Tokyo Story (1953) – Yasujirô Ozu (Friday’s Finest)

Tokyo StoryThere are few other movies whose legacy to the history of cinema are as substantial as  Tokyo Story. It tells the simple story of an aging couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their grown children. All of their children treat their visit more as an obligation than a want, each trying to figure out what to do with their parents while they continue on with their own daily lives. Their children’s lack of genuine warmth is contrasted by their widowed daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara pictured above) who treats them with kindness.

Tokyo Story seems to me different from any movie I have ever seen—as true to life. It sits at No 11 on my all time favourite movie list.
This excerpt of Spqrclaudius’ IMDB movie review of Tokyo Story reflects my own sentiments regarding the picture, but he expressed it more efficaciously than I could hope to:

The younger generation (and by extension the “new” Japan) turns its back on the family from which it arose- because of selfishness, because of necessity, or because it’s simply the way of the world. The movie provides no easy answers- its melancholy ambiguity is part of its charm. The film is founded upon such an obvious love and respect for the importance of real-world interactions that it’s hard not to be anything other than enthralled by it. Whatever the case, Ozu delights in portraying the details of everyday life. The emotional resonances of this movie are extraordinary, and some shots (a child picking flowers, an old couple framed by the sea, a woman sitting forlornly at her work desk) are enough to give a sensitive film-goer the shivers.

Setsuko Hara

I would like to turn my attention now to the late great actresss Setsuko Hara (image inset) who plays the widowed daughter-in-law Noriko Hirayama. Her portrayal in this supporting role is probably my favourite (secondary part) in all of cinema. She passed away on September 5th 2015 at age 95. Robert Gottlieb wrote in this article ‘An Actress Like No Other‘ about her legacy:

There’s now no one left of this astounding constellation of talent; and that she was by far the most emblematic figure of the era makes her disappearance reverberate even more strongly.

In the West, most of us first encountered her in 1972 when Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story, was released here. I had never heard of Ozu, although I had seen and admired international award-winning Japanese films like Rashomon, Gate of Hell, and Ugetsu. Ozu had obviously been considered “too Japanese” for Western consumption, and it was greatly due to Dan Talbot, who ran the Upper-West-Side movie house the New Yorker Theater, as well as an important film-distribution company, that he finally emerged here. Beginning with the moment when Tokyo Story first reached us, Ozu’s fame and influence have grown and grown to their current towering stature.’

Some interesting IMDB Trivia details about Tokyo Story:

  • The film is notable for its use of the “tatami-mat” shot, in which the camera height is low and remains largely static throughout.
  • For a film that sides with the parents, it’s not so surprising to learn that Yasujiro Ozu never married and lived dutifully with his mother all his life.
  • The original negative was lost soon after the film was completed, due to a fire at the vault of the lab in Yokohama city. The film had to be released using prints made from a dupe protective negative.
  • Voted the greatest movie of all time in Sight & Sound’s 2012 director’s poll.

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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Posted in Movies and TV
12 comments on “Tokyo Story (1953) – Yasujirô Ozu (Friday’s Finest)
  1. “Tokyo Story” is a favorite of mine as well.

  2. It’s on my (fairly immediate) list.

  3. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Interesting fact about him never marrying and living with his mother his whole life. This sounds like an interesting film, but I feel like it would make me sad, though, seeing the parents handled as a duty and sort of brushed aside. Maybe the daughter-in-law lifts it up some, though, with her kindness.
    You asked me about my father somewhere else and I don’t think I responded; he’s alive and well, and although he’s 92, he’s like someone at least 15 or 20 years younger. He retired from working about three years ago and still plays golf. He’s a source of endless inspiration for me.
    I can’t imagine being too busy to see my parents–now just my parent–and brushing him off like he’s not important anymore.

    • I found it very sad, but probably the most impactful movie about ‘family’ I’ve ever seen. The actress who played the daughter in law in the movie is phenomenal in this. She displays that “active love’ Dostoevsky alluded to in my post titled ‘ Lady with little faith’.
      That’s remarkable about your father and only having retired from work just 3 years ago. I can see why you would be so inspired by him. That’s wonderful Stacey.

  4. selizabryangmailcom says:


  5. Mark T says:

    An amazing film that moves across cultural boundaries, giving insight into the human condition.

    I was lucky enough to do a side trip to Onomichi in Japan, which is where the old parents lived in the film. The movie inspired this “side adventure”. Many parts of this small city still have narrow laneways and wooden houses/temples – overlooking a narrow harbour where old ferries still carry passengers out to the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. It’s a remarkable place to visit if you were inspired by this movie, as the town still has a real feeling of tradition, with very few foreign visitors – only 25 minutes from the bullet train line, but better to spend a night or two there.

    • I would love to go there one day. I am very grateful to read your insightful thoughts about the movie and the city you visited in which the old parents lived. Your description of Onomichi is so vivid. My post is so much richer for your personal contribution. Thanks.

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