Tokyo Story: anatomy of a classic

Seventy years later, what special qualities have made Tokyo Story so enduring? And why does this story of family and the generations resonate so strongly, even over and above Ozu’s other great films?

25 June 2020

By Jasper Sharp

Tokyo Story (1953)
  • Spoiler warning: This feature gives away the film’s plot

Considered a landmark of world cinema, it nonetheless prompted walk-outs from critics at a screening ahead of its premiere in the west in 1957 – and there were many in Japan who found Ozu outmoded too. What special qualities have made Tokyo Story so enduring? And why does this story of family and the generations resonate so strongly, even over and above Ozu’s other great films?

Reputations can be intimidating when it comes to approaching eminent landmarks of world cinema, especially ones that originated in a time, place and culture far from the viewer’s own.

There are no doubt many daunted by the lofty critical standing of Yasujiro Ozu’s most famous title, Tokyo Story (1953). Sight & Sound’s ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ poll in 2012 saw critics from across the world collectively voting it the top-ranked non-English-language title, placed in the number three position behind Vertigo (1958) and Citizen Kane (1941). It was voted best film ever in the magazine’s separate survey of directors, while an earlier poll conducted by Japan’s flagship film journal Kinema Junpo in 2009 saw local critics heralding it as the best ever domestic production, just ahead of Seven Samurai (1954).

Japanese poster for Tokyo Story

The regular appearance of Tokyo Story in such lists is curious, given how resolutely lowkey it is in its story and its telling. The original international title was Their First Trip to Tokyo, although it never appears to have been released under it anywhere, and the film does indeed follow an aged couple, Shukichi and Tomi, on their first trip to Japan’s capital from their sleepy seaside hometown of Onomichi to visit the families of their two eldest children, Koichi, a local doctor, and Shige, who runs a small beauty salon.

Rather than a rapturous family reunion, their presence is met with near indifference as they find themselves shuttled between the households of their unwelcoming offspring, who seem too preoccupied with their own lives to give them the time of day. The only family member who willingly devotes time and attention to them is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko, who lives alone after their middle son Shoji was killed during the war.

Sensing they are a burden, the parents decide to head home earlier than planned, but Tomi is suddenly taken ill on the return journey. On learning of their mother’s deteriorating condition by telegram, Koichi, Shige and Noriko rush down to Onomichi and spend their final moments with her before she passes away. Noriko stays on a little longer with Shukichi after the funeral, but even she has to return to her life in the city, leaving the old man to face his future alone.

Tokyo Story may lack the grandiose vision, dramatic heft and stylistic flamboyance one might expect from a work of its stature, but if its focus is on the quotidian, the mundane and the familiar, it is also on the universal. Its characters are neither heroes nor outlaws, but members of an ordinary middle-class family. Their individual behaviours and motives, no matter how apparently selfish, are instantly recognisable to anyone.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Tokyo Story belongs to a genre that, in the later postwar phase of his career, Ozu was almost exclusively associated with: the home drama. Its setup was loosely based on an earlier American film, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey. The idiosyncratic approach, however, is unmistakeably that of its maker, frequently analysed but seldom emulated.

Scenes unfold as a series of evenly lit just-off frontal compositions, shot using a fixed lens length of 50mm and from a low angle that flattens the image into near abstraction, making the human forms appear as inseparable elements within the grid-like lines of their household’s internal architecture. Individual shots never privilege any one perspective or gaze and characters often appear to peer enigmatically into the distance beyond the camera. Devices such as fades and dissolves are conspicuous by their absence, while tracking shots are rare and never dramatically motivated.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Everything is underplayed in the archetypical Ozu film, but everything from framing to pacing to every nuance of gesture or inflection within the dialogue was meticulously planned. In this we should not underestimate the role of Kogo Noda, Ozu’s long-term screenwriter on over half his works, from his debut The Sword of Penitence (1927) to his final film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), with whom he painstakingly hammered out every last detail of what ended up on screen. Ozu considered the screenplay as a blueprint to adhere to exactly, with every shot in the film and every movement within it preordained.

Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941)

The Ozu style is so instantly recognisable, because once its basic form had emerged and its hallmarks introduced, circa Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), the director spent the rest of his life refining it. That film, which depicts the different generations of an extended family brought together by the death of its patriarch and the offhand treatment of the widowed mother by her self-centred children over the ensuing year, might be seen as a precursor to Tokyo Story, but we can find others too.

