Thursday, January 10, 2013

Yasujirō Ozu | Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story)

the disappointment
by Douglas Messerli
Kōgo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu (screenplay), Yasujirō Ozu (director) Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story) / 1953

The elderly couple with whom this film begins, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), certainly do not seem to be expecting too much as they prepare for a journey to Tokyo to visit their two children and daughter-in-law, catching a glimpse in Osaka, along the way, of yet another son. Like many old couples, they sit packing their bags, gently scolding one another and occasionally arguing about a missing object. A neighbor stops by, wishing them a good trip. Their children, we are told, have turned out, particularly in the post-war period—with one, Koichi (So Yamamura) becoming a pediatrician with two sons, and a daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimara) running a hairdressing salon. A second son in Tokyo has died during the war, leaving his wife, Noriko (Setsuko Hara) living in poverty; she works as an assistant in a trading company.

      The voyage is a long one, a trip the elderly parents have never made, but they seem in good spirits and look forward to encountering the children in the big and slightly frightening city.

      Even before they arrive at Koichi’s home we sense some tensions: as Koichi’s wife, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), busily cleans up, her elder son, Minoru, is irritated with her having moved his desk. He needs a place to study, he insists, to which she scoffs, “you never study.” When the grandparents do arrive, both the boy and his younger brother almost ignore them, accepting none of their loving attentions.

      The other members of the family gather at Koichi’s and Fumiko’s, each bringing small gifts (crackers, tea) but the dinner is a simple one. Noriko arrives from work a bit late, ready to help out in the kitchen, but her offers are dismissed by Fumiko and Shige, and it is clear that neither of the women is particularly fond of her.

       Indeed, both Shige and Noriko are made to feel, at dinner’s end, that they may have stayed too long, as both hurry home, leaving the older couple, despite their not feeling that tired, to retire to bed. Their bedtime conversation reveals their amazement that their doctor son lives in such an isolated and suburban location. He is clearly not as successful as they had thought him to be.

     The next day, Sunday, the entire family is scheduled to take a tour of downtown Tokyo, but a visit from the father of one of Koichi’s patients, reporting that his child’s fever remains high, forces Koichi to have to cancel the trip. His wife, she declares, is also busy and unable to take them around the city. The children, particularly the elder, are stubbornly angry at their father’s cancellation of their outing, with Minoru refusing even to take a walk with his grandmother. It is apparent that part of Minoru’s rude and disobedient behavior has to do with father’s continued absences. This is quite obviously not the only outing that has been terminated.

      In short, nothing much dramatically happens in these early scenes. In fact, one might argue, hardly anything happens. But in the subtle gestures and flow of events, Ozu is telling us something far more profound. And particularly when the elderly parents change venue, staying with Shige and her husband, these issues become more evident. If Koichi has been polite but preoccupied, Shige is clearly openly selfish and penurious, scolding her companion for bringing home “expensive” cakes for her parents; crackers are “good enough” for them. Shige has even less time to entertain her parents than Koichi. Perhaps they will attend a theater performance that evening, she proclaims, but nothing comes of it, and the couple is stranded in the Kaneko home. Refusing to do anything for her parents, Shige calls Noriko, suggesting her sister-in-law take a day off from her job to tour them through the city.

     Unlike the blood relatives of Shukichi and Tomi, Noriko is absolutely pleased to be to tour the couple, ending the day in her simple, one-room apartment, where she serves up a full meal along with borrowed sake. Clearly she cares for the couple, who are also pleased for the existence of a displayed photograph of their long-dead son.

     Koichi and Shige, meanwhile, conspire to send the parents out of town, the two sharing the costs in order that their parents may stay at a hot spring spa at Atami, while they go on with their daily lives. Despite the parents’ hopes to spend time with their family in Tokyo, they are suddenly being sent away to live in isolation just as they have since their family has grown up.

     Although the views from the spa are quite lovely, the hotel where they are staying has a busy night life with young people loudly partying, allowing the couple little sleep. The hotel halls are filled with flirting women and men, beer bottles strewn throughout. Outside one door stand only the couple’s empty shoes, making clear just how alienated they are from the world in which they have discovered themselves. The next morning, in self-reflexive acceptance of the facts, they determine to return to Tokyo in order to travel back to their distant house. As they rise from the seawall upon which they are seated, the stolid Tomi momentarily feels dizzy and cannot stand: Ozu’s subtle indication not only that she may not be well, but that the inattentive responses of her children have had their effect!

