Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story takes on the familial issues of expectation, loss, greed, regret, neglect, and loneliness by providing a personal perspective on contemporary post-war Japan in the early 1950’s. Ozu’s tells his story through beautiful cinematography and shot composition, minimal score, realistic writing and pacing that evokes truth and feels like a real life narrative. Tokyo Story is universally relatable in that it brings to light the unfortunate truths of living in a family: as children grow older they become busy with their own lives and neglect the people who love them. Families grow distant, and with that distance comes a tendency to avoid difficult truths such as love, death, and expectation. A family gathering can go badly without being acknowledged, as each person respectfully and nonverbally forgives their loved ones for their shortcomings. Tokyo Story teaches us to appreciate, communicate with, and take advantage of the time we have left with the people who love us, no matter how busy we become.
I looked closely at a scene (29:13-31:18) in Tokyo Story in which Tomi takes her youngest grandson on a walk after his father was unable to take the family out for the day because he was called in to check on a sick patient. At the beginning of the scene, Noriko asks her father if he is disappointed. He sets the issue aside and tells her he isn’t. This exchange is shot at eye level, head on and centered with the actors to pull the viewer into the scene. Transitioning, Shukichi looks out the window (medium-wide shot, profile) to see his wife and grandson walking together outside (wide shot.) The grandson is dismissive, avoiding his grandmother and distracting himself by pulling grass out of the ground. We first see them at a wide shot. This shot uses leading lines (the horizon line and the triangular rooftop) to guide the viewer’s eye toward the subjects. This shot seamlessly cuts on motion from a wideshot to a closeup as the grandmother squats down to speak to her grandson. She suggests to him that she may not be living when he becomes a doctor like his father, and the score turns melancholy to signify a pivotal moment in the film. At this moment it becomes clear that Tomi may not have much time left, and that this family gathering could prove to be more important than the characters are treating it. The grandson continues to ignore her, oblivious to the importance of this conversation and the time he has with her. In the same way that we were brought into it, we are pulled away from the grandmother and grandson, back to Shukichi gazing out the window at his loved ones. This loving observation of his family becomes all the more poignant with this newfound insight on Tomi’s health.
This early scene, taking place in the first thirty minutes, sets the tone for the rest of the film. The audience realizes that the family gathering may be far more important than the young people realize or acknowledge. We become familiar with the family’s tendency to brush off issues and act as if everything is okay, when in reality there are expectations that are not being met, and serious topics that are not being discussed. Tomi seems almost secretive about her poor health, not wanting to inconvenience her busy family. Meanwhile, her entire family is so wrapped up in their own matters that they neglect her when she needs them the most.
The pacing in this segment is slow by Hollywood standards, but true to life. Ozu allows scenes to play out at a natural place. The conversational dialogue doesn’t feed plotlines to the viewer, nor does it hurry the story along. The characters exist as real people, interacting in a real world. For example, when Shukichi is watching his wife and grandson from inside the house, the longshot of the two characters isn’t cut short to move the film along. We are shown everything that Shukichi would have seen: his grandson runs back and forth, picking blades of grass and keeping to himself as Tomi paces along with him. Ozu’s use of slow, natural pacing brings us further into 1953 Japan, and helps bring the story to life.
In conclusion, this scene was a definitive moment in the film, in regards to story development as well as filmmaking technique. It is a prime example of Ozu’s mastery of intentional editing and cinematography, conveying strong emotion and realism. Within a few minutes, this scene succeeds in introducing the generally dismissive attitude of the family, the disappointing nature of the grandparents’ trip to Tokyo, and the grandmother’s poor health. This kind effective cinematic storytelling is prevalent throughout the entire film. It brings the story to life in a way that is universally relatable and reminds viewers to appreciate their family while they can.