Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Audio: Japanese monaural 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, trailer, two documentaries, essay
Length: 136 minutes
Release Date: October 14, 2003

"We can't expect too much from our children.  Times have changed.  We have to face it."

Film ****

Yasujiro Ozu has always been described as the most "Japanese" of directors.  His films have often been tied inherently to Japanese culture and heritage.  Regrettably, for this very reason, many of his films were not readily available outside of Japan for years.  While other Japanese directors such as Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi were achieving fame upon the international scene, Ozu remained relatively unknown.  Nevertheless, in a career that eventually spanned five decades and over fifty feature films, perhaps no other Japanese director has been as influential as Ozu.

Yasujiro Ozu was born in Tokyo in 1903, and as with most future directors, he was an avid film buff during his childhood.  Ozu was particularly amorous of the American silents, which he found to be more emotionally involving than the shallow Japanese films of the day.  Ozu grew up to become a school teacher, but his heart was always with the cinema (not an especially respectable profession in Japan at the time).  So, when the opportunity finally arose in the mid-1920's to work in the film industry, Ozu quit his teaching post and joined the Shochiku Film studios as an assistant cameraman.  It was a professional relationship which would last the entirety of his directorial career.  Ozu soon graduated into an assistant director and by 1927, with the release of Sword of Penitence, had become a full-fledged director.  His earliest films were silent period pieces, followed by light comedies involving students in universities or young graduates in the workforce, after which Ozu moved on into the talkies and developed the themes which would appear predominately in his later films.

Perhaps there is no greater example of Ozu's work than his 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari).  Encompassing many of his beloved themes and featuring many of his favorite actors, it is the quintessential Ozu film.  Moreover, it is a film that has become firmly embedded on Sight & Sound's critical surveys of the ten greatest films ever made.

Surprisingly, when compared to the other films on the Sight & Sound lists, Tokyo Story is a quaintly modest and unassuming film.  It does not offer the technical camera wizardry of a Citizen Kane.  Nor does it present the fantastical smorgasbord of images in Fellini's 8 1/2 or delve into the psychosexual realm of Persona.  Instead, Tokyo Story is a film like many other Ozu films - it explores the interactions and generational conflicts within families and displays a sincere, affectionate humanity that is contemporary with its time.  Arguably, many of Ozu's films could be considered snapshots of the inevitable changes in Japanese traditional values as reflected most significantly in the exchanges of communication or love between his characters, usually parents and their children.

Tokyo Story features a stock cast of actors who appeared frequently in Ozu's films, often playing variations upon a character portrayal.  Ozu's favorite actor, Chishu Ryu, stars in Tokyo Story as Shukichi, an elderly father.  Ryu in fact appeared in many of the director's films, and through these films, we can literally watch his transformation from the role of a handsome leading man into a loving father figure and finally into a wise and thoughtful grandparent.  Seldom has an actor-director relationship embodied such a broad range of emotion and maturity in cinematic history.  In many ways, Ryu was essentially Ozu's on-screen alter ego.

Setsuko Hara was a favorite actress of Ozu's, appearing in six of his films.  She was also a hugely popular star of Japanese cinema and was sometimes referred to as the Greta Garbo of Japan.  In Tokyo Story, she portrays Noriko, Shukichi's daughter-in-law, widowed by the death of Shukichi's son in the World War.  Though Noriko is one of the last family members to be introduced in the film, she is ultimately more faithful and kind to Shukichi any of his real children.  It is most telling that Tomi, Shukichi's wife (portrayed by Chieko Higashiyama), expresses concern for her daughter-in-law's happiness and suggests that she should re-marry and not linger upon the memories of her dead husband.  This is a variation upon a favorite Ozu subject - the daughter marrying and leaving her father and family for a new life; it is only a minor theme in Tokyo Story though it appears in Ozu's other films, even in his last film, An Autumn Afternoon.

The plot in Tokyo Story can be neatly summarized in but a few lines.  An elderly couple travel from their hometown of Onomichi to see their children in the sprawling metropolis of post-war Tokyo.  They visit each child's family in turn before returning home.  Soon afterwards, there is a last family reunion as all the children return to their hometown to visit the parents.  There are a few poignant farewells, and then the film concludes.

The general plot synopsis may well seem benign and rather un-cinematic, but it is very typical of Ozu's films, which were never flashy.  Ozu eschewed films about samurais or wars, favoring instead the themes of family and traditional values.  While his films did not deliver a visceral thrill, they often appealed to the heart precisely because they were fundamental stories about universal relationships.  This universality allowed his films to deliver their messages across spans of language and culture.  Ozu's insightful ability to portray the many nuances of Japanese family life was quite remarkable considering that he himself never married.

Tokyo Story is also a good example of Ozu's directorial style.  Ozu frequently focuses the camera directly upon the characters as they speak so that they may well be addressing the audience as much as another on-screen character.  It was a device which Ozu enjoyed using to bring the viewers into the world of his films and to help us empathize with his characters.

In Tokyo Story, what is implied by silence or non-action is just as relevant as what is actually stated.  So, while the film narrates its story simply, its impact and many layers of depth are only fully appreciated by an attentive audience.  The intimate discussions between Tomi and Noriko or Shukichi's reminiscences with old friends from the hometown are filmed in a minimalist, non-dramatic manner.  Even the slow, leisurely conversations between Shukichi and his wife reveal the comfortable familiarity they have with one another; they are quite content merely to sit side by side for long stretches of silence, whether to stare at the flowing seas or to watch the dawning of a new day.  These scenes all speak volumes and add a blend of authenticity to the characters, even when there is minimal or no dialogue.  This is perhaps a foreign concept for many modern Western audiences, who have become accustomed to films which overly-explain every plot detail.  However, Ozu was a master of this minimalist cinematic style, and his films are better for it, allowing multiple interpretations.  In Tokyo Story, the audience is presented with a splice of life, and their appreciation of the film is directly correlated to their investment in its honest portrayal of life.

