by Mel Valentin
Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story" comes with extremely high expectations, given its critical reputation (it's polled in "Sight & Sound's" top-ten in consecutive decades). Instead, viewers are likely to find a film heavy on polemics and pedantry, and light on subtlety, with co-writer and director Ozu needlessly repeating his themes "ad nauseum" in an unnecessary, 40-minute coda that would fit neatly into a modern-day soap opera. "Tokyo Story," in fact, has a perfect, "natural" ending, with Ozu almost admitting as much to himself and his audience. At the 110-minute mark, "Tokyo Story" fades to black, suggesting the end credits are about to roll. Think again.Tokyo Story's plot construction is simple, if elegantly executed, through the first two-third of the film: a retired couple, Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama, respectively, both perfectly cast), quietly, humbly, living their last years in the Japanese countryside, visit their adult children in the rapidly recovering (from the recent war), modernizing Tokyo.
"Sadly, not the masterpiece critics claim it to be."
To the couple's bitter disappointment, they discover that modern living in Tokyo has transformed their children into egotistical, self-centered, materialist adults. Their eldest son is a neighborhood doctor who runs his practice out of his home. His son sees his grandparents as a mild nuisance, showing little interest in spending time with them. The retired couple's daughter, a beautician running a semi-prosperous beauty shop, is even more self-centered than the doctor son. She openly, disrespectfully, shows her disinterest in her parents.
There is one ray of hope for the retired couple: the retired couple's daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara, luminous in an understated, sympathetic performance). She displays the traditional values the retired couple cherishes, not to please them, but as a central part of her identity. Noriko, almost a decade after the end of World War II mourns her late husband, a soldier in the Japanese army. The plot follows the couple as they try to balance their innate, simple humility with their children's self-involved callousness, with increasingly disastrous results. At the end of their trip, the couple return home, their reconciliation with their children tinged with regret and face-saving (what a Westerner might consider hypocritical).
The retired couple boards a train for their return to their country home, reality lessons learned; the screen fades to black. Ozu, however, apparently unsure, or insecure, as to whether his audience has fully grasped his themes (i.e., generational conflict, materialism/consumerism vs. tradition values, community vs. individuality, etc.) inserts an unnecessary plot complication, terminal illness. From there, the audience is forced to witness the character's slow, agonizing death, and its eventual repercussions, with the Hirayama clan gathering one last time at the country home. Repercussions follow, with the adult children given one last opportunity to set aside their egotism, and show humility and compassion.
These last scenes are marred by interminable repetition: the same themes, the same characters, the same character interactions, with none of the adult children displaying hidden depths or reserves in the final moments. Ozu, along with the protagonist, might mourn the passing of long cherished values, but by that point, he's also pushed audience interest and tolerance for his pedantry to the breaking point (and beyond).Sadly, "Tokyo Story" can't be, and shouldn't be, considered a "masterpiece," not by any conventional meaning of the word. In this case, the critics were and continue to be wrong about "Tokyo Story." If only Ozu had trusted his audience to uncover the themes and subtext for themselves, then perhaps, just perhaps, the word "masterpiece" might be appropriate.
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originally posted: 05/28/05 18:28:11