RopeofSilicon Movie Club: ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953)


Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama in Tokyo Story
Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama in Tokyo Story

Considering Tokyo Story will result in, but that won’t stop me from trying. This time around, however, I am going to write a little less than I have in the past and hopefully hand the majority of the conversation and exploration over to you. Of course, I won’t go without saying anything, that’s just not my style.

Prior to Tokyo Story my only experience with Ozu was Floating Weeds (which I wrote about briefly back in 2010) and Late Spring. Neither of those films necessarily floored me and are a bit too slow for my taste as Ozu isn’t one to spice up his narrative with visual flourishes or editing trickery. This, again, is evident in Tokyo Story, a film considered to be the Japanese director’s masterpiece and a film most certainly not for the impatient.

I think I counted a total of two times the camera is actually moving in this film, not including a scene from inside a bus where the camera remains stationary even though the bus is moving. Often situated low to the ground and capturing the action as it happens as if it were an innocent bystander, much of Ozu’s talent is found in the framing of his shots.

Look at the shot to the right and the location and position of each of the characters. Five people fill the room and Ozu gives each of them plenty of space to occupy the frame as they bow their heads in somber remembrance of their deceased mother. Similar shots can be found throughout the film and I can only imagine how long it took him to set up each shot to make sure the blocking was to his exact specifications.

I don’t want to dwell too long on filming techniques, however, though I welcome the conversation in the comments. As far as the story is concerned, it doesn’t get much simpler than this. You’ve seen it plenty times before and you’ve seen it told with far more embellishment than is found here. Hollywood would tell this story with grand orchestration and forced tears, but Ozu goes for realism with scenes that play out closer to real-time than the sliced and edited down films of today.

The story is set in the year it was made, eight years after the end of World War II, and follows Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), an elderly couple leaving their small village to visit their children in Tokyo. Planning on an extended visit after not seeing their children for some time and having never been to Tokyo, it’s instantly realized their presence is hardly met with enthusiasm by their children and more out of a sense of obligation. In an effort to get them out of the way, they even decide to send them off to a local health spa for a few days.

We’ve seen elements of this story dealt with many times before, even as recent as the Jim Broadbent‘s storyline in Cloud Atlas or the fantastic animated feature Wrinkles. It’s best summed up in a quote from Shukishi and Tomi’s son Keizo (Shiro Osaka) who says, “No one can serve his parents beyond the grave.” It doesn’t get much more on the nose than that, but this is only the start of the quotes that caught my attention.

After witnessing the lack of respect shown by her elder siblings, Shukishi and Tomi’s youngest daughter Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa) says to the widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), “Isn’t life disappointing.” It’s a sentiment that runs through the picture, and shades each smile with a bit of sadness behind it.

Shukishi and Tomi have plenty of love for their children and even after witnessing their behavior do their best to make excuses, at one point saying, “They’re certainly better than average.” But it was one statement made by Shukishi that stuck out for me when he says, “We can’t expect too much from our children.

This is a quote that can be read one of two ways, one is to say we simply shouldn’t put too many expectations on our children. Understandable, if not challenging. The other way of reading it, however, is to say we can never expect too much from our children, we should always be pushing them and driving them to be better. Shukishi meant the former and he says it with such a defeated tone it comes across as a matter of acceptance and almost a sense of failure.

As far as the overall film is concerned, I respect the hell out of it and wish more of today’s filmmakers would take a lesson in the art of “less is more” as frenetic, hand-held camera work and close-ups have become the norm nowadays. The idea of storytelling is pushed to the background and nuance is absent from so many of today’s features. The simple task of suggesting something is going to take place is something Ozu clearly understood and realized audiences don’t need to see everything to know it happened along with the understanding that a few words alone can say far more than a lengthy speech or close-up shot of forced tears and wailing into the night.

Perhaps the secret to enjoying today’s films can actually be found in Tokyo Story. Maybe Sukishi was onto something… can we expect too much from today’s directors? If we do, is it not just a matter of time before we’re left consistently disappointed?

Screenshot from Tokyo Story


The rules are simple and, if necessary, will update as we go along.

  1. No topic is off limits as long as it pertains to the movie of the week or comes as a natural progression of the conversation.
  2. Keep your comments to a reasonable length. I know the urge to write a lot at once is there, but try to rein it in and get out one thought at a time. That way the conversation will move more fluidly and make sure none of your thoughts are overlooked.
  3. NO BULLYING: This is important, while you are free to disagree, do so in a mature manner. Hopefully I won’t have to explain that any further.
  4. Suggestions for future Movie Club titles must be emailed to [email protected]. Comments on actual Movie Club articles pertaining to future discussions and not the film being discussed will be deleted to make sure we remain on topic.


Based on last week’s poll, the December 24, 2012 Movie Club selection is Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation (1974).

Use the following poll to vote for the December 31, 2012 Movie Club selection and to suggest films for future entries direct all your emails to [email protected].

NOTE: All five of the selections in this week’s Movie Club poll come from Quentin Tarantino’s Top 20 Spaghetti Westerns list and three of them are available on NetFlix Instant right now — Death Rides a Horse, The Mercenary and Navajo Joe.

Next week’s film will be Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia, which Christopher Nolan remade in 2002. For more information on where to watch it and an updated schedule, visit the Movie Club homepage.

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