Classic Film Club: 'Tokyo Story'

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film that he’s never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week, Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’

‘Tokyo Story’ (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

This film is widely considered to be Yasujiro Ozu’s finest, if not the crowning masterpiece of Japanese cinema. It makes regular appearances in the top ten films of all time, and has the dubious distinction of sending the American critic Roger Ebert into floods of tears. I immediately come up against what I expect to be a regular stumbling block throughout this process: the weight of expectation. It’s unlikely that any film could withstand such intense hype, particularly not one as gentle and self-effacing as 'Tokyo Story'.The plot is simple: an elderly Japanese couple, Chishu and Chieko, travel from their home city to visit the children in Tokyo. Upon arriving, they realise that their children have moved on, they have their own lives and are too wrapped up and indifferent to spend time doting on the old couple.The first thing that strikes me is the film’s formal daring, an aesthetic template utterly at odds with the mood of the time – the film must have seemed otherworldly when compared with its samurai contemporaries, and especially with the romances and film noir coming out of America. Ozu presents static, beautifully composed shots, often of empty rooms into and out of which his characters move. They are often filmed face-on, talking directly to the camera, and there is barely any off-screen or overlapping dialogue. In a move now familiar from decades of Ozu-inspired independent cinema, he often cuts away from the ‘action’ to shots of the city outside, factories and passing ships, shopfronts and people on the move.The film is beautifully constructed, exacting in its physical and emotional detail. The characters are still completely relatable, their struggles, disappointments and indecisions still deeply relevant. The final act – as the film shifts from social comment into a kind of subtly played tragic melodrama – is quietly devastating, and painfully honest.But ‘Tokyo Story’ is a film which demands patience, and complete surrender to its mood of gentle melancholy. It is a film made to be viewed in the cinema, with none of the distractions of modern life. Viewed at home, it struggles to hold the attention, and though one can’t help but admire its visual beauty and emotional resonance it nevertheless buckles under the weighty burden of anticipation.


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