Tokyo Story (1953): Ozu’s Masterpiece–Intimate, Multi-Generational Family Saga

From Our Vaults:

Yasujirō Ozu directed in 1953 Tokyo Story, a Japanese drama starring Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama about an aging couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their grown children.

The film contrasts the behavior of their children, who are too busy to pay them much attention, with that of their widowed daughter-in-law, who treats them with kindness.

Ozu and screenwriter Kōgo Noda wrote the script, which is loosely based on the 1937 American film Make Way for Tomorrow, directed by Leo McCarey.

Noda suggested adapting the film, which Ozu had not yet seen. Ozu used many of the same cast and crew members that he had worked with for years.

Critical Status:

Tokyo Story is widely regarded as Ozu’s masterpiece and is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made.

Released in Japan on November 3, 1953, it did not immediately gain international recognition and was considered “too Japanese” and “too slow” to be marketable by film exporters.

It was screened in 1957 in London, where it won the inaugural Sutherland Trophy, and received praise from U.S. film critics after a 1972 screening in New York City.

In 2012, it was voted the best film of all time in a poll of film directors by Sight & Sound magazine.

Narrative Structure

A retired couple, Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama (played by Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama), live in the town Onomichi in western Japan with their daughter Kyōko (played by Kyōko Kagawa), who is a school teacher.

They have five adult children, four of whom are living. The couple travel to Tokyo to visit their son, daughter and widowed daughter-in-law.

Their eldest son, Kōichi (So Yamamura), is a physician who runs a small clinic in the suburbs of Tokyo, and their eldest daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimura), runs a hairdressing salon. Kōichi and Shige are both busy and do not have much time for their parents.

Only their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the wife of their middle son Shōji, who was missing in action and presumed dead during the Pacific War, goes out of her way to entertain them. She takes time from her busy office job to take Shūkichi and Tomi on a sightseeing tour of metropolitan Tokyo.

Kōichi and Shige pay for their parents to stay at a hot spring spa at Atami. Shūkichi and Tomi return early because the nightlife at the hotel disturbs their sleep. Tomi also has an unexplained dizzy spell. When they return, Shige explains that she had sent them to Atami because she wanted to use their bedroom for a meeting. The elderly couple have to leave for the evening. Tomi goes to stay with Noriko, with whom she deepens their emotional bond. Tomi advises Noriko to remarry.

Shūkichi, meanwhile, gets drunk with some old friends from Onomichi, then returns to Shige’s salon. Shige is outraged that her father is lapsing into the alcoholic ways that overshadowed her childhood.

The couple remark on how their children have changed, and they leave for home earlier than planned, intending to see their younger son Keizō when the train stops in Osaka.

However, Tomi suddenly becomes ill during the journey and they decide to disembark the train, and stay until she feels better the next day.

They return to Onomichi, and Tomi falls critically ill. Kōichi, Shige, and Noriko rush to Onomichi to see Tomi, who dies shortly afterwards. Keizō arrives too late, as he has been away on business.

After the funeral, Kōichi, Shige, and Keizō leave right away, and only Noriko remains.  Kyōko expresses to Noriko her anger about her siblings by deriding them over their selfishness toward their parents. She believes that Kōichi, Shige, and Keizō do not care how hard it will be for their father now that he has lost their mother. Noriko responds that while she understands Kyoko’s disappointment, everyone has their own life to lead, claiming that the growing chasm between parents and children is inevitable.

She then convinces Kyoko not to be too hard on her siblings because one day she will come to understand how hard it is to take time away from one’s own life.

After Kyōko leaves for school, Noriko informs her father-in-law that she must return to Tokyo that afternoon. Shūkichi tells her that she has treated them better than their own children despite not being related by blood. Noriko protests that she is selfish, and Shūkichi credits her self-assessment to humility. He gives her a watch from the late Tomi as a memento. Noriko breaks down in tears and confesses her loneliness. Shūkichi encourages her to remarry as soon as possible, stating that he wants her to be happy.

At the end, Noriko travels from Onomichi back to Tokyo, contemplating the watch, a symbol of the passing of time and uncertainty of her future, while Shūkichi remains behind, resigned to the solitude he must endure in his home in  Onomichi.

Note:

TCM showed the movie on August 19, 2021, enabling me to refresh my memory and notes on a film I last saw two decades ago.