Starting April 6th, The National Gallery of Art will dedicate part of its film program to a series of films that star “Japanese Divas.” The program will view these movies on weekends throughout April and early May. The third movie in the series will be Yasujirô Ozu’s classic gendai-geki film, Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari) (1953). It will screen on April 7th.
“To lose your children is hard, but living with them isn’t always easy, either.” This is one of the funniest lines in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, and I’m not sure it was meant to be funny. That is, the entire film is at one time both hilarious and sad in the way that few films are, but in the way that real life can be. It is truthful, not only about grief, but about how we deal with family in everyday life. The old couple in Ozu’s story come from a rural area. They travel a great distance to visit their grown-up children and grandchildren in the big city of Tokyo. But their children have long moved on, and have their own families and businesses to content with. They see their parents’ visit as somewhat of a chore, and they believe that their own lives should get top priority.
The couple is named Shukichi (Chishû Ryû) and Tomi (Cheiko Higashiyama). They are nice, pleasant, low-key people who are loved by their children. Their son Koichi (Sô Yamamura) works in a suburb as a physician and daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) runs a beauty salon out of the first floor of her house. These two kids seem to be good people. As the movie gets on, the audience will grow to dislike them. Not because they do anything terrible, but because they are selfish and don’t cherish every moment with their parents that they can. Can we really blame them? Taking your parents for granted when you move on to a family of your own is just what happens in life. You don’t know what you have…well, until you don’t have it anymore.
The parents are provided with a payed stay at a hot springs resort by Koichi and Shige. It is an easy way to get their parents out of their hair. Mom and dad end up in a rowdy hotel, roomed within earshot of loud, mahjong gamblers and a group of musicians playing at top volume into the night. “This place is meant for the younger generation,” Shukichi laments. They decide to hurry back to Tokyo. When the parents return home early from the hot springs, Shige is positively pissed, and politely pries into the reason why they came back so soon. Shukicki and Tomi know where they’re not wanted, and don’t want to be a burden, so they decide to make time with daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), whose husband died in the war. Noriko is sweet, and makes time for them, but they can sense an unbearable loneliness behind her bright smile. She is entirely selfless, and even though this is a welcome divergence from their own children’s egocentricity, they feel sorry for her.
Ozu brings you in close and intimate with the family. Most shots are about at eye-level of those seated on their tatami mats. The camera’s static shots completely mimic the parents to create a movie that’s unbelievably tranquil. This is of course in contrast to the children, which seem to always be hurrying about. Ozu creates a tone here that parallels life. Some people will find it dull, but they’re not looking deeply enough into its moving parts. In viewing Tokyo Story, it helps to stand back and see it as a comedy, otherwise it can become depressing and the search for the film’s meaning can seem futile.
It’s quite stunning that a script with dialogue consisting entirely of pleasantries could create such a deep impact. This is a real family, and even though we don’t like the two kids at certain points in the movie, their actions aren’t really malevolent and nothing they do seems false. When one of the parents dies, the other daughter Kyôko (Kyôko Kagawa) becomes upset with her siblings as they divvy up the deceased belongings and don’t stay very long for the funeral. She cries to the only person still there, Noriko. Depending on what translation of the film you get, Kyôko declares, “Life’s depressing (disappointing), isn’t it?” Noriko, never breaking her wide smile, answers “Yes, it is.”
Tokyo Story will play The National Gallery of Art’s east building concourse on April 7th at 4:00. The film is also available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. For more on The Gallery’s film screenings, view the calendar at their website here.