Tag Archives: postwar

“Tokyo Story” (1953): The greatest?


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.


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.)


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

Naruse’s Midareru/Yearning


I know that Naruse Mikio was trying to show the devaluation and exploitation of women in Japanese culture, but sometimes, watching Takamine Hideko absorb negligence or outright nastiness over and over and over in his films, I begin to wonder if he had a sadistic streak rather than sympathy or empathy for the plight of women in postwar Japan. In the 1964 instance of “Midareru” (“Yearning” is the English translation; “Turmoil” would be a better translation of the word), only her eyes wince at the unkindness of her “sisters” (sisters-in-law) Takako (Shirakawa Yumi) and Hisako (Kusabue Mitsuko), as they talk about marrying Reiko (Takamine) off or demoting her to being a servant.

Reiko was married to their brother for only six months before dying in combat in the Pacific War (WWII) and has been selflessly running the family store (her father-in-law is long dead, though I don’t think when, how, or where was specified in the movie), first rebuilding the business after the store was destroyed by US bombs. She has been running it for eighteen years as Koji (Kayama Yûzô {Red Beard], handsome son of Uehara Ken, who was often cast as a cad), who is now 25, refused to take on responsibility to run the family store. It is beleaguered by the opening nearby of a supermarket that is undercutting its prices to drive it (and other mom and pop stores) out of business.


Koji stays out late pretty much every night, drinking and gambling (at mahjong). Though none of the characters suspects it, to me it was obvious from early on that he is in love with his brother’s widow, who is twelve years his senior and has been around the house most of his life. I want to offer him the advise to stop calling her “sister” if he wants to stimulate her thinking of him as a sexual possibility. She still loves her long dead husband and marrying a brother’s widow is not a Japanese custom, though constantly calling her “sister” tends to build an incest taboo.

The pressures of the wicked sisters-in law (more than a little reminiscent of Cinderella’s step-sisters or the very insensitive children of widows in Douglas Sirk movies of the 1950s), the supermarket competition, and some inkling that her presence is keeping Koji from getting married and running the store with a new wife make Reiko feel she must leave. “Mother”(-in-law) Mimasu Aiko frets about what is fair to her devoted daughter-in-law, but Reiko pre-empts her family by opting out on her own. All this is painfully (for her and at least for this viewer) and slowly built up through the first hour of the running time.


The part of the movie I like best is the next half hour or so as she flees by night on a long-haul passenger train. (It is only then that Koji and the audience find out that Reiko and her mother-in-law met doing volunteer work in the war effort, so that Reiko met her husband through his mother.)

Love does not conquer all in Japanese movies… except in death, often (as here) a death that seem senseless to this alien observer. I guess I have a lower tolerance for noble suffering than many fans of “women’s pictures”; I think she should do something and grab a chance at happiness (as I do in Sirk movies).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Naruse’s 1952 “Mother”/”Okasan”


Life was hard for the widowed, self-sacrificing titular mother in Naruse’s 1952 film (Okasan), though the commemoration through an affectionate daughter’s voiceover verges on sentimentality (in contrast to Kinoshita’s (1953) “A Japanese Tragedy”). Tanaka Kinuyo (Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu) is the somewhat sentimentalized mother, Fukuhara Masako, seen from the perspective of her older daughter Toshiko (Kagawa Kyôko who played Mifune’s wife in “High and Low” and the second female lead in “Sansho, the Bailiff”). The patient husband/father Ryosuke (Mishima Masao) waited for the property (laundry/dyeing establishment) on a main street that the wartime government expropriated to be returned, but dies before that happens. Their adult son, Susumu (Katayama Akihiko) has to go off to a sanitarium (presumably tuberculosis, though some work-related lung condition may be the reason). The Fukuharas’ life is no picnic, though a picnic relieves the struggle for survival shown in most of the movie. (There’s also a carnival interlude.)

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I find it hard to understand why Masako allows her younger daughter (Chako) to be adopted while continuing to raise the younger boy child (Tetsuo) of her sister Noriko (Nakakita Chieko) who is studying hairdressing, then beginning work as a beautician. I was interested to see the young Okada Eiji (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) as Shinjiro, a baker hoping to marry Toshiko. He provides much of the comedy, romantic and other, including singing and coping with a date for which Toshiko shows up with her younger sister and de facto younger brother.

©2015, Stephen O. Murray