There aren’t many films like Tokyo Story, Yasujirō Ozu’s luminous, deeply moving masterpiece. If you’d remake frame-by-frame, shot-by-shot and release it to the public today, hardly anyone will watch it except the hardcore cineastes, whom all revere filmmaking as a the Highest of all Orders. But for the great part of the populace, no. They’d rather go and see The Avengers or Total Fucking Recall. This is exactly what Ozu’s film laments about – modern life’s sheer lack of patience, compassion and empathy for the mundane, the modern world’s lack of respect for the everyday life. And Tokyo Story portrays ‘everyday life’ in its most quotidian simplicity that below-than-average-minded individuals can snore into, and yet the emotionally-equipped aesthetes will can find beauty and meaning in every composition, every line exchanged, no matter how banal the exchanges are.
Simplicity, here, is a deception. Stories don’t come any simpler than Ozu’s screenplay, where an elderly, provincial couple travels to Tokyo to visit their remaining two out of four children only to find them nonchalant and very much busy with their professional lives. It’s a narrative structure so linear, so clear in its purpose, with static, minimalist camerawork all throughout – capturing this tender tale with eye-level perspective. The camera moves only once or twice in the entire film. Ozu’s goal is not to show-off, showing rigorous, carefully-planned framing, making him perhaps one of the most unpretentious filmmakers to ever grace world cinema. Yet behind all this ‘simplicity’ is life itself, so complex in nature, so awash with profundity. Dunderheads will claim ‘nothing much happens’ when everything is happening in Tokyo Story – parents grow old, children move away, get busy with their lives, parents die only for children to realise that one day it’s their turn to fade out – the stuff of life happens here. And Ozu’s absolute triumph is to cast an unsentimental, naturalistic eye to these little, yet vital, vicissitudes of life. Here is a seemingly microcosmic story that bears more meaning, more complexity, significance and depth than a thousand plot-driven screenplays put together.
This is, without a doubt, one of cinema’s most exquisite, profound and aching paeans to parenthood, marriage, ageing, demise and life itself. We are fortunate to have films like Tokyo Story, a work borne out of compassion and respect, that allows us to become better human beings – one of those rare celluloids that will make you weep buckets and then reach for the handset to call your parents and tell them you’re grateful for everything.