Despite the international popular acclaim for Rashomon, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, Ran, and even Gojira, the Tokyo Story remains the greatest Japanese film ever made. It’s a simple and slow-paced film, the type many of the more aggressive film critics of today would condemn it for being languid and indulgent, just as they had condemned Lost in Translation for being slown. But slowness isn’t a sin, and especially not for Yasujiro Ozu film.
Ozu didn’t just tell stories or capture performances onto film, he made portraitures, both literally and figuratively. He showed his audiences not only how they lived, through an unmoving camera focused on one or two individuals, but moreso how they were living and why through their ordinary days. And the ordinary is the source of the power of the Tokyo Story, for it powerfully channelled the extraordinary in the ordinary. The ordinary is, as Ozu’s fellow “Edokko” Yukio Mishima wrote in his 1950 novel Thirst for Love,
The highest point at which human life and art meet is in the ordinary. To look down on the ordinary is to despise what you can’t have. Show me a man who fears being ordinary, and I’ll show you a man who is not yet a man.
A simple trip to the city by two loving parents could surprisingly reveal how extraordinarily cruel and selfish one’s children have turned out to be. A misfortune that leads an elderly couple to spent more time than they’d scheduled with their widowed daughter-in-law could reveal an extraordinarily courageous and caring person, who could easily dispel the adage that “blood is thicker than water.” Swift katana duels or fleeing crowds set ablaze in radioactive blaze by a giant lizard, these things pale in comparison to a person turning away his or her dying parents because he or she is too busy with work to care. Of course, a film like the Tokyo Story would be impossible without its setting and zeitgeist of postwar Japan that Ozu decisively capitalized upon.
The great difference between prewar and postwar Japan, as identified by filmmakers like Ozu and writers such as Yasunari Kawabata, was not Americanization anymore than it was Japanese Europeanization during late-19th and early-20th centuries, but the obliteration of manners, etiquette, morals, and values in favour of populist greed. That is, while class stratification and class rule survived the war, and swapped the nobility for the industrial capitalist class, everybody began to step on everybody else’s toes to earn the money to survive even if they stepped on their own parents, as depicted in the Tokyo Story. But to show how far Japan has gone and lost its dignity, artists such as Ozu had to show Japanese audiences the cancer hidden between healthy bones and the unexpected kindness of strangers. Artists like Ozu in postwar Japan had to be catchers in the rye. They had to be sensitive to the extraordinary in the ordinary, and to do so each critical voice had to realize him or herself within that mundane ordinary in order to see how bleak life had become amidst progress.
Anyways, for audiences that just want to see a straightforward drama, the Tokyo Story is an excellent choice because it’s filled with memorable scenes that were calculated to shock you with disgust even 60 years on, scenes that will perhaps make you cry, and music that will stay with you.