Tokyo Story Review

Although any self respecting fan of Yasujirô Ozu will tell you that throughout the great filmmaker's 35yr career he made a number of venerated classics that should be classed as masterpieces in their own right, it is Tokyo Story that is generally considered to be his magnum opus. It was the film that first brought Ozu to the attention of Western audiences back in the late 50s and in modern times it's starting to rival Citizen Kane in its rankings in greatest films of all time lists.

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The narrative is deceptively minimal; an elderly couple from the coastal town of Onomichi travel across the country to visit their children in Tokyo for the first time in many years, where they discover that not only are the children less successful than the couple had originally thought, but neither of them has any particular desire to disrupt their daily routine for their parents' sake. The only person who makes time for the couple is their daughter-in-law Noriko, who has been widowed for eight years and still lives alone in a tiny one room apartment. After a few days of neglect, the son & daughter: Koichi and Shige book their parents into an hot springs resort in Atami to get them out of the house for three days, but the couple cut the trip short after one night because of how rowdy the other patrons are. Deciding their trip has run its course the couple say their goodbyes and urge Noriko to forget their son and settle down again, but once they arrive back home the old mother is struck down with illness, forcing the children to make the trip back home.

While the idea of following a film about an elderly couple visiting their children for over two hours may not seem particularly tantalising to your average viewer, the fact that Tokyo Story covers a number of deep themes that explore many universal aspects of humanity and society makes it far more rewarding an experience than its synopsis will let on. If Early Summer, the film that Ozu made prior to Tokyo Story, was about a close-knit extended family heading towards their first major separation then Tokyo Story expands on those themes by looking at a family with years of separation between them, and how changing priorities, values and a nation that's becoming more centred around big urbanised megalopolises is leaving behind a whole generation and further segmented the family unit.

Ozu's greatness has always stemmed from his ability to capture the essence of the human condition, with Tokyo Story probably representing the zenith of this ability as he examines an entire lifetime (or two) and focuses on the desires and hopes that pretty much any family amasses over time. Ozu can take scenarios and turn them on their head in the most unexpected and moving of ways - for instance there's one sequence when Koichi has to cancel a sightseeing tour of Tokyo for his parents, the disappointment of which causes his eldest son to throw a tantrum but the grandparents to peacefully accept it and the grandmother deciding to instead take the children out for a walk but Isamu refuses, leaving her and Minoru to go alone. What follows is one of the most heart-rending scenes in the film, as the grandmother looks on at Minoru strolling around and laments a life she'll never get to see in full thanks to her own mortality.

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It's at this point that we now fully realise just how much the sight-seeing trip would've meant to the old couple given it's almost certainly the last time they'll ever visit their children, yet their response to the cancellation was polite and understanding, and in stark contrast to the youngest generation in the room who kick and fuss obliviously to their grandparents' feelings - the contrasting of the two ages suggestive of all that is earned in life. From this we can assume that the couple's almost Zen-like patience and geniality covers up deep emotions and disappointments, which makes it all the more tragic that their two children are so inconsiderate. Shige comes off the worse as an image conscious nag who tells her customers that the old couple staying with her "are just friends from the country". Koichi fares slightly better as he and wife Fumiko are welcoming to their parents, but simply too busy to devote time to them.

However, as ever Ozu makes sure that even the most self-centred characters are sympathetic, Shige may be selfish enough to essentially kick her parents onto the streets when they return from a trip to an hot springs resort early because she's entertaining colleagues in the evening, but then that act bites her on the ass later on because it leads her father to partake in a drunken reunion with old town buddies that ends up with a policeman delivering them to Shige's house, thus providing some much needed poetic justice dished out to her character, loosening her up somewhat.

