One of the most poignant films ever made, Yasujirô Ozu’s 1953 Tokyo Story, a melancholy meditation on parent-child relations, showcases an understated indictment of conflicting intergenerational perspectives in post-war Japanese society through a deceptively simple narrative.
The many layers and contrasting perspectives – parents versus children, old against young, town or city – make this masterpiece one of the greatest films ever made. At its most superficial level, Tokyo Story [Tôkyô monogatari] is about the self-importance middle class families attach to their lives. But the film is far more thought-provoking than that.
An elderly couple, Shukishi Hirayama (Chishû Ryû) and his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) live in the coastal town of Onomichi with their young, schoolteacher daughter Kyôko (Kyôko Kagawa), while their other three grown-up children made their lives in Tokyo and Osaka. Sensing their own mortality, they decide to go and visit their children before it is too late. However, with the exception of their attentive daughter-in-law (whose husband disappeared during the war), they are all too busy or too selfish to spend time with their parents.
When it comes to the preservation of their species, humans are quite unique. Whereas every other animal on the planet is driven to reproduce by strong sexual urges, human beings add emotional and psychological reasons to the equation. Animal mothers instinctively nurture and care for their offsprings in preparation for a life of unambiguous independence. And although human mothers may also, pragmatically, aspire for their children to achieve freedom and responsibility, our species is, in fact, more ambivalent towards children attaining full detachment from their parents.
..Critics’ Picks: Tokyo Story © The New York Times.
It is rather interesting to watch the film through this perspective. Perhaps, Shukishi and Tomi’s children should not be judged so harshly after all. In striving to be free and make the best of their lives, indirectly they are making their parents happy. They are also ensuring that Japanese society as a whole is different from the one that entered World War II. Not only individually, but also collectively, they might be contributing to their parents’ happiness.
From the outside, the adult children’s attitudes surely look callous and self-absorbed. They do have free time to spend with their elderly parents, and yet choose not to. With a little dose of effort and organization they would be able to choose different priorities. Instead, they are too preoccupied with their busy lives. But it is important to notice that, although Shukishi and Tomi might show disappointment with little gestures, they never complain openly about the situation. What if their children’s material achievements are more important to them than any show of affection?
Because Ozu’s style is so simple and the narrative thread is so economical, paradoxically the texture of the story is enriched. As implied events are left off-screen, the number of interpretations multiply, The reason for the children’s ungratefulness lies within this family’s dynamics, their history and early life and there’s much that we don’t know about. Past resentment might have a lot to do with their selfishness and neglect. Or rather they might be acting out what was expected from them since childhood. It is not implausible to think that as children of war they were encouraged to seek material wealth and security.
On the other hand, daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), does not have a shared history with them. This might explain why she is attentive and gentle with the elderly couple – the amiable parents of her dear, and probably dead, husband. A husband whom, as it is hinted in the film, might have had a drinking problem in the past (like his father), and who was not that perfect as Noriko’s show of affection towards his parents might suggest. Remarkably, the elderly couple’s resigned attitude towards their children’s disdain might suggest opposing interpretations: they are either noble souls, who accept gracefully or they understand and accept out of guilt.
Perhaps feelings of commiseration towards the elderly couple are unwarranted – they are more an indication of what is in our own mind than an appropriate response to the situation of Shukishi and Tomi. They might be quite all right with the whole thing. Perhaps, western audiences project their own patterns of behaviour onto Japanese characters, whom might actually not be as kind or as resigned as we would like to believe. Children ought to respect and love their parents, but it is a fact of life that many do not. The story of the Hirayamas does not become less poignant if these assumptions are correct. In fact, it becomes more so.
Pragmatically we might believe that our offspring need to grow wings and fly as high as they can, but emotionally we long for them to plant their feet firmly on the ground and stay close to us. This ambivalent frame of mind is ultimately painful. Even more so is the realisation that there is nothing we can do to solve this conundrum; that ambivalence is inherent in the human condition. And if that was the only message from the film, it would already be enough to justify Tokyo Story as one of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema.