Until very late in Yasujiro Ozu’s film Tokyo Story, there is no crisis more dramatic than some uncomfortable silences. So what is it that makes this film one of the most revered dramas ever crafted?
It’s the simplest of stories: An elderly couple—Shukichi and Tomi—drop in on their adult children in Tokyo, only to find that time and change have increased the cultural gap between generations. The death of their middle son in World War II is a wound that binds them to his widow Noriko, who has never remarried. Their relationships begin to break down due to the accelerating lifestyles of the younger generation—a theme recently revitalized by Olivier Assayas’ in Summer Hours.
Ozu’s dislike for the ugliness of an evolving technological age may have influenced similar imagery in the films of Robert Bresson and David Lynch. Like Ozu himself, the old father has a way of expressing a great deal while saying very little; the quietest character becomes, in a way, the most powerfully evocative.
Ozu, one of the cinema’s most influential masters, frames each scene with great restraint—no dramatic music, no slow zooms to tell us which character is important, no sense of manipulation. His camera is set low, approximately the view we’d have if we knelt watchfully on a tatami mat in a Japanese home. Places are as important as the characters passing through them; note how the camera lingers on rooms after people have left them.
By the conclusion, these characters have never surprised us with anything showy, lurid, or sensational. They’re modest, ordinary human beings, treated with a fierce attention that feels like deep respect. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes: “To accept people when they are doing essentially nothing, between the moments when they make decisions, is to accept their souls; and Ozu’s acceptance transcends toleration and empathy—it is a kind of cosmic embrace.”
The influence of that “cosmic embrace” can be seen in films as varied as Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Café Lumiere, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Hirozaku Kore-eda’s Still Walking, and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Instead of feeling like “the Movies,” Tokyo Story feels like life.
Ozu is tuning—or better, re-tuning—our attention to what is happening all around us, what is important, the slow changes in relationships that we often realize too late and then regret. Ebert calls him “not only a great director but a great teacher, and after you know his films, a friend.” He adds: “With no other director do I feel affection for every single shot.” But the phrase that best describes the virtues of Ozu’s work this—Tokyo Story “ennobles the cinema.”