Tokyo Story is the third of Ozu’s ‘Noriko trilogy’ of self-standing stories featuring an archetype named Noriko played by Setsuko Hara. In Late Spring (1949), she is the dutiful daughter reluctantly persuaded by her aunt to marry and leave the home she shares with her doting widower father. Early Summer (1951) again sees Noriko, this time living under the same roof as her parents and her brother’s family, as a single young woman pushed towards marriage, while in Tokyo Story, Noriko feels duty bound to live alone, wedded only to the memory of her deceased husband, despite pleas from the old couple she treats as blood relations to move on and start a new life.

This kind of intertextuality is emphasised by Ozu’s casting of the same performers within his work. Only 15 years older than Hara, Chishu Ryu played the father in Late Spring, her elder brother in Early Summer and her father-in-law in Tokyo Story, the last role highlighting the astonishing versatility of this omnipresent member of Ozu’s entourage, who was then only 47-years old. Her sister-in-law Shige in Tokyo Story is played by Haruko Sugimura, who specialised in shrewish or bossy roles for the director. She was Noriko’s hectoring aunt in the first of the trilogy, and prospective mother-in-law in the second.

Just as ageing fathers are named Shukichi in Ozu’s world, and the big brother of Early Summer and Tokyo Story is Koichi, we also have Minoru and Isamu as the names of Koichi’s two young sons in both, and also the siblings in Good Morning (1959). We might see the animated physical presence of the verbally reticent younger brother as disrupting the ordered compositions of Ozu’s family homes, and the elder’s petulant defiance of his parents laying bare the conflicts between individual desire and social etiquette suppressed by the grown-ups.

Good Morning (1959)

“Ozu-san found the gazes of children purer, more merciless, and crueller than those of adults,” the filmmaker Kiju Yoshida wrote in Ozu’s Anti-Cinema (1998, with an English translation in 2003), his reappraisal of a director seen as conservative and old-fashioned by himself and his colleagues at the turn of the 1960s. “Adults want children to be innocent and cute, but children simply behave as they please.”

Much mystique and obfuscation has been placed around Ozu, which has undoubtedly proven off-putting for those not familiar with Japan and its artistic traditions. Words and concepts like Zen, transcendentalism and that oft-cited term ‘mono no aware’, usually understood in terms of the pathos or transience of things, are often bandied about by critics, creating a smokescreen around the clear simplicity of his storytelling and technique.

Donald Richie, author of the first book on the director, Ozu: His Life and Films (1974), described the films as “formal and his formality is that of poetry, the creation of an ordered context that destroys habit and familiarity, returning to each word, to each image, its original freshness and urgency.” Despite arguing for the universality of Ozu’s work over its surface exoticism, Richie nonetheless falls back on the language of Japonisme, arguing that he was “close to the sumi-e ink drawing masters of Japan, to the masters of the haiku and the waka.”

Tokyo Story (1953)

Ozu was, nevertheless, a modernist, Richie argued. The low camera angle might coincide with the perspective of a viewer seated on a tatami mat (or, indeed, a carpet), but Richie points out its primary motivation as aesthetic, to remove the acute angles formed by the corners of the rooms that “would detract from a composition conceived as frontal”.

1st London Film Festival programme, 1957

Though often described as “the most Japanese of all the Japanese directors”, Ozu made no secret of the influence of Hollywood directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Harold Lloyd on his early films. Part of his mystification might be attributed to the head of Shochiku studios, where Ozu made all but three of his 54 features, who steadfastly dismissed calls for overseas screenings of its most revered director for fear that foreign audiences might not understand them, during a time when western film festivals had something of a blind spot for anything other than exotic period dramas like those of Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi.

And so Ozu, who worked almost exclusively in the field of contemporary dramas, or gendai-geki, became the last of the great masters of the classical era to make his name internationally. Tokyo Story was his first film to screen overseas, at the inaugural London Film Festival in 1957, where it was awarded the festival’s first ever Sutherland Trophy. The first wider retrospectives occurred outside Japan later, in 1963, the year of Ozu’s death on his 60th birthday on 12 December (the meticulous symmetry seen in his art was echoed in his life).

