by Aaron Gertler
At first, you think Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu’s purported masterpiece, is one of those movies pretending to be profound by showing little and saying even less. Then, ever so slowly, the film opens up to you, and suddenly the notes you took an hour ago take on a new and profound meaning (not that I’m saying you have to take notes—pay attention and the themes will sink into your brain). When I walked out of the Whitney Humanities Center at 9:15 tonight, I hadn’t learned much about Japan (though knowledge of the nation’s history does add to one’s understanding), but I instead felt ready to see the human race in a whole new light.
I don’t want to refer to the film’s “beginning” or “middle”, since the plot is so simple that to summarize is to explain everything. (The end must be seen to be understood.) In short: an elderly couple (not yet frail, but approaching frailty) visit their children in a Tokyo suburb. The kids are just successful enough to entertain the old folks, but work keeps them busy, and their own children haven’t the patience or inclination to get to know their grandparents. (In one excellent scene, Tomi, the grandmother, “plays” with grandson Isamu by following him as he toddles randomly around the yard). Soon, everyone is bored with everyone else, though they disguise this boredom with an assortment of fixed smiles.
Eventually, true feelings become impossible to hide; where the only tension in Tokyo Story’s first half comes from fussy grandchildren, the second half boasts a drinking binge, several vocal expressions of disappointment, and one of those fantastic Oriental wars of politeness where the side that accepts any kindness makes up for it in lost face. It might not sound exciting, and Ozu’s static camera certainly doesn’t help; we see the Hirayama family as if we were a fly on the wall—stuck in amber. But this isn’t a film to watch for excitement; this is existence, with just enough editing to establish the kind of pattern we normally don’t notice in our own lives.
Grandfather Shukishi says it best: “Times have changed. We have to face it.” To the extent that Japan’s greatest director examines his own country, he does it through the postwar problem of generation gaps. Tomi and Shukishi grew up with the Emperor and haven’t had much to occupy themselves since VJ Day; their children built new lives after the surrender; their children’s children have no memory of any conflict. A Tokyo tour guide treats the city’s royal palace as an oddity, and the working adults dress in Western suits and skirts. The middle generation tries to deal with their parents by treating them as children, to be plied with cakes and vacations; the ancients mourn that their children haven’t moved further up the corporate ladder. But there is a ray of hope in the film—one likable heroine with a chance to heal history’s wounds and start a new life—who, despite her ambiguous treatment by Ozu, comes to stand for the hope of a nation. Tokyo Story does not have a happy ending, but that’s less because there isn’t happiness than because there isn’t an ending. In this way, Ozu demonstrates a masterful understanding of reality, filmic stereotypes be damned; if you’re willing to look behind his characters’ self-made masks, by the closing credits, you won’t wish to leave your seat. (But in this life, after all, each of us does—the film’s last and most haunting subtext).
Aaron Gertler is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.