Chi Lin

Tokyo Story – Yasujiro Ozu


Like Shukishi and Tomi, my own grandparents are quite stoic in their own right. Having grown up in a traditional Taiwanese village and worked his way up through the capitalist world of higher education, degrees and hard work to build a stable career for himself, my grandfather has always preached to me the importance of family values and security. As I am the first born son after him (he had three daughters, one being my mother), he was overjoyed when I told him I would be pursuing a degree in biology. And equally disheartened when I bailed on it after two semesters. Watching the three fathers in Tokyo Story drink sake and ramble on about the inevitable disappointments their children have become, I thought back to my grandfather, and wondered about the things he must have said about me. The timeless notion rings true: it is their disappointment that hurts the most.

I resisted writing about Tokyo Story at first, mostly because it hits very close to home. The stoicism, forced pleasantries, patient, surface-level conversations. The grandparents’ mundane, uneventful visit with their children. I kept picturing my grandmother at the kitchen table working out Sudoku’s and rubbing her knees while we all got ready to go to the movies. I kept thinking about how diligent I try to be about calling my grandfather regularly, and then how short-lived and uneventful our conversations are. I guess, as the film points out, there is much more to conversations than the words.

For how much dialogue is in the film, they say very little. For how drawn-out the film is, very little happens. The meat of the film is in its commentary. Specifically, its commentary on the subtleties and stoicism of eastern Asian cultures; generally, its commentary on humanity as a whole and our propensity (and failure) to hide our emotions. Why do we mask our emotions so incessantly? Why do we fake smiles when we’re sad and lie about being angry and downplay our happiness and excitement? I may have forced the film to fit into my own train of thought, but what I gathered from it was an argument that I believe to be true: many of us, especially in eastern Asian cultures, prescribe to an overly indulgent school of thought that promotes compassion and contentedness unconditionally and exclusively in a way that limits a full and honest experience of life.

One of the most revealing aspects of the film is Noriko’s smile. Even without her breakdown at the end, her pain is apparent – it wells in her squinted eyes and seeps through her teeth. Setsuko Hara gives us all we need to know in these perfect, gruelling expressions. When Tomi dies, Shige and Kyoko cry, Koichi’s normally stern expression turns grim, and even Keiko drops a tear in solitude, but there is no greater sadness in this film than Noriko’s consistent, dutiful smile.

I find a parallel here with Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Dalloway, of 1920’s England, and Noriko, of 1950’s Japan, characters from seemingly two worlds apart, when stripped down, share much in common, most importantly a vital, life-changing marriage and subsequent masking of a secret as a result of those marriages, which, it is important to add, are both rooted in honor and duty above all else. Though their marriages progressed in somewhat opposing manners, they both end up, in the end, hiding parts of themselves away from the world behind facades. In the same way Mrs. Dalloway hides Clarissa behind her name and her parties and her dresses, Noriko hides the pain and shame she feels in the wake of her husband’s death behind her smile and her kindness. Both characters long for a time in their past when things were simpler, when they didn’t have to hide.

Truth be told, it was Noriko that made this film real for me. Her character is the spearhead of what I gathered to be the major question that this film brings up: why do we feel the need to hide? Ozu might argue that the “death before dishonor” sentiment echoes in all facets of our lives, so much that to speak ill about a dead husband or not to cry at your mother’s funeral are the worst possible examples of behavior. I don’t believe Shige cried out of genuine sadness when her mother died, and I don’t believe Noriko felt much compassion for her husband, but honor and duty required them to keep their masks on. So why do we see that same masking of emotion here, now, in a culture so far removed from the 1950’s Japan portrayed in the film? Maybe it’s a fear of vulnerability. Maybe it’s done out of politeness, I don’t know. But at the end of the film, when Noriko’s facade finally cracks, as an audience member I felt a certain amount of closure and reassurance. She’s human and she’s scared, and she shouldn’t have to hide it.