Critic John Gillett reported “violent disagreements” and “many walk-outs” in a viewing session prior to this official international premiere in 1957, and that the film historian and documentarist Paul Rotha had described it as “old-fashioned and dull”. There were plenty in Japan at the time who considered Ozu something of an old fuddy-duddy too. Shohei Imamura, who began his career as an assistant on Early Summer, The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (1952) and Tokyo Story, was so put off by the director’s hermetic presentation of middle-class family life and his exacting approach to directing that he jumped ship to the rival Nikkatsu company. He later claimed: “I wouldn’t just say I wasn’t influenced by Ozu. I would say I didn’t want to be influenced by him.”

Black Rain (1989)

Nonetheless, Imamura was clearly influenced enough to use Takashi Kawamata, the assistant cameraman on these Ozu films that he had worked on, to shoot his most Ozu-esque film, Black Rain (1989), a drama about hibakusha atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima, to invoke the cinematic golden age of the year of 1953 in which it is mainly set.

At the time, there were many in Japan who saw Ozu’s fastidious focus on the microcosm of the family as conservative, ahistorical, and intrinsically reactionary during a postwar decade of vast economic growth, urbanisation and re-internationalisation. Real-world historical events never seem to intrude in Ozu’s depictions of domesticity. What we witness are specific domestic setups, scenarios and patterns of behaviour presented as if preserved in amber.

As Richie describes: “In his later pictures, the whole world exists in one family, the characters are family members rather than members of a society, and the ends of the earth seem no more distant than the outside of the house”, although he draws attention to the home’s two main extensions, the school and the office. He fails to mention the bar, another home-from-home that features in many of Ozu’s films, and which in Tokyo Story affords Shukichi an opportunity to vent his disappointment about his offspring to an old friend who has moved up to the big city from his hometown.

The material realities of the outside world intrude in subtle ways. We see straight away, and we see that the parents see it too, although they may not say it out loud, that their children are not quite the success stories they had been led to believe. The physician son’s home and private practice and their daughter’s beauty salon are located in a rundown part of Tokyo. When Shige berates her husband for buying expensive bonbons for the older couple rather than cheaper rice crackers, we might see it as penny-pinching stinginess. When Noriko repeatedly pops across the corridor to borrow sake from a neighbour while playing host to her in-laws, the message is much clearer: life in postwar Tokyo is economically very tough and not at all glamorous.

In his analysis of the older director, Yoshida frames Ozu’s style not as a retreat into a world predicated on cultural and aesthetic traditions but a meta-critique of cinematic dramaturgy, a rejection of grand narratives and the artifice of cinema, observing that “Ozu-san’s films are really all about how to look at human beings from alternative points of view”. Despite its title, Yoshida argues, Tokyo Story is not a story about Tokyo, but can be read as a portrait of the old couple from the perspective of Tokyo.

The first images of the city – of chimneys billowing black smoke, a sign on a telephone pole advertising their son’s practice, ‘Hirayama Clinic’ (although at this point the viewer does not know the family’s name), and clothes on washing lines – are not necessarily those witnessed by the elderly couple as they arrive in Tokyo. Nor is the viewer provided with any recognisable sights of the city beyond the mundane urban sprawl around their offspring’s homes until over half an hour into the proceedings, when Noriko takes time off work to lead them on a tour of its more fashionable hotspots, their vantage point in the tour bus reflected by a camera whose movement creates a dramatic contrast with the fixed shots elsewhere.

Why, we might ask, is Tokyo Story so often singled out as the best among Ozu’s many other postwar treatments of family dynamics? Certainly it can be seen as the epitome of the stylistic approach of its director, then in his 50th year. Ozu described it as favourite among his own films. When it was voted second best domestic release of its year by Kinema Junpo, the director wrote succinctly in the magazine that “Through the growth of both parents and children, I described how the Japanese family system has begun to come apart,” before adding enigmatically, “This is one of my most melodramatic pictures.”

Tokyo Story (1953)

Melodrama seems a surprising word to describe a narrative that is essentially comprised of a number of separate episodes that, as Yoshida wrote, “do not dramatically converge into a major theme but are carefully arranged to simply represent everyday human lives.” However, despite the guileless simplicity of Ozu’s characters and their depiction, there is a timelessness in their behaviour that makes Tokyo Story so much more than a mere portrait of a generation gap at a specific point in time.

Modern life as characterised by the city exerts its own pressures on family life, its routines, its dynamics and its obligations – this much is still true today. The city changes, but people never do, their basic character types, their relationships, their interactions and their expectations remain recognisable across the ages.

Tokyo Story is in cinemas from 1 September 2023. It’s also available on BFI Player and BFI Blu-ray.

A Yasujiro Ozu season plays at BFI Southbank in September.

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free