Honestly, Tokyo Story is about as far away from anime as you could possibly get. Anime is all about impossible ideas with strong fantasy or science-fiction components, given life in a restlessly dynamic style with an attention to detail that grants everything on screen a hyper-realism despite the fact that what’s being shown would be physically impossible to capture on film. Tokyo Story is a quiet family drama in black-and-white (by which I mean monochrome celluloid, not the issues at play within the story), sedately paced and shot in a way that makes it seem as if the cameras were bolted to the floor. Needless to say, this is not exactly my bailiwick.
But I can appreciate great achievements outside of my comfort zone and Tokyo Story is a magnificent and enduring work of art (in the most recent Sight & Sound poll of greatest films of all time, Tokyo Story was number 3 right after Vertigo and Citizen Kane). What seems stripped down and simplistic at first glance is actually a meticulously crafted examination which maximizes insight and impact. Tokyo Story is a humble, human-level tragedy but really, isn’t that exactly what life is, too?
The exact nature of the tragedy seems to be twofold: first, that people tend to take their own family members for granted, particularly the adult children of elderly parents; and second, that people allow this to happen by never really speaking honestly to one another about how they feel. The first part is demonstrated in everyday ways again and again throughout the film, but best embodied in the character Shige, the oldest daughter. Credit should probably be shared equally between the script and the actress for portraying Shige as simultaneously a believable, three-dimensional person and the most horrid offspring imaginable. In a scene early on the movie, Shige’s husband comes home and tells his wife that he picked up some cakes for his visiting in-laws. Shige scowls that he should have just gotten them less expensive crackers. Her husband counters that her parents had crackers the day before, and she counter-counters that that’s fine because they like crackers. Eventually, Shige is eating the cakes herself and continuing to complain that they are too great a luxury for her parents.
The audience never gets to see if the parents, Shukichi and Tomi, received any of the cakes at all, but we know that they would have expressed happiness and thanks for either the crackers or the cakes, or simply for time spent with their children and grandchildren. Over the course of the film, as the camera follows Shukichi and Tomi in and out of the orbits of their urbanite children, we see them ask for very little and provide unending support and understanding in the presence of their children, but admit that they want so much more whenever the sons and daughters are out of earshot. There are only a few times when the elders of the Hirayama family speak from the heart to their relatives, usually involving the good-hearted widowed daughter-in-law Noriko. (Although a scene in which Tomi confesses her fears to her youngest grandson, who is innocently playing and either doesn’t hear her or doesn’t understand, is the most quietly devastating.) One of the inherent beauties of the film is the way it allows both the private feelings and the brave faces of the parents to occupy different scenes, so that we become acutely aware of the painful gaps to which the Hirayama children are all but oblivious.
I usually don’t get down into the nitty-gritty technicalities of things like shot composition in my film reviews, but the stark approach employed by Ozu really can’t go by without acknowledgment. The camera angle is almost always at floor-level on wide shots (see above re: humble, human-level) and yet so many of the scenes are deeply layered, with household objects closest to the lens at either side of the frame, and characters and interior walls at varying distances. The visual layout keeps the audience at something of a remove from the characters by making us all too aware of the barrier(s) between us and them. And the edges of doorways and bookcases and floor levels all create boxes within boxes, subliminally reinforcing the various ways in which the characters are all trapped, in their familial dynamics, in their social roles and responsibilities, in their rigidly formal interactions, in their expectations, and on and on. The temptation is strong to tell a story about a family drifting apart only to find their bonds strengthened, their perspectives altered and the sense of perspective restored when a death in the family occurs. But Ozu is not telling that optimistic a story. He depicts a family which remains exactly the same before and after a potentially transformative moment, holding the same inexorable patterns along the same straight lines. The train plays a significant part in Tokyo Story; unsurprisingly, the Hirayama family runs on iron rails themselves.
Tokyo Story was written and produced during a transitional period of massive societal upheaval in Japan, less than ten years after the end of World War II, and Ozu makes impressive use of establishing exterior shots to contrast the differences between the country and the city, the past and the present becoming the future. Village rooftops, city skylines, newly constructed smokestacks at factories and ancient, worn stone markers at temples, all attest to the widening gulf between Onomichi and Tokyo. But the themes of Tokyo Story are universal and timeless. We could all be better people, and most people admit this and even aspire to it, but it is astonishingly hard even in the most fundamentally important areas of our lives. Moreover, it’s not only hard for the people (like Shige) who obviously fall short, it’s hard for the people (like Noriko) who seem to be succeeding. Tokyo Story observes all of this. It may not give any answers that make bettering our relationships easier, but it gives us the reassurance that, in our struggles, none of us are alone.