When Gus Van Sant remade Alfred Hitchcock’s slasher masterpiece Psycho in 1998, I have to admit to a certain level of bemusement. Why, when the original film was perfect in both pitch and execution, would anyone anywhere feel the need to remake it almost shot for shot? It seemed like an exercise in redundancy and in the end I walked away from that film with the only opinion that made sense to me — Van Sant was such a Hitchcock fan (understandably) that he wanted to reverse engineer the original to the point where he could put it back together again — a mechanic’s fascination with the way an engine works, nuts and bolts and all. As an experiment, it was no doubt cool. As entertainment, I could have just as easily bought myself a DVD copy of the original and stayed in.
Years later though, I’m wondering if that was a little unfair of me, because after watching Youji Yamada’s update of Yasujiro Ozu’s revered 1953 film Tokyo Story, I have a slightly different attitude. Primarily, it’s not that I’m uninterested in Ozu’s films, but I’ve just actually never gotten around to watching Tokyo Story. A terrible oversight on my part, but there it is, and in trying to determine exactly how much Tokyo Family pays homage to Ozu’s film, I find myself surprised to discover a great deal of vitriolic criticism. The script was “slavish” (so says the Hollywood Reporter). “Guaranteed to vex Ozu devotees and bore mainstream audiences” (so decrees Variety). I say “surprised” because, honestly, I liked it. I didn’t have anything to compare it to, sure, but neither am I a professional film critic versed in the subtleties of filmmaking who gets paid for being surly and difficult to impress. I’m just someone who likes watching movies.
The elderly Shukichi (Isao Hashizume, The Negotiator, Space Battleship Yamato) and Tomiko Hirayama (Kazuko Toshiyuki, Departures, Kikujiro no Natsu) have travelled to Tokyo from their island home in Hiroshima to visit their grown children, who are all busy with their various everyday lives. The children are happy to see their parents, of course, but as the story progresses and things continue to putter along unchanging — Koichi (Masahiko Nishimura) is a doctor running a busy clinic and has a wife and two sons, Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima) runs a hair salon, and the youngest son Shuji (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is seemingly without purpose or direction — it becomes clear that those same demands are getting in the way of a meaningful family reunion, one that they perhaps should be making time for.
Shikichi and Tomoko are, putting it lightly, out of place and underfoot in their children’s tiny Tokyo homes and eventually, feeling guilty about not having the time to show their parents around, the kids decide to put them up in a nice hotel, completely missing the point of the visit. Shikichi and Tomiko are ageing, and whether they know it or not, it’s clear to the audience that this is probably the last time they will visit. It’s a little like that Harry Chaplin song, Cat’s in the Cradle. It’s fairly dated (it was released in 1974) but if you’ve never heard it, I suggest you go Google it now, and I guarantee by the end of it there’ll be an ache in your throat and a tear or two in your eye. You can see what’s coming for the Hirayama family — logic and the natural course of things make it obvious, and you’re neither too busy with your own life in the two and a half hours you happen to be sitting in the cinema nor are you so close to the characters that you can’t anticipate the inevitable. That doesn’t mean it won’t hit you where you live anyway.
And maybe (probably) the critics are entirely justified in their issues with Tokyo Family. Maybe Yamada’s update is full of soapy outbursts and offers no new insights, but the point of Ozu’s film wasn’t necessarily to present a technical masterpiece for critics to rave over, it was to highlight the bittersweet condition of being us, being human. Yes, it was also social commentary about the generational divide and Japan’s past versus its future, but as far as Ozu’s middle class audience would have been concerned, it was a fanfare for them and Yamada’s version hasn’t lost that. The references to contemporary life aren’t heavy or numerous, but there’s enough of them there — most obviously in Shuji’s non-committal attitude towards his job status and his future that so concerns his stern father — so that almost anyone can relate.
It’s this familiarity that makes both Ozu’s and Yamada’s films work. The social context is both the same and different; the invention of global culture makes Yamada’s efforts far more accessible to younger western audiences than perhaps Ozu’s film was originally believed to be. For all Ozu’s minimalist brilliance and deft handling of emotional expression, the story Yamada is paying homage to still makes us stop for a second and think about what we have and what’s important and how relatively fleeting it is and whether we actually value it enough or not. Ozu just also happened to be an incredibly nuanced and consummate filmmaker whose level of contribution to international cinema is the kind that doesn’t come along every day.
Yamada might not be as good, nor have achieved the heights that Ozu reached, but maybe, like Van Sant, he was reverse-engineering because Tokyo Story was something he loved enough to reconstruct it to see what made it tick. Whether that failed or succeeded by the critics’ standards, audiences that haven’t seen Tokyo Story will find themselves moved by the Hirayama’s lives, will recognise it on a fundamentally human level, and may even decide that never having seen Ozu’s film is an oversight they intend to rectify immediately. And if that’s the result of Yamada’s efforts – making people who don’t know Ozu want to — then I’d say it wasn’t as wasted as it’s been made out to be.
Tokyo Family screens as part of the 2013 Brisbane International Film Festival, currently on until the 24th of November. Check the website for screening times for the second screening, as well as the rest of BIFF’s Asian cinema program, including A Tribute to Ozu.