological children respond by claiming their favorite possessions of hers and that same day hurrying home. (One even makes the excuse that he can’t stay due to a baseball match.) By contrast, Noriko—the non-blood relative—remains behind as long as she can. In return for her kindness, Shukichi grants her Tomi’s watch, an item never confiscated, as a keepsake. Meanwhile, the youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who’s unmarried and still lives at home, regards her siblings’ selfishness with disgust.
At the same time, Ozu doesn’t demonize the children, taking care to note the complications of their adult lives; a second grown son, from Osaka, even breaks down after realizing his taking a later train cost him the chance to say goodbye to his mother. Nor does the director deify the parents. In one key sequence, Shukichi, a former alcoholic, reunites with former drinking buddies. As they soften their minds with liquor, the seemingly proud father confesses to being disappointed with his eldest son—as he’s only a small-town doctor, not someone “important.” Shukichi eventually barges into his daughter’s home, totally inebriated, at which point the daughter recalls unhappy childhood incidents wherein her father’s drunkenness left Tomi depressed. Even Noriko, by her own admission, isn’t perfect: she suspects she’ll one day succumb to selfishness and become distanced from her family. “Isn’t life disappointing?” Kyoko remarks in light of this prediction. To which her sister-in-law replies, “Yes, it is.”
In 2012, after Tokyo Story topped the aforementioned Sight and Sound poll, features editor James Bell labeled Ozu’s masterpiece “a recognition of the fact that sometimes the most powerful films seem at first to be the simplest.” This summation is beautifully captured in the picture’s denouement. Noriko returns to the capital, Kyoko leaves for work, and Shukichi—now totally alone—sits in his house while the goings-on of daily life unfold outside. A great many Ozu pictures close on similar images, and the emotions they stir point up what’s made him one of cinema’s most universal storytellers. His characters aren’t dynamic individuals enduring complicated events; they’re ordinary citizens whose experiences are known the world over and thus remind us of reality. Children forge their own paths; families grow apart; the elderly pass away; and for those left behind, life goes on.