Wednesday, 5 July 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Tokyo Story (1953)

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Yasujirō Ozu.

Cast: Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyōko Kagawa, Eijirō Tōno, Nobuo Nakamura, Shirō Ōsaka.

"I'm gonna whack that kid so good when he rides past again."
SOME films sneak up on you.

When talking about Tokyo Story, that's not just a summation of how the simplistic plot or deceptive pacing of Ozu's gentle examination of the widening generation gap in post-war Japan wins you over. It's also a description of the film's lot in critical terms over more than six decades.

Derided as "too Japanese" upon release in 1953, it finally found its way to the UK in 1957, winning the British Film Institute's inaugural Sutherland Trophy in 1958. It didn't make its way to American screens until 1964, by which time Ozu was dead.

In fact, it was only after screenings in the US in the early '70s that the film's reputation as one of the greatest of all time began to emerge. It took until 1992 for it to make the top 10 of esteemed film critics' Sight & Sound list, and 2012 for it to top the corresponding directors' list. That's 59 years of sneaking up on the world's greatest filmmakers.

As for the audience, Tokyo Story slinks its way under your skin, despite boasting one of the most basic set-ups in cinematic history - old parents visit their grown-up kids, then go home again.

Of course, it's far more than that. Tokyo Story tells of elderly couple Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who make the lengthy journey from their home in Onomichi to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren, in the knowledge they may never get the opportunity to do so again.

Upon arrival, they quickly find their kids' lives are busy and full, with little time for entertaining the oldies. As they are bundled from son to daughter to daughter-in-law (and off to a resort for a bit), Shūkichi and Tomi wonder where it all went wrong before heading for home.

In lieu of a decent trailer, here's an excellent montage of moments from the film, with some erudite comments by A.O. Scott, who nails it far better than I ever will:

Tokyo Story is a snapshot of the generation gap and ageing, not just in terms of 1950s Japan, but of any era. The kids don't have the time, or can't seem to find it, and the parents are too polite to question them. It's only when Shūkichi gets drunk with some old buddies (in an hilarious highlight of the film) that he voices his true feelings about his kids.

The inaccessibility of the children is made all the more painfully obvious by daughter-in-law Noriko (Ozu favourite and film stand-out Setsuko Hara), who is the only member of the family who makes an effort (beyond the monetary) with Shūkichi and Tomi. That Noriko's husband - Shūkichi and Tomi's son - died in the war makes their connection all the more poignant, leading to some beautifully sad scenes, none more so than the film's final moments.

It's not until that heartbreaking denouement that you realise how immersive Tokyo Story is, and how it's snuck up on you and worked its way into your heart (just to break it, the bastard).

With its contained and cluttered sets, and its static "tatami-mat" camera angles, Ozu puts you in the room, sitting on the floor, with the family. In between are the moments where you stretch your legs in Tokyo, seeing some of the sights and dip your toe into the era, but for the most part it's a shoes-off, grab-some-floor kind of vibe. And as a filmmaking trick it's incredibly effective. The slow pacing becomes lyrical and without even realising it, you're embroiled in and hooked on the familial melodramas, where everyone is smiling politely but secretly disappointed, and you're there quietly seething and cheering and laughing.

Ozu does some odd things with his edits (there are a couple of camera line-crosses and weird scene exits/entries by characters) but you'll get used to them (and there's a great explanation for them in this video). What matters more is that Ozu made a film that is both thematically timeless yet also a fascinating snapshot of life in a rebuilding and westernising Japan.

Tokyo Story took its time to get recognised, just as it takes its time to get its hooks into you, but in the end it's all worth it.

I watched Tokyo Story at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

The Devil & Daniel Johnston - July 12

Cloud Atlas - July 26

Rubber - August 9

Marina Abramovic - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

The Queen Of Ireland - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

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