Review of Tokyo Story, Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
By PAUL D. MILLER
Roger Ebert recently updated his personal list of the ten best film of all time. I had seen eight of them and knew of a ninth, but had never even heard of the tenth. I Googled the mystery film and learned that it is not on the IMBD’s list of the top 250 films of all time and it won no Oscars—so, really, how good could it be? But then it popped up again as #3 on the Sight & Sound list of top films, just behind Vertigo and Citizen Kane. I begrudgingly put a 1953 black and white Japanese family drama at the top of my Netflix queue, and Tokyo Story arrived in the mail a short time later.
Tokyo Story turns out to be a poignant tale of elderly parents, their grown children, and the sometimes difficult relationships between them. It follows the journey of an older couple as they travel to Tokyo to visit their kids, now adults out in the world with families of their own. The sons and daughters are respectful, but mostly too busy to spend time with their parents. The relationships are polite but cold. The father comments at one point “A married daughter is a perfect stranger.”
Parental disappointment in offspring is a consistent theme through much of this quiet family drama. The father confesses to a friend that he thought his eldest son was a successful doctor with a major city practice, not, as he discovered, just a neighborhood family doctor. His friend replies that he lies to people about his son: he tells everyone that his son is a company manager, because he’s too ashamed to admit that his son is just an assistant. Later, the father notes that his eldest daughter is shrill, unkind, and impatient. This, I think, is the natural result of idolizing your children. The more you put them on a pedestal and worship what you are trying to force them to be, the more you will be frustrated and disappointed when they turn out to be sinners with their own desires and plans.
The key relationship in the film is between the parents and their daughter-in-law, Noriko, who provides a contrast with the other siblings. Noriko, who was widowed after her deadbeat husband abandoned her, vanished, and presumably died years ago, is the only loyal one of the sons and daughters. She takes time off work to show them around Tokyo and showers them with attention and respect. Her loyalty is remarkable because she was not born into the family but married into it.
This is a sad movie—not primarily because of the predictable death of one of the parents near the end, but because of what it suggests about parents and children. Parents and children are strangers to one another in this film, destined to disappoint and frustrate each other. Parents expect too much of their children; children neglect to honor and care for their parents. In a fallen world, these are sadly often true. I confess it made me uneasy as I thought about how quickly I let the busyness of life take priority over a phone call or email to my own parents.
If you want a touching, subtle, aching portrayal of these truths, Tokyo Story is your movie. For a movie in which very little actually happens, a movie that consists entirely of people sitting in rooms talking to one another, Tokyo Story was strangely compelling. It didn’t seem “well acted” because I didn’t feel like I was looking at actors; it had the plain, unadorned verisimilitude of a documentary. The people were strikingly real; their everyday concerns were small and banal; but for that reason, it made their family conflict come to life in a way few movies achieve.
Noriko holds the one ray of hope in this otherwise bleak film. Her loyalty and love for her parents stands out. She chooses to love her parents-in-law; she doesn’t have the same bond of obligation as the other, biological children. Her love mirrors how God chooses to love us. He is under no obligation to love or save us, but He chooses to. The movie does not—cannot—explain why Noriko does, other than perhaps as a salve for her own loneliness. A more uplifting film (a remake?) would suggest it is because love is what we are made for, and what we delight in. This melancholy movie, a searing and accurate reflection of the world’s brokenness, knows no such truth.