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Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story (1953) [REWATCH]

"It's dawn and the sun is out. It's going to be hot today, isn't it?"

The challenge one faces when attempting to write about a legend is that firstly, the legend is well known and therefore many have studied it to death, and secondly, the legend is worshipped, and therefore one has to find a way to bypass its status of a masterpiece and tackle it on a more personal level. The legend is Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, and the personal approach is perhaps the only way to write about the film and still create an interesting piece of text.

I first watched Tokyo Story back in March 2013. I'm quite sure it was my first Ozu film and a sort of gateway to Japanese cinema. It was by no means the first Japanese film I have ever seen but certainly the first of this kind. I remember liking it very much but still leaving with a 'that's it?' sort of impression. Rewatching it now, almost 8 years later, I confirm - yes, that's it! But after numerous other Ozus, Naruses, Yamadas, Goshos, Shimizus et al, that 'it' took on some inexplicable, deep meaning. Back in the day I watched other Ozu films and liked them more than Tokyo Story. Perhaps I still do. But that's beside the point.

I come from a very small family and one that seems to get smaller each year. I never felt that way before but recently I've been finding myself moved by cinematic depictions of families, especially in Japanese cinema. Of course, it's best when the depicted family is a perfect one - that's when my heart starts racing. But usually, this is not the case. As much as the importance of both love and family have grown in my eyes tremendously, the idea that family is family no matter how bad its members are is largely lost on me. It's too idealistic even to me. However, the idea that a black sheep can still reunite with their loved ones... When depicted skillfully and with a lot of heart like in Yoji Yamada's About Her Brother, now that's touching and relatable in some ways. But Tokyo Story is not about that.

The most surface-level meaning to Tokyo Story, to put it as ambiguously as possible, is that one should keep close to their family before it's too late. Then, you have a lot of other observations and meanings to the film, both apparent and hidden, that I'd rather not mention in detail here so as not to ruin the experience of those of you who still haven't seen this film (seriously, what are you waiting for?!). I'm not intending to enter into polemics with the film's message. As long as I believe that you ought to keep close to those you love, not all of us are fortunate enough to have their beloved ones in their family. Another point, children are entitled to their own lives and do not owe anything to their parents - a point the film is not denying. I believe the film is downright saying this but still focusing on the feelings of the parents. That's perhaps what makes it so powerful and humane.

Ozu's approach is original even though it's just your usual shōshimin eiga that was quite popular at the time. But Ozu ignores the 180-degree rule. Ozu tells the story like nobody before him but many after. The things he talks about - sure, say, the idea that the bonds of love are stronger than the bonds of blood. Naruse did that as early as in 1932 in his beautiful silent No Blood Relation. But the way Ozu talks about it. Or rather how he doesn't talk about it at all but shows it - that's interesting. And how Chishu Ryu's character copes with loss. How he utters "It's dawn and the sun is out. It's going to be hot today, isn't it?". There is not a hint of melodrama in that but it hits you hard all the same. This is pure melancholy.

So perhaps Mizoguchi was right to praise Ozu and say what Ozu does is much more mysterious than Mizoguchi's own films. After all, Ozu's films are, or at least this film - Tokyo Story is, pretty straightforward. But Ozu's films are all about life. And what's more mysterious than life?

Two weeks ago I rewatched Tokyo Story, a film mostly composed of gorgeous static shots with the camera placed relatively low so as to imitate the point of view of a person sitting on the floor. I especially loved the pillow shot portraying three-or-so women in kimonos standing on the bridge. Quite breathtaking! All actors give convincing performances. Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama create perhaps the most charming couple of all time! And Setsuko Hara - what a charming flower she is! A morning glory of film! And definitely a more presentable morning glory than that of my own. Oh, how I love Japanese films that evoke mono no aware. Makes me want to watch Shimizu's Ornamental Hairpin again. Makes me want to watch other Ozu films, other movies from the Noriko Trilogy. Makes me want to watch movies. The journey of a cinephile is a long one, so it's good to get back to a familiar place from time to time.