Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953)TWITTER/ JACKANDHISPAIN

The cataclysmic consequences of World War II gave birth to some of the most human cinema of the 20th century. The decade saw illustrious careers reach their peak with Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Lean boasting an impressive output. Yet, it was outside the anglophone world that cinema really took off. Audiences everywhere were enraptured by the dark existential meditations of Ingmar Bergman, the carnivalesque pageantry of Fellini, and the stark parables of Robert Bresson.

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However, during this period, Japan triumphed above all others with the holy trinity of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujirō Ozu producing an incomparable canon of masterpieces; and it is one film’s enduring legacy, universal humanity, and artistry which stands unrivalled.

Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) has a lofty reputation – in fact, about as lofty as you can get. Hailed as the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s Director’s Poll (2012) – toppling the long-established giants of American cinema – this modest family drama’s status is entirely deserved.

Part of a thematic trilogy, preceded by Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story completes the ‘Noriko’ arc of Ozu’s career. All three films explore the status of a single woman, majestically brought to life by Setsuko Hara, called Noriko, living in post-war Japan. While the first two are primarily concerned with the theme of marriage, Tokyo Story turns its focus to the family itself.

“This time allows us to exist in Ozu’s world free from the pressure of contrived action or dialogue and free to contemplate the space itself.”

Together with screenwriter Kōgo Noda, Ozu adapted the story from Leo McCarey’s 1937 melodrama Make Way for Tomorrow. The film follows an elderly couple, Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who set off to visit their adult children in Tokyo, leaving their youngest daughter at home in Onomichi.

Generational divides loom large when they quickly begin to feel like a burden as they are passed between their eldest son, So Yamamura, and daughter, Haruko Sugimura. It is Noriko, the widow of their middle son, killed in the war, who shows them the most compassion and humility despite her busy work schedule. Inevitably tragedy strikes and the Hirayama family must face life’s stark realities.

Tokyo Story (1953)TWITTER/AKKUPAXI

The film skilfully eschews the melodrama of its source material through the use of narrative ellipsis: the most important moments of the film occur off-screen. This elliptical structure creates a unique sense of time in which the past is both the life force of the film and the least important thing to capture on camera. This technique firmly situates the present-day family drama within the immediate social reality of post-war Japan.

“In the period immediately following World War II, it was Japan who produced the most compassionate cinema of the 20th century.”

Ozu’s preference for a stationary camera – moving only once in the whole film – reflects a fundamental respect for his subjects. His films subvert the 180-degree rule traditionally governing the spatial relationships between characters, instead favouring low frontal angles. These ‘tatami shots’ (so-called on account of the traditional Japanese seating mat) allow for some beautiful interior compositions. Whether this is part of a deeper spiritual concern with the inherent serenity of everyday moments or simply a useful pacing device, in the hands of Ozu this minimalist approach has immense power.

Tokyo Story (1953)TWITTER/PERVINCAVINCA

Paul Schrader characterised Ozu’s style as “transcendental” – a mode perhaps best recognised today in the ‘slow cinema’ of Béla Tarr or Lav Diaz. The characters in this world are allowed to really live in the spaces Ozu creates. Even when the camera hangs on for longer than is comfortable, this time allows us to exist in Ozu’s world, free from the pressure of contrived action or dialogue and free to contemplate the space itself – who was in it before, and who will inhabit it next.

There is a calming rhythm to these static movements. When they are disrupted, the consequences are deeply felt. Tokyo Story is generous in its humanity: as audiences, we share in every little seemingly-insignificant moment in the lives of the Hirayama family – including their grief. Nothing prepares you for the emotional gut-punch of the film’s final movement. The becalmed restraint and simplicity with which these emotional heights are achieved can be best expressed in one line of dialogue towards the end of the film: “Isn’t life disappointing?”

Tokyo Story (1953)TWITTER/JOSEPCTBS

Originally considered ‘too Japanese’ (an absurd claim given Kurosawa’s international breakthrough with Rashōmon three years earlier), Ozu’s work remained largely unknown to the Western world for several decades. However, thanks to continual scholarly interest in Ozu’s style, the popular reputation of this modest filmmaker has only continued to grow.

It is an interesting cultural reality that Japan’s rich and complex history (habitually reduced to shogunate stereotypes) is often cited as a paradigm of cruelty in the Western imagination. Yet, in the period immediately following World War II, it was Japan who produced the most compassionate cinema of the 20th century, and Tokyo Story is their crowning achievement.

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