10 March 2006

100 films: Tokyo monogatari

tokyo story
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starring: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, and Haruko Sugimura
written by: Kôgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu
directed by: Yasujiro Ozu
NR, 136 min, 1953, Japan

An elderly couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) travels to Tokyo to spend time with the children they haven't seen in years. They children, while happy to see them, are unable (or unwilling) to clear enough time in their schedules to accommodate the visit, passing their parents around like bothersome orphans or leaving them to fend for themselves in Tokyo. Eventually, they tire of Tokyo and head home early, only to have the mother fall deathly ill upon their return. So the children must travel from Tokyo to be with their dying mother, inconvenience be damned, despite her explicit request that they not trouble themselves because of her. They do not, for even a minute, consider honoring that request. To do so would be the ultimate insult to the woman who gave you life, but still she makes the request. Mothers are funny that way.

At first glance, Tokyo monogatari comes across as somewhat boring, filling long spaces with little to no conflict or action or activity. In short, nothing happens for significant periods of time, which can tend to cause problems for less than attentive audience members. The story itself doesn't exactly lend itself to the sort of things that grab your attention and Yasujiro Ozu is unwilling to needlessly ramp up the action with cheap ploys like gunshots, chase scenes, or camera movement--any camera movement. If there's a shot in the film that isn't done by a locked camera on a tripod[1], I missed it. To say this is a film that doesn't mesh with the MTV visual style is the understatement of the year. And thank goodness for that.

Ozu, being a master filmmaker in the classical sense, spends his time composing shots that speak volumes, rather than forcing the action with camera movement or edits designed to tell the audience what they should think. Few directors have the courage necessary to attempt such a passive style, usually out of fear of losing an audience, but the ones who can pull it off are universally regarded as the masters of the medium. Such is the case with Ozu, who fills his shots with such a multitude of details and information that to cut away would rob us of the simple pleasure of allowing the story to envelop us slowly, drawing us in with a quiet confidence that this is something so good, so important, that to draw attention to it would cheapen it somehow. In a way, it feels closer to the truth.

The theme Ozu explores, that of the splintering of the fundamental Japanese family, is at the same time uniquely Asian and universal. The level of respect afforded to the elders in Asian cultures is well-known, so for these parents to travel such distances only to be ignored by their children is a bit startling. There's a small moment where we learn they have yet to even meet their school-age grandchild, which would indicate a certain amount of time has passed since the family has been together, yet the parents are left alone in the house for hours on end, quietly passing the time. Later, the children decide it would be in everyone's best interest to send the parents to a nearby spa for several days, completely ignoring the fact that no parent travels great distances to visit their children with the secret ambition to go to a spa instead. The children are indeed selfish, as children usually are, but are made to look even worse by Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of one of the children. This is a woman who isn't a blood relative, yet has been faithfully mourning for years, partly out of fear of disappointing her in-laws. It is Noriko who spends the most time with them, providing them with her time and hospitality. It says a lot when the most faithful members of a family are the ones who've entered by choice. The rest of them are too caught up in their own lives to pay their parents much heed.

Therefore, they are caught completely off-guard by the failing health of their mother, even though it has been clear to the audience all along. Thanks in large part to their selfishness, they cost themselves a valuable opportunity to spend some last moments with her, as she is in a coma by the time they arrive. She passes before they have a chance to say goodbye, and that's something they'll have to live with for the rest of their lives. It is a moving and heartbreaking finale, and one that I expect gains resonance the older you are when you watch it. Even so, it's a powerful reminder that loved ones can go at any time. You never know which moment will be the last one. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll give my parents a call...

[1] This means that no only does Ozu not employ a crane or a steadicam or a dolly, but he also does not use basic techniques like panning or tilting the camera.