The idea that the city - a mecca for Japanese modernism after the war - plays a part in the children's attitudes towards their parents is crucial to Ozu's themes. Koichi and Shige seem genuinely pleased at their arrival in Tokyo, but their priorities have changed over the years as they have settled down and started their own families - plus, the bustling pace and ideology of an industrialised capital has shifted them completely out of synch with their measured, reflective parents. We don't see this any more clearly than when the two siblings book the aforementioned hot springs resort trip on the basis that the hotel in Atami was considered of high quality, but it in fact turns out the hotel is popular among a rowdier, younger crowd and the old couple cannot settle down there. It's also telling that Koichi and Shige appear to have remained close to each other but not the rest of their family.

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Ozu also explores the constrictions of a largely populated city on the individual, the old couple bemoaning at one point that their children are not as successful as they had assumed, but Koichi has previously told them that "there are too many people, it's hard to get ahead!". Later, when the mother's death is revealed to Noriko in the final act and she grieves silently Ozu cuts to footage of new buildings being built. The individual may end, but the city continues to expand, and if there's any lesson Ozu wants to impart to the viewer it's that life moves on despite our best intentions to maintain our emotional bonds or achieve our ideals. The couple in Tokyo Story embrace these disappointments with grace and wisdom, which is perhaps all we can do in the end.

Presentation

As with their Dual Format releases of Late Spring and Early Summer the BFI have sourced their masters from the Criterion Collection, so as a result they have the same look exhibited by the Criterion R1 DVDs that some viewers consider high contrast. Having previously decided that Early Summer's contrast levels were perhaps a smidge high but still nicely weighted, I have to say Tokyo Story doesn't look quite so impressive. In comparison it looks a touch clipped with shadows sometimes being overly murky and highlights occasionally harsh - for instance the writing on the sign for the Okaya Noodle Bar where the grandfather and his friends end their boozy night is partially obscured by bloom. Elsewhere the progressive R2 DVD is quite impressive, detail is solid and the print is in pretty good condition considering the mild brightness flicker and frequent nicks and scratches don't impose on the viewing experience. As with Early Summer there is a faint, poorly defined layer of grain and a little bit of MPEG noise in the image if you go looking for it.

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Again, as with Early Summer the Blu-ray offers pretty much the same contrast/brightness levels as the DVD but improves noticeably in detail - although I have to say disappointingly the image seems softer and less distinct than the Early Summer transfer - even the grain seems fuzzier and less textural. The AVC compression, which I thought was impressive for Early Summer, has a much higher bit rate of 33Mbps and I can't say I spotted any noise in regular playback. Overall it's another good effort from the BFI, and I have to stress that it feels to me like less impressive contrast and sharpness issues of Tokyo Story is down to the source rather than any neglect on the part of the BFI.

Sadly, lossless audio isn't provided this time round - presumably because the longer runtime of Tokyo Story made it harder to fit everything onto a DVD-9 disc - so you'll have to make do with Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, but I can't say it makes a profound difference to the audio presentation as Tokyo Story still sounds pretty good on both the DVD's DD2.0 track and the Blu-ray's Japanese LPCM 2.0 Mono (2304Mbps/48Khz/24-bit) audio. Hiss, crackle and distortion in the bass are inevitable by-products with films of this age, so the only criteria I could judge this presentation on was whether the sound and more importantly: dialogue is discernable throughout, which it certainly is. The dynamics are really not too bad either.

Optional English subtitles are provided on both DVD/BD, with no spelling or grammatical errors I can recall.

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Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family

So far each of these Dual Format Ozu Collection releases have come with a second entry from Ozu's backlog, this time round being the first film he shot after being drafted into the army during the Sino-Japanese war from 1937-1939: entitled: Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family. Whereas Ozu's 1937 film What Did the Lady Forget? was a light-hearted satire of the upper classes, Todake no Kyôdai (to use the concise Japanese title) takes a much more harder dramatic approach as it follows three generations of the Toda family after they reunite for a family photo to commemorate their mother's 61st birthday, which later ends in tragedy after their father passes away whilst binging on sake into the night. Despite his apparent wealth and fame the father had close ties to a bankrupt firm and leaves his children a mountain of debt to repay, which the eldest son Shinichiro decides with eldest daughter Chizuru and youngest son Shojiro can only be resolved by selling off their dead father's estate and valuables.

