Thursday, December 26, 2013

December Blind Spot: Tokyo Story

First and foremost, what makes this a Blind Spot movie? In other words, why is this film essential?
I have seen about 35 Japanese films. So if you go by number I have seen quite a few but let me did a little deeper. Of those, 17 are directed by Akira Kurosawa. 13 or so are under Studio Ghibli banner. When I saw Audition(1999) in 2011-12 and 13 Assassins(2010) soon after, those were first two Japanese films that did not fall in either of the two categories. Since then I have seen couple of non-Ghibli animes and features. I have been deep into filmographies of these two giants of Japanese cinema but what I dearly lack is any breadth in covering this industry. I could not think of any better way to dive headfirst into it than Yasujiro Ozu and Tokyo Story(1953).

So, what is the story about?
To tell you the truth, whole story of this film can be explained in one line - It is about an old couple visiting their children in Tokyo and it truly is just about that. Greatness of Ozu probably lies in the fact that he doesn't need to add any 'masala' to this plain, simple storyline. He has so much to say on this that this film is stripped of any extraneous detail and is still one of the most heartfelt experiences you'll ever get. Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama have two of their children, Koichi and Shige, in Tokyo along with widow of another son who disappeared in war eight years ago, Noriko. After their arrival, both their children find themselves so busy with their jobs that they can not find any time to spend with their parents. To make up for this, they send them to places they think parents will enjoy like Atami spa with hot springs. But what their children fail to comprehend is their parents are not really interested in materialistic pleasures. All they want to do is spend some quality time with their children and grandchildren and they will be more than satisfied. And time is only thing children can not find.

Now if the situation was like both Koichi and Shige were caught up with something that they can't get out of despite their best intentions, we could have understood them. But the fact is it is not like they can't, more like they don't want to. Otherwise Shige wouldn't kick them out just because they return earlier than planned from Atami and she needs her house for her beautician's meeting. Their parents are one of the sweetest, most innocuous old couple you will meet and were really looking forward to meet their family after a long time. However both their children seem to treat their parents as some sort of necessary evil they both have to weather for a while and be done with it. It's interesting that both their in-laws are much more welcoming and their spouses constantly keep them in check. Shige doesn't want her husband buying expensive rice cakes for them nor does Koichi think it's necessary to cook something special for them.

Speaking of in-laws, another person they meet in Tokyo is their second daughter-in-law Noriko. Noriko is married to their second son Shogi who has disappeared since WWII and hence is considered dead. Noriko is young and good looking but lives like she is still waiting for Shogi's return. Of all the Hirayamas in Tokyo, she is only person who treats the old couple with the amount of respect and attention they deserve. Despite her own busy schedule, she takes a day-off at the moments notice and takes them sight seeing around city. She also seems genuinely happy to bring them home after and treats them with best possible dinner she can afford. She even borrows from her neighbour just so her in-laws won't lack for anything. After spending few days with them, Shukichi and Tomi return back home but soon mother gets so sick that all their children have to rush back home to what could be last time they see their mother.  

What did I think of it? What did I like the most about it and what didn't I like?
First thing I have to say I like about Tokyo Story is it reminds me of Golden Age Bollywood films which were actually around at the same time. The type of acting we see in it, type of characters and their sensibilities, background music it uses; the whole setting of it in general is very much similar. Even though it is very first of my Ozu films, I know that he is a very trademark director. He has his own very distinct style and lot of tropes that appear through lot of his films. I was introduced to many of them here. First and foremost is the way he sets up his camera just a few feet above the ground. As Mark Harris says, it allows us to see the ceiling and gives more depth to the scene. For some reason I couldn't gauge how important it will be just by looking at one scene but when you have that for 130-something minutes, you certainly understand what it can do.

Again something Mark Harris says about Ozu is his films are never in a hurry to go anywhere. In most cases, this slowness would hamper the overall mood of the film. Here, it allows you to take everything in. He starts his scenes earlier than most would like before his parents arrive at Koichi's house, we see his wife and children waiting for them and preparing their house for them. He also lets his scenes play out longer than most. In the opening scene, we see Hirayamas packing their bags, talking about mundane things to their daughter, their neighbour and with each other. None of it has any real importance script-wise but it establishes them as quiet, peaceful couple which would prove important later. He goes further in his story than most would as well. I am sure many directors would want to stop with Hirayamas departing from Tokyo and in all fairness, I think even that would have been a great film. Just not this great! With more time we spend with this old couple and their selfish kids, more tragic this whole story becomes and probably that's the genius of Ozu. Giving us more than we bargained for and still leaving us wanting more.

After having seen it, do I agree with its 'essential' status? And why?
Not only do I have to agree with it, I can certainly see why Tokyo Story would be considered as one of the best films made ever. One simple fact is I don't think that anyone today would make such a simple film today. Whole plot of this film is in straight line. It doesn't take any turns, there are no twists in it. At no point will you be surprised by where story goes. But that's not to say it makes it any less compelling. On the contrary, it is so much more compelling than any twists and turns could make it and only reason is it deals with real humans in real-life situations dealing with real emotions. That's all it needs to keep you invested throughout.

Does it open few new doors for me? Does this inspire to watch any other movies?
As I said above, with this I intend to make it my gateway into other greats of Japanese cinema, especially Yasujiro Ozu. I always wanted to get into his films but after listening to Mark Harris going on at length about him in The Story of Film: An Odyssey(2011), I simply had to get to him as soon as possible. What I am really happy about is my very first endeavour into Ozuland was such a success. It should encourage me in future not only to return more often here but also to expedite my excursions into other unknown lands like Kenji Mizogichi.


  1. Nice. After watching Tokyo Story, I wanted to call my parents just to say hello. This is such a brutal movie, and it feels even worse because it's so understated. The callous way most people treat the older couple is just stunning.

    1. Thanks! I completely agree with you. I thouroughly believe that the understated portrayal of it is what makes it so much effective.

  2. Interesting observations, SDG. Agree the slowness does allow us to take everything in, and made me think about my own family.
    We really should not treat family as something we have to, as you put it "weather for a while and be done with it." Yet at the same time, we want our own independent life also, don't we?
    The balancing act of following your own path, and allocating time to family, is difficult. How we treat are parents is a sign of who we are, no matter if they have been good, or not so loving parents. Since our parents sacrificed their best years to raise us, it's like a sin to neglect them when they are old. And I think it's also the parent's duty to let their children lead their own lives. For making me think, I salute Ozu.

    1. Thanks! I love what you are saying. Finding that balance is like the ultimate aim of life.

  3. So glad you dug it! I can't wait to check this out as part of my Blind Spot series this year.

    1. Nice! Hopefully, you will like it as much as I did.


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