On Ozu’s birth and death anniversary, a look at Tokyo Story and the Yōji Yamada remake, Tokyo Family
Several of Ozu’s films are regarded classics, but perhaps the one that comes up the most is Tokyo Story (1953).
Yasujirō Ozu was born on 12 December, 1903. He died 60 years later, on the same day. There is no need to reiterate this filmmaker’s greatness – if you are reading this column, you probably know this already.
Wim Wenders put it perfectly at the beginning of Tokyo-Ga, his 1985 documentary (or “diary on film,” as he called it) on Ozu: “If in our century, something sacred still existed, if there were something like a sacred treasure of the cinema, then for me that would have to be the work of the Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu… For me, never before and never again since has the cinema been so close to its essence and its purpose: to present an image of man in our century, a usable, true and valid image in which he not only recognises himself, but from which, above all, he may learn about himself.”
Several of Ozu’s films are regarded classics, but perhaps the one that comes up the most is Tokyo Story (1953). On the surface, it’s about an aged couple – Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi Hirayama (Chieko Higashiyama) – who live in Onomichi, with their daughter Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa). They take off to faraway Tokyo to visit their other children: son Kōichi (a paediatrician, played by So Yamamura), daughter Shige (a hairdressing salon owner, played by Haruko Sugimura), and widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (an office worker, played by Setsuko Hara). And through their travels in Tokyo, through the people they visit, we get a sense of a cross-section of humanity. It’s what Wenders calls “an image of man.”
I have seen this film across three decades of my life: the first time in my twenties, then in my thirties, and now, in my forties. All films play differently at different stages of your life, but with Tokyo Story, different scenes become standouts at each phase. In my twenties, when I was in the US and my parents were in India, the scenes that affected me the most were the ones that talked about a similar situation. The dialogue is etched in my mind: “Be a good son while your parents are alive… No one can serve his parents beyond the grave.” But now, when I watched the film for this column, other scenes impacted me – like the one where Shūkichi and Tomi are packing their bags, preparing for their Tokyo trip.
Shūkichi asks Tomi if she has the air cushion. A series of back-and-forths happens. “Didn’t I give it to you?” “It’s not here.” “I’m sure I gave it to you.” “Really?” “I still can’t find it.” “No? It must be there.” “Oh, here it is.” “You found it?” “Yes, I did.” This quiet, non-dramatic scene is a brilliant example of domestic drama, the poetry in everyday life. In the words of director Lindsay Anderson in the clip above (echoing the experience of the Buddhist concept of Satori, or enlightenment), “[it’s] just like ordinary, everyday experience – except, two inches off the ground.” (The phrase suggests transcendental meditation, and I was reminded of the title of Paul Schrader’s book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, which delves into “a common film style used by various filmmakers in divergent cultures to express the transcendent, a constant “striving towards the ineffable and invisible”.)
Then, there’s the scene where Shūkichi and Tomi regard the vast expanse of Tokyo in front of them, and she says, “If we got lost, we’d never find each other again.” We don’t see her face (the camera is behind them), but it’s profoundly moving to see this small-town woman look at the spread of a big city and think instantly of getting lost and not finding her husband again. The physical distance she speaks of beautifully complements the emotional distance we sense in the rest of the film. Finally, the scene where Shūkichi and Tomi take leave of their children, and Tomi says, “Now that we’ve seen you all, you need not come down even if anything should happen to either one of us.” The scene isn’t sentimental in the least, but if you have aged parents, I dare you to watch it unemotionally.
The first few times I watched Tokyo Story, I regarded it as a tale of oppositions: saintly parents versus ungrateful, career-minded children. But as I grew older, and once work and life began to consume me, I began to have more sympathy for, say, the paediatrician-son who cannot take his parents sightseeing (as he promised) because one of his regular patients falls ill. When his wife suggests that maybe she can take his parents out, he says, “You can’t leave the house without someone here.” You really get this seemingly trivial point when you’re older. Plus, there’s the fact you understand only when you are older: your parents have feet of clay, and it’s better to stop idealising their struggles and view them as flawed people who did their best.
This aspect comes out better in Tokyo Family, Yōji Yamada’s 2013 remake of Tokyo Story. Yamada retains the broad outline, but changes things around. For instance, there are smartphones, and the widowed daughter-in-law is replaced by the girlfriend of the youngest son. And it’s through him that we get an idea of what it must have been like under his old man. Tokyo Story merely tells us that the father, when younger, was a drunk. But in Tokyo Family, the youngest son says, “He’s ignored me ever since I was a kid. When I’d fight with [my older brother], he’d always say ‘Just ignore him’. I’d rather he’d yelled at me. When you’re a kid, it makes you feel as if you don’t really exist.” Transpose this sentiment to Ozu’s film, and you see why a character, there, says, “But children do drift away from their parents.”
Yamada himself has the older/younger theme running through his experience of Tokyo Story. In an interview, he said that, when younger, he dismissed Ozu’s films as “simple, petit-bourgeois films. They don’t often have anything to do with the difficulties of everyday life. At that time, it was still difficult for the Japanese to find enough to eat… [Ozu] represented a world without any financial difficulties, while I, on the contrary, thought that the cinema had a duty to point out those difficulties.” But after 50 years as a filmmaker, which is when he made Tokyo Family, Yamada said, “I’ve always been attracted to Tokyo Story as a film, particularly its great depiction of family and human beings.” Ozu does that to you.
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