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This leaves the old mother, Shojiro, and the youngest daughter Setsuko without a home. Realising his shortcomings as a son, Shojiro takes the opportunity to relocate to Tianjin in China to turn his life around and stop relying on his family's wealth, whereas the mother and Setsuko move in with Shinichiro and his pampered wife Kazuko. Kazuko isn't happy with the new arrangements and generally treats her in-laws like servants, letting them do household chores and chiding them over every little faux pas. Eventually the hen-pecked Shinichiro persuades the eldest Toda daughter: Chizuru to take her mother/sister into her mansion, but she's also a reluctant host and accuses her mother of undermining her authority over her wayward teenage boy Ryokichi, despite her own obvious shortcomings as a mother.

Next stop is the 2nd youngest daughter: Ayako, but by this point Setsuko and the mother decide to request they retire to the rundown family villa in Kugenuma to live alone with some servants. None of the Toda siblings challenge the idea and there the two remain until a year after the father's death when the whole family reunite once more for the remembrance ceremony. Late to the party as usual, Shojiro returns from China ready to read the riot act to his brothers and sisters.

Although the BFI have appear to be progressing with these secondary features from Ozu's first talking picture: The Only Son with their release of Late Spring, up until his 3rd talking picture: Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, it's quite clear why anyone would consider this film to be an apt companion piece to Tokyo Story given its similar situations and themes. The big difference is that whereas Tokyo Story is a sombre meditation on the distancing of family over time, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is quite a scathing commentary on the bourgeoisie which must have played well to working class audiences, who are invited to rally behind the pampered mother and daughter who become denigrated and downgraded by their spoilt family; building up to a extremely cathartic finalé as Shojiro's triumphant return brings righteous indignation down on the Toda siblings' conceited ways.

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This may be why the film was one of Ozu's first commercial successes, although it does signal a growing ability by the director to highlight some of the harsher home truths of the disintegration of the immediate family unit over time. However the main strengths of Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family lie in its strong characterisation and early feminist stance. Shojiro may be the self-proclaimed hero upon his return in the final act, but it's Setsuko - whose arc takes her from a sheepish, pampered girl through to a strong-willed independent woman - who wins the day, persuading her free-spirited brother to settle down with her best friend Tokiko and even chasing him out of house and home with her assertiveness. She is no longer the helpless Myna Bird moving from home to home, unwanted and caged by her family's place in Japanese society.

Presented progressively in 4:3 on the same DVD as Tokyo Story, the masters for Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family were provided by Shochiku and hence the transfer is considerably lower-contrast than that for Tokyo Story, although because of the age of the film the levels for both black and white are understandably muted. Also understandable is a noticeable decrease in detail and more significant print damage when compared to Tokyo Story, with numerous nicks and scratches and the occasional shower of damage enveloping the screen. It won't win any awards for clarity, but it'll do!

Audio comes in the form of Japanese DD2.0 Mono and is muffled, draped in hiss and crackle, and suffers from blown out bass, but again this is to be expected. Dialogue is always just-about audible and the score is adequately expressed, so it does the job. Optional English subtitles are also provided, with no spelling or grammatical errors.



Extras

Once again the only extra features in this Ozu Collection Dual Format release are the 2nd feature on the DVD and a 20-Page Mini Booklet compiled by the BFI. It contains the same Yasujiro Ozu biography by Tony Rayns as on the previous releases, an Essay on Tokyo Story and Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family written by Joan Mellen, and a review of Tokyo Story written by John Gillett in 1957.

Overall

Regularly hailed as one of the best films of all time, Tokyo Story is considered the pinnacle of Yasujirô Ozu's outstanding career and I'm not about to argue against that! Both Blu-ray and DVD discs offer a strong presentation by the BFI but no actual featurettes or commentaries to speak of. You'll just have to console yourself with the informative mini-booklet and inclusion of the excellent Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family on the DVD.

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Film
10 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

10

out of 10

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