It is possible to count an exhaustive list of the various meanings and representations woven into Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story. At the same time, this film’s portrayal of the implications in the unspoken familial contracts of tradition, responsibility, and compassion are all reducible to a simple, masterful expression of domestic life. The title Tokyo Story is hardly representative of what this film actually shows. Almost entirely set indoors with all the action in the film being the subtleties of the interrelations between family members of both blood and marriage, this film could have taken place anywhere. Tokyo itself is quite irrelevant to the plot besides the city itself acting as a symbol for contemporary life with its new list of priorities that feature a responsibility shift towards economy and away from the family.
It is within this juxtaposition and the negotiation of it between tradition and modernity that the terms of companionship, loyalty, and expectation must be worked. Noriko’s tenderness towards all is a reflection of truth in the value of selflessness. Her compassion becomes the crux of contention in the film, standing out from the self-serving motives of the other characters. Companionship can be seen as a derivative of compassion that is a sustaining force for the happiness of the characters. The quality of companionship that the Koichi and Fumiko share is it one that is incompatible with alcohol and other false stocks like the success of one’s children. Without a sense of compassion, when one’s faculties are given over to economy, that enchanting hierarchical structure devoid of any familial satisfaction, what is left is a susceptibility to passivity and disappointment.
Entering Noriko’s apartment for the first time is the most significant introduction to her hospitality that goes beyond just being a good hostess. This scene establishes her as a character apart from the rest. A single room, her apartment conveys her humble priorities. Even though that small room might be all she can afford from the salary of her clerical desk job, never does she allude to wanting any self-serving material gains. She is content with what she has with the exception that she wishes she could offer her two guests, her in-laws Koichi and Fumiko, more. Somehow, by reasons never addressed by the film, Noriko has managed to maintain a functional life philosophy based on serving others. The only other person in the film who rivals Noriko’s hospitality is her next door neighbor that provides her with sake, food, and cups, the material items she needs but does not own herself in order to provide for her guests.
Paper fans are prevalent throughout this film and are being waved by any given number of characters in any given scene: in the living room, at dinner, in bed, in conversation, in solitude, in the evening, in the morning. It must really be hot in Tokyo. So often are characters fanning themselves, sometimes desperately, sometimes casually. But it is almost exclusively Noriko who does not fan herself but rather fans Koichi and Fumiko. The scene in Noriko’s apartment ends with her fanning the old couple as they eat the food she has ordered for them . It creates a feeling of solidarity among the three of them. The scene that immediately follows is of Shige and her husband lounging right next to one another, each fanning themselves with their own fan as they plot to ship their parents away to Atami. They could not seem more distant from each other despite their literal immediate proximity. And they could not seem more different than the loving trio that was just on screen. The same fanning happens in both scenes but it is the intention behind who is fanning who that makes the difference.
Noriko does not reciprocate the same attitude of service, respect, and love to herself though. Despite her late husband dying eight years prior in the war, and despite still being youthful and attractive, she does not have the confidence to think that she could still be a potential mate for some young bachelor. She constantly denies any praise given to her and, given her level of self-esteem, must really be confused why anybody likes to spend time with her at all. She does not recognize her qualities that set her apart from the other characters in this film. Noriko is the definitive representation of compassion, never once wavering from her position of self-less care.
The strength of Koichi and Fumiko’s relationship is visibly displayed during this scene. They move in tandem, simultaneously rotating around a picture of their deceased son. Their speech is complementary, often saying the same things in different ways. And, as Ozu’s 90 degree shots promote, they sit, one on each side of the table, surrounding Noriko. Koichi and Fumiko are shown as a single entity. Their companionship is what gives them strength and they are affirmed by the gentleness and appreciation they share.
As wholesome and firm as this relationship seems to be, it is not unbreakable. Even before Fumiko’s death, cracks start to appear in their bond, most notably with the introduction of alcohol to the story. One third of the way through the film, sake makes an appearance and maintains its presence throughout. It is unabashedly displayed in the scenes where Koichi gets sloshed with his obstreperous friends and when the young bachelors enjoy themselves at the spa. It is also shown subtly like becoming a routine at meals and being slipped into anecdotal dialogue between characters. Once Koichi drinks up at Noriko’s apartment for the first time, his and Fumiko’s relationship seems only to deteriorate from that point, ending eventually in a total severance with her death.
After Noriko’s, they are sent to Atami where the first signs of Fumiko’s weakness are revealed. As they sit on the cement break wall by the ocean, Koichi stand up to leave and begins to walk away but Fumiko is seen left on her hands and knees trying follow Koichi but cannot. They have fallen out of the harmony of complementarily. They are no longer one. As both Koichi and Fumiko gather their strength from one another and their mutual companionship, a weakness within one is a weakness to the other.
After they leave Atami, the two are never seen together again for another forty minutes of the movie. They join again when the whole family is shown waiting in that grimy, throbbing Tokyo train station to see them off. This train station is an awful place and one would hope that Koichi and Fumiko’s reunion would be somewhere more endearing. She’s not dead yet, after all. No one is happy here, the goals of coming to Tokyo seem unfulfilled, and there is a pang of disappointment in knowing certain expectations now cannot be met. This is their last trip to Tokyo and everyone knows it and Fumiko dies shortly after. It is with the sake that the degradation of this relationship begins. Prior to its introduction, even though they are practically on house arrest and what little they’ve seen of Tokyo is unexciting, the couple have each other and were able to exist in their own world with their own means to happiness. Whether or not Ozu intended alcohol to represent a force that empowers egoism, the muse of the young, while destroying anything wholesome, alcohol is noticeably present in this film and draws attention to its relationship with the characters.
From Noriko’s hospitality, she may be the only character who gains something truly valuable. By contrast, Shige, at the submissiveness of her siblings, acquires some nice possessions of her newly deceased mother whose body is probably not even cold yet, but aside from that her change is nonexistent. It is Noriko who achieves a true catharsis by the end of the film when Koichi gives her Fumiko’s old pocket watch. Finally, Noriko receives something more than just flimsy, though genuine, formalities for her unconditional kindness. This is something she can feel. Finally, it is Noriko who is the one saying thank you. It is here that her endless self-imposed sense of duty towards others is rationalized for herself. She can stop all of her efforts and let her guard down. For once her proper composure is lost. She sobs into her hands as tears flow with this internal reconciliation taking place and just revels in the feeling of gratitude knowing that somebody loves her with the same tenderness that she expends everyday of her life.
Even though the plot of this film is insignificant, its beauty lies in the minutia. The tedium of it may be hard to watch for viewers accustomed to more plot driven narratives. Even still, there is something heartwarming and satisfying about it all. The style of this movie can be likened to poetry; it takes the everyday and gives it a sense of profundity so that the reader may find beauty in the common experiences of life.