     If until this moment, Tokyo Story has been an extremely polite, even conventional satire of shifting family relationships, it now becomes a tale of disappointment and pained resignation that the children they have raised have grown up without qualities with which they had hoped to have instilled in them. While many Japanese works play out generational conflicts—most of them centered on values of the past as opposed to the present—Ozu’s work brilliantly escapes such simple dichotomies, making it clear that it is not just generational changes at work here, but failures in personality. Shige, shocked by the couple’s return, scolds them for not staying at the spa, lying even (although Ozu, once again, goes out of his way not to not confirm the obvious) in telling them that she is hosting a gathering of beauticians in her house and has no longer any room for them.

     Like proud vagabonds, now suddenly homeless, Tomi determines to stay the night with the loving Noriko, while Shukichi visits the home of an old friend from his hometown, hoping to be invited in for the night. His friends would gladly have him, but rent out their spare room. His friend Hattori (Hisao Toake), meeting up with another old friend, invites Shukichi to a local bar, where the three proceed to get terribly drunk. In that drunken state, Hattori berates his son, while the other mourns his children’s death in war; and for a few moments, Shukichi seems in agreement with them before turning on the other two to declare that perhaps they are all “expecting too much,” that life in the giant city is economically difficult and allows the citizens little time for anything or anyone else. The police ultimately return Shukichi back to Shige’s house. Her anger far out-weighs any concern for her father’s condition or health.

     At Noriko’s, at the other hand, Tomi is served a good meal and is given money (much needed by the younger woman) for their travels. The elderly woman is overwhelmed and similarly is joyful to be sleeping in the very bed where her son slept, and in appreciation—and clearly with bitterness for her other childrens’ treatment—quietly cries herself to sleep. Noriko’s kindness proves, if nothing else, the lie of Shukichi’s explanation of events; if anything things are far more difficult for Noriko that for the two siblings.

     So does the couple return home. But the rest of the family soon hears that at Osaka, meeting their son Keizo (Shiro Osaka), Tomi has become sick and has had to spend a couple of days there before proceeding home. Soon after, Koichi and Shige receive telegrams reporting that their mother is seriously ill, and they begrudgingly prepare to travel to the home where they have never returned. When called, Noriko joins the trek to her husband’s childhood home.

     Tomi dies within the night, cared for by Kyoko—the couple’s unmarried, school-teacher daughter who has remained in the small to care for them—and by Noriko. Keizo arrives too late. At the dinner after the funeral ceremony, Shige demands from Kyoko two of her mother’s kimonos, as she, Koichi, and Keizo all plan their hurried returns to Toyko and Osaka. Only Noriko remains for a few days, caring, once more, for her father-in-law and helping Kyoko. While the parents have said very little in open condemnation of the selfish children, the quiet Kyoko, once they have left, speaks out to Noriko of their despicable behavior. Noriko responds far too kindly, insisting that everyone has their own life to lead, resulting predictably to a separation between parents and their children. But again, her own selflessness, reveals the lie to her niceties; and when Kyoko, who has spoken hardly any words in the entire film, declares life to be “disappointing,” even the gentle Noriko can only agree.

      Recognizing Noriko’s kindnesses to both him and his wife, the now widowed Shukichi encourages his daughter-in-law, as Tomi has formerly done, to forget his son and remarry. In appreciation for her love, he awards her Tomi’s old-fashioned watch, a gift which links her to the elderly couple’s past while simultaneously freeing her for a new future, permitting her to move forward in time.

      As critics have noted, however, even here Ozu does not simplify his narrative as he might have if he ended merely with Noriko traveling back to Tokyo to face her own future, but, rather, pulls his camera back into the bay outside Shukichi’s window where we see a ferry, as in the very first scene, shuttling back and forth. His life will be a lonely one, as he tells his nosey neighbor, “Living alone like this, the days will get very long.” But Ozu demonstrates, as well, that life will go on; things predictably continue.

      What began as a subtle satire on generational changes, accordingly, ends, in Ozu’s stunning vision, with a statement of both tragic resignation (for Shukichi) and transformative resilience (for Noriko and Kyoko). The others are now free to lead their very ordinary lives.  

Los Angeles, January 10, 2013

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