“These are your grandparents”, Fumiko tells her sons, Isamu and Minoru. Minoru looks about ten years old, and we gather that if he’s ever met his grandparents before, it was so long ago that nobody expects him to remember. Isamu, the younger brother, just runs away from the unfamiliar old couple. This is part of an early scene in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. And where better to begin reviewing one of the greatest movies ever made than with a small moment which so perfectly exemplifies its sad nature, and theme of generational disconnection?
An ageing couple, Tomi and Shukishi (Chieko Higashiyama and Chishu Ryu), make a trip from their small home city of Onomichi to visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo. Their youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), lives at home with them. Then there’s their youngest son Keizo (Shiro Osaka) who actually lives in Osaka, their eldest son Koichi (So Yamamura), his wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake) and their sons Isamu and Minoru (Mitsuhiro Mori and Zen Murase). There’s also the old couple’s elder daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) and finally a daughter-in-law widowed by the war, Noriko (Setsuko Hara). With a mounting sense of discomfort, we begin to realise that the visit is not going well: everybody but Noriko seems put out and far too busy to pay the old couple much attention, let alone respect.
As is typical for Ozu, particularly in his post-war work, this disconnect between generations in Tokyo Story is symbolic of that between the old and new Japan. But Ozu is no mere allegorist: the comparison is not laboured, nor is it buried as something for only over-analytical film students to worry about. It’s just something that’s there: a subtext gently injected into the film by an incomparably adroit director.
The story’s “twist” (a crude term to apply to a movie like this, but never mind) does not need to be hidden from anybody who has taken even a passing interest in important cinema within the past 50 years. On the train trip home to Onomichi, Tomi falls fatally ill. The children are summoned home to be with her as she dies. So, does her death act as a cathartic wake-up call and turning point, after which the younger generation realises the error of its ways? Do the children begin to treat their one remaining parent a little better? Of course not: they weep a little, mouth all the appropriate platitudes about how their mother lived long and died peacefully, and then return to their lives in Tokyo.
Perhaps this description treats the children a little harshly, though. After all, their behaviour is merely symptomatic of the movie’s overall illustration: the inevitable transience of life. But surely, Ozu seems to say, there is still time to look back. Only the saintly Noriko really appreciates the depth of Shukishi’s loss, and they connect in a late scene which is probably the most nakedly emotional in all of Ozu’s work. These two characters, the most important in the movie, provide us with the hope that perhaps the schism between past and present can be satisfactorily reconciled.
Ozu was never a director to push the audience’s buttons with anything but the lightest possible touches, yet the sheer cumulative force of Tokyo Story is nothing short of brutal in its emotional impact. Which is not to say this is an angry or aggressive film. The serious and potentially depressing subject matter does not prevent Ozu from sharing with us his usual sense of humour. This is particularly the case during the magnificent final half hour, in which humour and sadness seem to become one and the same: little surprise, as the most acute forms of both always derive from the observation of truth. And no film maker ever observed truth better than this one.