Tokyo Story • A Masterpiece of Minimalism

Greenscreening Series #22

February 3, 2023

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This Time on Greenscreening

Tokyo Story (1953) directed by Yasujirō Ozu


A profoundly stirring evocation of elemental humanity and universal heartbreak, Tokyo Story is the crowning achievement of the unparalleled Yasujiro Ozu. The film, which follows an aging couple’s journey to visit their grown children in bustling postwar Tokyo, surveys the rich and complex world of family life with the director’s customary delicacy and incisive perspective on social mores. Featuring lovely performances from Ozu regulars Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara, Tokyo Story plumbs and deepens the director’s recurring theme of generational conflict, creating what is without question one of cinema’s mightiest masterpieces. - Criterion

Find Tokyo Story via Reelgood

*Tokyo Story*

Why Tokyo Story?

"As long as life goes on, relationships between parents and children will bring boundless joy and endless grief." - trailer for Tokyo Story

At the same time that Kurosawa launched Japanese cinema into the upper echelons of critical acclaim with his innovative storytelling structural and high visual style, director Yasujiro Ozu was creating minimalist yet profound films about contemporary Japanese society.

Ozu began directing films in the 1920s, and enjoyed a fair amount of success in Japan. His early films follow many of the same Western film techniques that influenced other directors. After the War, Ozu began to reject Western filmmaking conventions and look for a more distinct way of telling his stories. Where Kurosawa leaned into his early Hollywood influences, Ozu took more direct influence from Japanese drama and art.

*Tokyo Story*

Ozu’s style could be called pervasive minimalism:

  • Strong emphasis on set design and shot composition, rather than on editing or montage as the main creator of meaning. Sometimes Ozu breaks the 180-degree rule and lets characters move in frame from one shot to another. As Roger Ebert pointed out, "every single shot is intended to have a perfect composition of its own, even if that means there are continuity errors." It's helpful to remember that movies are quite literally motion pictures, a rapid succession of still images that give the impression of continuous motion.

  • A still camera, fixed about waist-high on the characters, who are allowed to move within the frame and even out of it without the camera following. Ozu wants us to be aware of the camera. He embraces cinema's kinship with still photography, painting, and even the fixed frame of the theater.

  • A patient approach to dialogue. Characters are often shown alone in the frame, delivering their lines without interruption. Contrast this to the rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue of Citizen Kane and His Girl Friday - this is a world apart.

  • Dramatization of the seemingly mundane. Ozu rejected plot-driven films in favor of thematic contemplations. His films are those you sit with, like a painting.

  • Tensions between traditional Japanese values and modern, Western-influenced life.

  • Exploration of the theme mono no aware, a Japanese maxim that scholar Donald Richie explains as "putting up with things and taking satisfaction in your putting up with things."

All of these are present in Tokyo Story. The film was inspired by Leo McCarey’s 1937 film, Make Way For Tomorrow, a Depression-era classic in which an elderly couple must move in with their grown children after the bank takes their home, only to end up separated when none of their children will take both of them in. Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda relocated the story to postwar Tokyo and made it a bit more subtle; an elderly couple travels from their small town to the city to visit their grown children, and the trip doesn't go terribly well. This basic plot allowed Ozu to explore some of the key themes that concerned him throughout his career: generational divide, the tensions between traditional and modern Japan, selfishness and regret. These themes were timely and remain timeless. While not a lot happens in this film, its themes are universal and its effects profound.

*Tokyo Story*

Seventy years later, Tokyo Story is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Tokyo Story’s rise to the top of critical opinion was as slow and methodical as Ozu’s directorial style. The distributors and even Ozu worried that his films were “too Japanese” to appeal to international audiences in the same way Kurosawa’s films did. David Boardwell traced the film's ascent in his essay for the Criterion edition of the film:

Although other Ozu films were shown sporadically in Europe and the UK, it was Tokyo Story that broke the barrier. There were screenings here and there in the mid-1950s, an award from the British Film Institute in 1958, and programs organized by Donald Richie, throughout his life our great champion of Japanese cinema. Then the film opened in New York in 1972, coinciding with the publication of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, and it won the hearts of influential critics. When Richie’s Ozu was published two years later, critics came to realize that this quiet filmmaker was one of cinema’s finest artists. In the 1992 and 2002 Sight & Sound international critics’ polls, Tokyo Story was ranked as one of the ten greatest films ever made. In the 2012 poll, it came in third, behind Vertigo and Citizen Kane.

It's worth noting that the film's reputation has been even stronger among filmmakers. In 2012, Tokyo Story topped Sight and Sound's Directors Poll of the greatest films ever made. In 2022, the film tied for fourth on both the Critics and Directors Polls.

On the lasting effects of the film, I'll leave the last word to Prof. Norman Holland:

I have read critics who say of Ozu, “The style is the meaning.” I am not sure what this means. I do think, though, that his style beautifully suits his recurring themes: the conflict between traditional Japanese ways and mechanized modernity (those trains!); the pain of the passage from one generation to the next; and the transience of all things; an absence and loss at the heart of the human experience that we seek to counter with objects of humor and permanence and beauty (mono no aware). Beauty like the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

*Tokyo Story*

What to Watch For

  • The incredible shot compositions and frames in the film. Ozu treats the everyday situation and setting as a work of art. His is a much different style of film from the others we've seen in this series, and can be a bit

  • The performances, particularly by Chishu Ryu as the patriarch and Setsuko Hara as his widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko. Hara is regarded by many critics as the greatest Japanese actress of all time. She worked with Ozu on six films, and her image alone in the frame is one of the quintessential recurring images in Ozu's ouvre.

*Tokyo Story*

  • Many events in the film take place off screen, and are referenced in conversations. For this reason, the film rewards multiple viewings and close study.

  • Some say the family dynamic can be difficult to understand, because of the way Ozu reveals information about characters, somewhat gradually and through dialogue. The characters are:

    • Shukichi and Tomi - the father and mother. They live in the village of Onomichi.
    • Koichi, their oldest son, a doctor in Tokyo. He is married to Ayako, and they have two boys, Minoru and Isamu
    • Shige, their oldest daughter, lives in Tokyo. She is a beautician. Her husband is Kaneko.
    • Shoji, their second son, was killed in WWII. His widow, Noriko, lives in Tokyo and does administrative work.
    • Keizo, their youngest son, lives in Osaka, which is between Onomichi and Tokyo.
    • Kyoko, their youngest daughter, is an unmarried schoolteacher who lives with Shukichi and Tomi in Onomichi.
  • Time is one of the key themes for Ozu. Many critics note that the characters are often trying to stop the progress of time by reminiscing about the past. Also note the film has a cyclical structure and many circular images; Ozu is interested in life's rhythms, patterns, and cycles, including daily rituals. Trains are also a recurring image in Ozu's films. They represent progress, change, and often the inevitable march of time.

Learn More About Tokyo Story

Roger Ebert on Tokyo Story

Norman Holland on Ozu’s style

Compassionate Detachment, essay for the Criterion edition

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