An elderly couple, Shukichi and his wife Tomi Hirayama, decide to visit their grown-up children. They make the long journey from their sleepy little province to the bustling city of Tokyo, only to be greeted with apathy and indifference upon their arrival. After a short stay in Tokyo, and a spell in a rather raucous spa in Atami, (courtesy of the children who don’t want the old folks disrupting their everyday activities) the couple returns home. A few days later, the children receive a telegram: their mother is critically ill, and she doesn’t have long. A sudden twist of circumstance forces a second journey to be made. The children set off back home, their hearts now heavy with sadness and regret.
Tokyo Story is a simple story, at once perfectly of its time and place, and universal – appearing in every time and every place. Although few of us can claim to be intimately familiar with Japanese society of the mid 20th century, neither can we deny that we see our own selves – faults and all – reflected in this family. Inextricably linked to this idea is the cause of this erosion of familial values: unrelenting modernisation and the threat of an ever-changing world. At no time had this issue been more critical for the Japanese than during the post-war era, as Japan found herself making enormous economic and technological strides, but also fearing at what cost to her traditional cultural values.
Why exactly was Tokyo Story so titled? It may be useful to note at this point the differences between the five remaining children of Shukichi and Tomi. They can be divided into three groups: in the first are Kyoko and Noriko, their unmarried youngest daughter and their widowed daughter-in-law. Kyoko has not left home yet and thus remains a devoted daughter; Noriko, for her part, is content to earn just enough to support herself. Both are, on balance, the quintessence of virtue . Contrasting with them are the eldest son Koichi and the eldest daughter Shige, a neighbourhood doctor and a beautician respectively. These two residents of Tokyo are trying to keep up with the rat race of city life, and maintain that they are too busy to attend to their parents. Although at times the two do seem callous, never can they be called downright villainous either. Finally, there is the youngest son Keizo; he is the literal and metaphorical middle ground: living in Osaka, he is neither physically nor emotionally close to his parents due to his work; he nevertheless recognises though that he ought to be kinder to them.
These twin ideas – the disintegration of the family and the preoccupation with work that plagues the modern world – are expressed beautifully in the scene where Tomi sits watching her young grandson play by the river. He totters around around gathering blades of grass, while she muses quietly about her own mortality, more to herself than to little Isamu who is quite absorbed in what he’s doing. She wonders where she’ll be by the time he is a grown man. Then, Tomi rises and walks towards the child. She follows him around slowly, but every time she is close enough to touch him, he again sets off in another direction, looking for another blade of grass to pluck. The result is this rather melancholic visual metaphor for the relationship between generations: the older generation trying to recover the intimacy they once shared with the younger, but the younger always drifting ever out of reach. Just as the young Isamu frolics through the grass, the audience may notice the second motif buried subtly within the composition. While we watch Isamu playing in a predominantly natural foreground, we begin to notice the middle ground: a sturdy truss bridge, and the background: a row of rather indistinct telephone lines. Here, the inescapable loom of modernisation, and the ever-increasing hold it has on all of us, is stylishly conveyed.
However, Ozu’s strength is that he condemns no one for this divide across the generations. Nothing, not even modernity itself, is held responsible for this. In fact, had it not been for the advancements in railway technology, the elderly couple would not have been able to visit their children at all, nor the children reach their mother in time to say their last goodbyes. Thus, what remains is only an ironic and bittersweet inevitability; these new-fangled inventions can bring us closer physically, but nothing can stop the tide of time which sweeps away the child from his parents as he progresses into maturity.
The ending of Tokyo Story is either terrifically heartening or utterly depressing. Frankly, I still haven’t made up my mind. Ozu fixes upon a little boat that passes into the docks. We desperately yearn for the boat to come in, for this would signify Noriko coming home to her father-in-law. For society as a whole, it would be the reassurance that the bond of family can ultimately be saved. In the film, the boat passes straight through. Yet, we the audience never stop hoping – not even when the credits begin to roll. Our own capacity to hope, to keep wishing that things could be different, is perhaps enough to assure even the most wizened cynic that all is not, and never can be, lost.