As with most Ozu films, Tokyo Story is also methodically paced, reflecting the grace and tranquility of Japanese culture.  In an Ozu film, the plot is of secondary consideration, and many scenes may play out in which nothing particularly important occurs at all.  In fact, scenes are allowed to linger without apparent on-screen action, as though to illustrate the slow flow of normal life.  It is Ozu's way of illustrating the causal nature of his stories, to show that his characters are just ordinary people.  As a result, Ozu's films were typically deceptively simple in appearance, even forgoing camera movements in preference of stationary frame compositions.  Yet, each static shot is carefully planned to discover the proper balance in the lines and angles in the composition, which in the modular Japanese rooms consisted of angular shoji screens, tatami mats, and futon pallets.  Ozu would often employ low-angled shots, approximating an eye-level perspective from a Japanese adult kneeling upon a cushion or a mat.

We see many shots of this nature in Tokyo Story as the elderly couple converse with their children.  Their exchanges also mirror much of the politeness and dignified decorum of traditional Japanese culture, perhaps in contrast to the somewhat rebellious and rude behavior of the grandchildren.  In this way, Ozu refers quietly to the changes in Japanese society and the slow but certain dissolution of the traditional Japanese family.  Tokyo Story thus presents another of Ozu's favorite themes, of the gradual disappointments that life offers, whether in its trials and tribulations or in the failure of children to live up to their parents' high expectations.

After Tokyo Story, Ozu would continue to direct for another decade until his final film, An Autumn Afternoon, in 1962.  A typically heartfelt Ozu film, it also starred Chishu Ryu, this time as an elderly father who sees the ends of his days approaching and longs that his daughter may soon marry before time passes her by.  With this film, Ozu was reflecting upon the idea that the cycle of life must continue, and that the old must eventually part with the young.

Soon after completing An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu himself passed away on his sixtieth birthday.  Ozu once said, "The end of a film is its beginning."  And so, even in passing, Ozu has left behind a remarkable legacy that has truly enriched the world of cinema to reveal the gentle heart of this most humanistic of Japanese directors.

Video ** 1/2

Tokyo Story is presented in its original black & white, full-screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  This high-definition transfer was created from a new 35mm positive master with excellent contrast levels and clarity and sharpness of detail.  I did not detect any appreciable compression defects, although the print does have numerous instances of small scratches and some water marks.  Fortunately, these flaws are minor enough that they do not distract greatly from the viewing.  Criterion has also done a decent job in removing much of the dust and debris from the print, although a bit still remains, enough to remain us of how old this film truly is.

Audio **

The monaural soundtrack for Tokyo Story was mastered at 24-bit and received the usual meticulous Criterion care in reducing clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle.  Dialogue is always clear, though the music occasionally sounds a bit thin with minimal dynamic range, typical of these older monaural soundtracks.  Criterion does acknowledge that deterioration of the existing audio elements rendered a pristine restoration impossible, but Tokyo Story still sounds fairly decent for such an old film.

Features ****

Tokyo Story arrives from Criterion as a double DVD set.  The first DVD contains the film itself as well as two extras -  one is a trailer for the film, and the other is a fine commentary track by David Desser, editor of "Ozu's Tokyo Story," a compilation of essays about the film.  Desser provides some biographical information on Ozu for viewers unfamiliar with this director.  However, he concentrates mainly on describing the careful composition and framing structure of the film as well as its themes.  Desser's commentary is a detailed one that will be of particular interest to film students who wish to understand how Ozu constructed Tokyo Story.  Despite the simplicity of his films, Ozu was a true perfectionist, and it was not beyond him to demand dozens of re-takes of even the most casual or smallest of scenes until he was satisfied!

The second DVD contains only two features, but they are both excellent documentaries.  The first is "I Lived, But...," a 1983 documentary that explores the life and career of Yasujiro Ozu.  Contributors to this feature include many of his favorite actors (Chishu Ryu, Haruko Sugimura, etc.), siblings, and former colleagues (directors, cinematographers, etc).  The program begins with an enigma - a single word, mu ("nothingness"), inscribed upon Ozu's tombstone.  What is its significance?  This two-hour documentary traces Ozu's life from its roots until his final days in an attempt to solve this very riddle.  The answer, when revealed, may be a little surprising.  There are also an abundance of film clips from Ozu's early silent features to his latter-day sound films.  Coincidentally, the lovely Setsuko Hara appears in a number of these clips.  She is quite disarmingly charming, and judging by these brief glimpses of her film roles, it is easy to comprehend why she was such a huge star then (and most likely would be even now!).

Although the general film-going audience may not be immediately familiar with Ozu, his tremendous influence upon today's young directors cannot be underestimated.  The other documentary on this second disc is "Talking with Ozu," a 40-minute tribute to the director, offering the reflections of seven international directors describing how Ozu inspired their own work.  The style of this documentary is quite refreshing, as it is partially a travelogue that visits the seven different nations in which these directors live.  These snapshots of the varying world cultures add flavor to the documentary and hint at the broad, international appeal of Ozu's films.  These tourist sequences are also just as interesting as what the directors have to say about Ozu himself!

Lastly, there is a foldout included inside the DVD set.  This foldout contains a new essay on the film by David Bordwell, author of "Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema."


Tokyo Story is a simple but moving film that examines the relationships within a typical Japanese family.  It embodies many of the qualities of the finest Ozu films and, as such, serves as the perfect introduction for Western audiences to this master director.  Highly recommended.