Often topping lists of the best films of all time, and a great influence on many great directors of the last half century, not least for its purity of expression, this remains one of the most approachable and moving of all cinema’s masterpieces. Furthermore, Ozu’s style – with its so-called ‘pillow shots’ (introductory shots of yet-unhabited rooms), low, static camera position, unhurried pacing and elaborately composed frames – has come to look, in an age of refreshed minimalism, more and more modern. Also, his main interest – how ordinary human emotions are expressed in the context of the changing modern family – has become ever more fundamental, relevant and richly rewarding.
Ozu’s is a cinema of cumulative impact. The film’s early scenes delve into the cluster of families around Tomi and Shukishi – busy doctor Koichi; no-nonsense hair-salon owner Shige; sweet widowed daughter-in-law Noriko – observing their variously neglectful or dutiful relations with little or no introduction. Shukishi goes on a sake binge with old pals and they discuss their estrangement from, and disappointment with, their offspring. You could say that learning to deal with disappointment is the philosophical, even religious, heart of ‘Tokyo Story’. And the way Ozu builds up emotional empathy for a sense of disappointment in its various characters is where his mastery lies.
Not that the film is without irony, lightheartedness or downright comedy – ‘No Weddings and a Funeral’, anybody? Ozu had fun – and an estimated 43 bottles of sake – collaborating with scriptwriter Kogo Noda on ‘Tokyo Story’, and his films are as full of spontaneous insights and significant personal detail as those of Ozu-admired Hollywood comedians Ernst Lubitsch or Leo McCarey. But, like Hitchcock, Ozu planned and storyboarded everything with minute precision; no cutaway to a stone lantern or line of washing is accidental and the slow arc of his film must be attentively imbibed for the film’s overwhelming force to be truly felt.
None of this would be true, of course, were it not for the strength of the performances, and ‘Tokyo Story’ is remarkable for the balance and richness of the ensemble playing by such Ozu regulars as Chishu Ryu (as Shukishi) and, especially, the marvellous, eminently graceful Setsuko Hara whose line, ‘Everyone has to look after their own life first’, is all the more shocking coming as it does from one of the most radiantly selfless characters in the history of cinema.