This landmark work from 1953, written and directed by Yasujiro Ozu, stands the test of time as a document of change in post-war Japan as an older generation struggles to come to grips with a new world and their dwindling ties with their own children. In Tokyo Story Ozu charts the path of Shukishi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) and his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), an elderly couple who live in the provincial town of Onomichi with their youngest daughter Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa). They decide to take a trip to visit two other children in Tokyo, doctor son Koichi (So Yamamura) and daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), as well as a daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), married to another son who was killed in the war.
For them, the trip will be their last journey of this kind and one filled with sad and poignant revelations. They discover a Tokyo beyond their comprehension, its enormity overwhelming, its bulk and congestion intimidating. They sense subtle but significant changes in their children also, an aloofness and air of tolerance barely held in check.
Little moments begin to add up – Koichi forsaking a Sunday afternoon with his parents to tend to a sick child which hardly seems a life or death situation; Shige chastising her husband for buying them expensive cakes rather than the cheap food they’re used to back home. Their patience is being tested by the presence of these two tottering old people who you feel they can’t wait to be rid of from the day of their arrival, an unnecessary burden upon their hectic city lives. Only their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko shows them genuine compassion, having never re-married out of respect for the strong bond she feels between them.
Shukishi and Tomi are kind-hearted, simple folk yet have no difficulty detecting the ambivalence upon their arrival in their son’s home, privately pondering, when left to their own devices, the changes that life in the rapidly expanding metropolis has caused in their offspring. It’s not long before they sense a need to leave these people – exhibiting such altered characteristics to the children they raised – and return to their remote home in Onomichi to live out their last days in quiet serenity.
Ozu’s film is a seemingly simple one but the subtle changes in the Hirayamas are indicative of a more profound upheaval for Japanese society in the aftermath of war. The general tone of nostalgia, with a strong melodramatic tinge, begins to seep into your consciousness after a while, and the manipulation by Ozu is a direct and deliberate one, aided by a gorgeous, recurring main theme from composer Kojun Saito, which has the rich feel of something Miklos Rozsa or Franz Waxman might have written during the golden days of Hollywood.
A film about the inevitability of change, the weariness of aging, and the fading connections of children and the parents they’ve both emotionally and geographically drifted apart from, Tokyo Story remains an important and evermore relevant film. Beautifully crafted by Ozu, it ends on a genuinely moving note (as the family is brought together by fate once more), filled with enough subtle power to linger in the mind even as we’re left pondering whether some types of change are truly irreversible or not.