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Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story

When you hear “Japanese movie” you may immediately think of samurais and ninjas involved in swordfights or gigantic mecha battling it out with flaming swords. There are hundreds of movies featuring Godzilla smashing Tokyo or disgraced samurai struggling to reclaim their lost honor.

This is not one of those movies.

Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story tells the story of an elderly couple, Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama, who travel to Tokyo to visit their grown children. The children, including the eldest son Koichi and daughter Shige, however, are busy with both work and family obligations and do not have much time to spend with their parents. Only their daughter-in-law Noriko, whose husband died in World War II, goes out of her way to treat them kindly. Feeling guilty, the children book a resort vacation for their parents (conveniently getting them out of their hair as well). But the resort is filled with partying young couples, and Shukichi and Tomi resolve to leave after only one night. Disappointed, they board a train back home; en-route Tomi grows critically ill. Finally, the children make plans to visit with their parents before it is too late.

That’s it. That’s the movie.

Tokyo Story is universally acclaimed, one of the few films to achieve a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Ozu’s style places the camera low with almost no movement, making the viewer seem like a fly on the wall. Dialogue is often spoken by the actors head on, reality show style, so they confess their thoughts straight to the viewer. In this way Ozu makes us voyeurs to the small scale (but universal) drama which plays out between this family.

tokyo_story dad
Passive-Aggressive Asian Dad, a variation of High Expectations Asian Dad

Ozu also favored the use of ellipses by leaving major events to happen off-camera, instead only showing us the aftermath. He did this to avoid melodrama (a stark contrast to directors today who make it their mission to make you cry). This subtlety dominates the film, where so much is left unsaid. You get the sense that this jovial elderly couple had their troubles in their youth; Tomi says, “When each of my boys was born, I prayed that he wouldn’t become a drinker”, implying that stiff and reserved Shukichi had a drinking problem. Throughout the movie, the couple puts on a stoic face throughout their children’s slights, and they speak guardedly of their disappointments, hiding their real feelings in code. Dad states, “Children don’t live up to their parents’ expectations. Let’s just be happy that they’re better than most.” Mom agrees, “They’re certainly better than average. We’re fortunate.” But they’re body language indicates they perhaps don’t truly believe that. In the end Kyoko defends the behavior of her siblings-in-law, stating that is natural that they put their own lives and needs ahead of their parents and that she, too, will gradually become like them. To which the youngest daughter replies, “Isn’t life disappointing?”


I saw Tokyo Story over 10 years ago, as a young man just beginning adult life. My parents had retired half the country away, and I was early stages of dating my now wife. I had heard of this film and its accolades, so I rented it from a new company named Netflix (!). It took me over a week to watch it all, and I didn’t see what the big deal was. It seemed…incredibly boring. I browsed through the special features and watched the four minute trailer when a line in it hit me like a thunderbolt.

[themify_quote]“As long as life goes on, relationships between parents and children will bring boundless joy and endless grief.”[/themify_quote]

A grim realization: at that point in my life I was becoming Koichi, the eldest son. I had left home and while a wife and kids weren’t in my immediate future, I was no longer the doting, obedient child Kyoko was (if indeed, I ever was). I was hundreds of miles away, so my parents and I could only visit once or twice a year, and even then often work would get in the way. I wonder, did my parents feel the way the elderly couple felt?

Now years later, I am a parent, and soon, too soon, my wife and I will become the elderly couple as our children move on and out, to live a life of their own, a life that we will play only a small part. I hope we can do so with the grace and poise Shūkichi and Tomi did.

Don’t take my word for it, for analysis that is much better than mine, see Roger Ebert’s review and a video review from A.O. Scott.

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