Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Eight

#8 — Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, 1953)
There are few films in the canon of necessary classics as quiet, tender, and elegiac as Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Accurate as that description may be, emphasizing the fulsome quiet of the film obscures the hints of darkness to it, the willingness to frankly address familial emotions not often seen on screen, especially at the time of the film’s release, when dysfunction among relatives was still more often presented as quirky rather than truly damaging. Among its other many unique strengths, Tokyo Story is willing to suggest that affection isn’t an automatic among parents and children. Indifference and disappointment can manifest just as assuredly — maybe even more easily — than enduring devotion. Life is a blessing. It’s also a long, slow march through an existence that is often lesser than was expected, or maybe even promised.

Tokyo Story is inspired by Leo McCarey’s 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow, which concerns an elderly couple struggling to find a place to live together after they’ve lost their home. The situation is not quite so dire in Ozu’s film (at least not initially), which doesn’t undercut its poignancy. It might even be argued that the comparative simplicity of the conflicts heightens the heartbreak at the core of the film. In this case, the elderly couple (Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama) take a vacation to Tokyo to visit two of their children and their families. Rather than a warm welcome, the couple is greeted with thinly veiled irritation, often manifesting as attempts to shuffle them off to different locales, ostensibly so they make the most of their vacation but really to keep them out of the hair of their grown children. The film sidesteps any risk of becoming an act of cold-hearted cruelty against the characters by showing that they have their own misgivings about family, speaking with some candor about the ways their children simply haven’t measured up.

The elements of the film tiptoe towards melodrama, especially with a plot turn that arrives in the third act. And yet that is not Ozu’s play. He is observational, careful, astute, and gently sympathetic, albeit in a somewhat chilly way with that last quality. He doesn’t force a perspective on the viewer, preferring to depict his scenarios with a delicate intimacy and assuming the honesty of the assembled moments will carry the film. That is indeed the case, as Tokyo Story is like a restful dream of a heart so wounded it is losing its capacity to care at all. What grace exists comes in the smallest, seemingly most insignificant encounters. To a degree, they carry extra weight because of their simplicity, these acts of kindness that presume to no goal or endpoint. They are overtures unburdened by selfishness. This is what truly sets them apart, far more than any imposed profound significance. Ozu’s static camera conveys a sort of passivity of authorial voice that ultimately communicates for more than fussier filmmakers making their presence know with every shudder of the lens and every swoop of the dolly. The director is capturing life. It has enough complication and drama inherent to it. There’s no need to intrude.

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