“Tokyo Story” (1953): The greatest?

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Ozu’s 1953 “Tokyo Story” (Tōkyō Monogatari’) was voted the best film ever in 2012 a Sight & Sound poll of film directors. I don’t see this choice: it’s not even my favorite postwar Ozu film. (Just as I prefer “Chimes at Midnight” to the old champion, “Citizen Kane.” The most recent (2012) S&S critics poll has “Vertigo” #1, “Citizen Kane” #2, “Tokyo Story” #3. I love “Vertigo,” but my favorite Hitchcock film is “Notorious” BTW, the first of Ozu’s Noriko trilogy, “Late Spring,” was #15; “Seven Samurai” was #17, “Rashomon” #25, (they were #17 and #18 in the directors’ poll), “Ugestsu” tied for #50.)

There is one tracking shot in “Tokyo Story,” though I don’t see any particular reason for it. There is a lot of intercutting, though often between static shots. And, typically of Ozu, many shots are held after all characters leave the frame. The music is a bit sentimental, though not cloying.

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Insofar as so quiet a family movie has events, they are mostly not shown. Rather, they are alluded to (or in some cases talked about) after they have occurred (though the film drags out to 139 minutes). I think the characters are all types, though exquisitely acted by the Ozu/Shochiku troupe of actors. Ryû Chishû smiles and makes subverbal backchanneling noises (Hmmm, Ummm, etc.). Higashiyama Setsuko also smiles and begs others not to inconvenience themselves on her account. Sugimura Haruko plays her usual unpleasantly selfish character (the eldest daughter, Shite), while Hara Setsuko as the childless widow of the couple’s older son smiles and does all she can to smooth over the ingratitude and selfishness of Shige and Dr. Hôichi, the eldest son (Yamamura Sô) and his two bratty y sons. The youngest son of the elderly couple, Keizô (who lives in Osaka) only appears late, along with Kyôko the unmarried teacher who lives with her parents in Onomichi, in Hiroshima Prefecture. (The rest have migrated to Tokyo. They don’t seem to have seen their parents since before the war; the grandchildren are meeting their grandparents for the first time.)

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The movie probably encourages everyone with still-living parents to be more patient with and nicer to them, and it stimulates those whose parents to have died with twinges of guilt.

The movie was inspired by the 1937 Leo McCarey “Make Way for Tomorrow” in which an elderly couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) lose their house and none of their five children will take both of them in. “Tokyo Story” also inspired Doris Dorrie’s “Cherry Blossoms” (2008) in which a final trip is planned by a mother, her husband not realizing she is mortally ill. And it was remade in 2013 by Yamada Yôji.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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