Directed by: Yasujirō Ozu
Starring: Chisū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura
Tokyo Story is frequently rated as the greatest family drama of all time, its generational conflicts and character arcs universally relevant. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a certified fresh score of 100% while its audience score concurs at 93%. IMDb’s audience rates the film as 8.2/10, putting it on their list of “Top 250 Movies of All Time.”
included Tokyo Story in its number four spot on its 2022 list of “The Greatest Films Ever Made.” More personally, Flickchart, the website I use to rank every movie I’ve ever seen, specifically recommended Tokyo Story as the greatest movie that I’ve NEVER seen. Oblogatory was specifically made for movies like this, so I paid yet more rental fees to Janus Films and The Criterion Collection, queueing up this mid-century drama.
Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama are grandparents who live in the western countryside of Japan along with Kyōko, their youngest of five children. Now retired, the couple plans to visit Tokyo for the first time because three of their children live there. Along the way, they’ll stop in Osaka to see their fourth child, an aspiring baseball player. Everything is pleasant upon their arrival, but the couple soon finds out that their children have little time for them: one is a town doctor, one runs her own beauty parlor, and the baseball player has a day job as a railroad scheduler. While this situation isn’t anyone’s fault, the children don’t make much of an effort to change the status quo.
As events unfold, the audience learns that the grandparents perhaps don’t deserve the effort anyway. The one exception is Noriko, the Hirayama’s daughter-in-law whose husband died during WWII, who bends over backwards to accommodate them. Is this one interaction enough to warm this icy family, or have lifetimes of unappreciative indifference frozen the bonds forever?
“Had I only known…” is a theme I wasn’t expecting to shred my heart as I started this movie. Literally every character feels their life is a disappointment—but only because their actions towards each other were and continue to be reactive. The oldest son, for instance, is extremely busy tending to his patients and doesn’t have time for his wife and sons, much less his visiting parents. My first reaction was, “You knew they were coming! Set aside some time or find a substitute.” Later, however, the grandfather reveals that he put a ton of pressure on his oldest to succeed and bemoans that his son is ONLY a suburban doctor. No wonder the son doesn’t want to be around! Obviously, he’s still working hard for his father’s approval, unknowingly alienating his OWN children and continuing the cycle.
Noriko, the daughter-in-law, is the only character who has the wisdom to step outside of the situation and care for her parents regardless of her past. It’s not easy, and no one in her late husband’s family necessarily deserves her kindness, but Noriko sees all too well the pain inflicted by past mistakes or complexes.
If you think that sounds complicated, I only described two of the characters’ dilemmas here, but the Hirayamas have FIVE children, and the movie handles each sibling’s life and pain with equal nuance and care.
The effect is marvelous. Not only does it engage the audience with its intricate, realistic family dynamic, it also serves as a warning to those watching: Don’t let your family become this. The message shook me out of my stupor with its profound sadness. If my family, nuclear or extended, treated me in this way, I’d lose a loving support system and life anchor. I certainly have my differences with my relatives, and, while I’ve grown past some personal demons, I have yet to conquer all the familial wounds passed down by generations of old. Regardless, if I approach my family members with empathy, oftentimes I find they’re coming from a similar position, working past their own character flaws or demons. That a 70-year-old foreign film can perfectly encapsulate all this and present it in a relevant manner speaks to the profound truth Tokyo Story contains.
NOTE: I fully realize that some people’s family members are toxic and that interacting with them isn’t wise or healthy. In that case, Tokyo Story could serve as a litmus test, in which a viewer might think, “these characters treat their parents with contempt over THAT? They’d go feral if they ever met MY relatives!”
Yes, but only once they’re dragged in front of the screen, eyes peeled open like A Clockwork Orange test subject. Tokyo Story is the quintessential “important” movie. You know the type: it’s artsy, it’s been heaped with awards, it makes everyone who watches it cry and call their mother—but it doesn’t grab you. A nuanced, aching portrait of a quietly broken family hardly seems appealing after a long day at work.
For comparison, I have a couple of friends who have refined cinematic tastes, but keep pushing Moonlight down their Netflix queue, dreading the day autoplay picks it. They know it’ll be good (because it is); they know they’ll enjoy it; they just can’t muster up the mental energy to engage with it. Tokyo Story will likely be many people’s version of Moonlight because it’s black-and-white cinematography, measured pace, and focus on Japanese hospitality customs requiring active viewership. If you have the gumption to press play anyway, this film will thoughtfully reward you with realistic, complex storytelling refreshingly free of melodrama.