TOKYO STORY

(1953)
Japanese Title: Tokyo monogatari
With Chisu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

     One of the most understated movies I have ever seen.  An elderly couple visits their children in Tokyo, only to find most of them are too busy with their lives to spend much time with their parents.  Director Yasujiro Ozu's most famous film, TOKYO STORY is considered to be one of the unchallenged masterpieces of Japanese cinema, up there with Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI and Kenji Mizoguchi's UGETSU. Although concerned with family life in post-war Japan, TOKYO STORY contains universal themes applicable to any culture. Yet Ozu's style is so purposefully lacking in drama, movement and traditional cinematic storytelling devices, it may require some patience to get through. 

     In TOKYO STORY, important events - an old woman gets sick on a train, for example - take place off screen and are related to us through other characters.  The  script is filled with small talk, with so much of what needs to be said hidden behind banal politeness.  Transitional scenes are almost done away with, or, if there is a transition, it is usual a single static shot of scenery often pertaining to nothing in particular. Most noticeably, Ozu's camera rarely if ever moves (I noticed one panning shot in the whole film). Scenes often begin or end with empty rooms, and feature people walking in and out of the frame as they go about the ordinary business of domestic life.  There are no bravura, scenery chewing performances in this film.  The most touching turn comes from Setsuko Hara, one of the great Japanese movie idols.  I had seen her in two Kurosawa films and was not terribly impressed, but then again, Kurosawa was never known as a woman's director.  Perhaps it is because this film is so calm and unemotional that  Hara's vibrancy has full reign to shine through, but I can easily see why she was a beloved actress in Japan until her early retirement from the screen in the 1960s.  Even these many decades later, this woman's warmth and star quality are still evident, and I apologize to Ms. Hara for any remarks I may have made about her in my review of Kurosawa's NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH.  I hope she realizes (if, by any chance, she reads this page - ha!) that I was criticizing the film, the director and the story, and not her.

     I honestly cannot rate this film at this moment.  It is my first Ozu film and I found it alternately frustrating and rewarding.  I need to see it again, and perhaps again, to fully get a grasp on it.  If that's a copout, so be it. - JB 

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KUROSAWA GRAPES

Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu were at opposite ends of  Japanese cinema aesthetics.  Ozu's most famous films all tend to be slow-moving, thoughtful and lacking in plot and action.  Kurosawa is famous for his films that feature wild, theatrical acting (*cough* Toshiro Mifune *cough*), huge action sequences and ever-advancing stories.  Ozu was more loved by the Japanese, because his style was so much more in tune with Japanese tradition and culture. Kurosawa was more loved in the west because his films were much more accessible and fun..

The difference was not lost on either director.  While Ozu may not have been specifically comparing himself to Kurosawa, he knew his own reputation as a minimalist who made quiet, little films.  "I've always said I never make anything besides tofu," he said in 1962.

As for Kurosawa, his Seven Samurai was a direct response to Ozu's films.  Needling Ozu, who had directed of The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice in 1952, Kurosawa once described how he came up with the idea for a big action film: "Japanese films all tend to be simple and wholesome, just like green tea over rice.  But I think we ought to have both richer foods and richer films. And so I thought I would make a film which was entertaining enough to eat, as it were."

Despite polar opposite approaches, or perhaps because of them, Kurosawa and Ozu are two of the directors most responsible for a golden age of Japanese movies in the 1950s.

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