Tokyo Story Review

Tokyo Story is a 1953 Japanese drama written/directed by Yasujirô Ozu and co-written by Kôgo Noda. The film has received critical praise in the past half century, with 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a perfect score from film critic Roger Ebert and was voted the best movie of all time by a poll of directors in 2012's issue of Sight and Sound Magazine.

An aging couple visits their children in Tokyo to reacquaint and bond. However, the visit is a disappointment, since both their children and grandchildren are either too busy to spend time with them or have grown distant after so many years apart.

The themes of family and estrangement go hand in hand as this broken family tries to find a way to put itself back together and not really succeeding.

Estrangement is also linked to the more prominent theme of the film; generational differences. At its core the movie is about the division between the new generations and the ones that came before it; the children are estranged from the couple and the grandchildren are often in conflict with their parents. What's most interesting, however, is that the film treats these differences like they're perfectly normal; the overarching theme is that the gap and coldness that ultimately forms between each generation is an unavoidable, though unfortunate, outcome. That's a message that I don't think I've ever heard from a movie before and it made me think about whether or not it might be true.

Even though the characters aren't given much depth or backstory, they feel like real people with strong personalities. The husband and wife are gentle souls with kind hearts and their children range from overwhelmed, but loyal to their parents to as cold as an estranged daughter could be. The one character who is given an extra layer to her is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the couples' daughter in-law. She's the only one of their children who actually treats them with respect and love, constantly treating them with kindness and keeping them company. What makes her interesting is that she's the wife of their blood related son who died serving in WW2 which gives her a melancholic air which is covered by a smiling, happy woman. When it all comes out in the final moments of the movie it's really powerful and packs a huge punch.

The pacing is extremely slow, mostly because Ozu films almost everything, even scenes where nobody is talking and just going around getting work done. This could be to establish the homely environment so that when it's ruptured by the arrival of the grandparents and the ripple effect that comes with it, we can notice things changing.

I feel like I can't properly judge Japanese acting due to the language barrier; Japanese has its own unique inflections that might carry a lot of weight for a native speaker or second-language learner, but mean nothing for a man who's never spoken Japanese in his life. It really does sound like they say everything in the exact same tone, no matter the context. However, the actors are good enough to carry a diverse range of facial expressions.

What's intriguing about this film is that it purposefully breaks the 180 degree rule. If you don't know what that is, it's a rule of cinematography when shooting conversations which states that between two characters there is an invisible line that the camera must not cross. You can shoot over the should or slightly to the side in between the two, but you are never to cross the line and have the actor look directly at the camera, where the other actor is. This is used to draw us more into the characters, observing their mannerisms and how they speak to one another. It's almost like they're talking to us; as such, it prompts us to pay more attention to the social cues in the face, body, voice and dialogue. The rest of the cinematography is beautiful, with every shot so well composed and balanced it could be a painting.

I couldn't tell you how accurate the costume and set designs were for post-war Japan, but they look good. The costumes do have that "this was made for a movie/high school play" kind of look, but ultimately it works fine. Some of the sets feel claustrophobic, like a house hallway that looks a bit too thin. This could be adding to the tensity of the story, however tightly spaced sets would normally be used for a horror film, to emphasize a feeling of being trapped. This isn't a story about trapped people or even frightened people, so I have to wonder why this particular decision was made (if you have any interpretations let me know in a comment or something).

The film is silent throughout except for the opening credits and the ending. This is used to not only give a sense of realism, therefore pulling us into the world more thoroughly, but to add to the senses of tension and melancholy. If sad music played while the grandfather's drunken friend talked about his heartbreaking disappointment with his son it would've detracted from the emotion of the moment. If uneasy music played as the father had to go to work instead of spending time with the grandparents, the subtlety would be lost and it wouldn't be as heart breaking when the grandparents finally figure out they're unwanted because the audience would know they're unwanted.

Summary: Tokyo Story is a simple, yet powerful tale of divided generations, broken families, heartache and love. It's at once an intriguing time capsule of Japanese cinema for its unique mise en scene choices and a relevant tale of enjoying the ones they love while they're still around to hug. It's not one I'd watch all the time, but I recommend seeing it at least once, if not twice.



  1. Connor, you mentioned the close trapped hallway scene as usually reserved for a horror movie. Here are a couple things you might think about. The first is given the topic of the movie it would convey to me that the characters have tunnel vision or themselves trapped in their paradigms they don't seem able to break out of. ??? Could this be?

    The long narrow hallwaymight also represent the feeling of isolation and disconnect each character was feeling. Again, having not seen the movie ylu would be a better judge of whether or not this is a possibility.

    The next item is something I can speak to having visited Asia for 3 weeks several years ago. There are so many people in China, Japan, they have limited space to live. Plus they are physicallly smaller people so they don't need as much space as we do. Especially with the Japanese they are satisfied with small, minimalism, in their daily lives. They truly amaze me as they are so organized and efficient despite but probably because of the issue of space. So perhaps if the movie was intended for a Japanese audience it would help them with their credibility with their audience. Just a thought.


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