Japanese master director Yasujiro Ozu’s elegance and grace is on full display in his 1953 classic, melancholic Tokyo Story. Filmed with his typical sense of restraint and simplicity, achieved in part by a mostly static frame, with the characters lovingly photographed as a series of portraits in close-up, Ozu literally and thematically pulls our humanity to the fore, amid forces larger than ourselves, in this case the inexorable march of the modern age. These portraits capture every flicker of human emotion in extraordinary nuance, ranging from kindness through to grief. One is reminded of the range of masks in Japanese Noh theatre, yet Ozu rather celebrates the unsurpassable beauty and subtlety of the human face.
In the aftermath of WW2, the modern age creates all sorts of demands on the Hirayama family, making it difficult for the grandparents, Shukichi and Tomi, to spend any quality time with their children when they finally get the chance to visit them in Tokyo. The eldest son, Koichi, takes his responsibilities as a suburban doctor seriously enough to attend to his patients rather than to spend time showing his aging parents the city. The eldest daughter, Shige, likewise has the demands of her hair and beauty business to take care of. The result is that the visiting elderly couple are left quasi-destitute in a large city, except for the fact that their daughter-in-law, Noriko, a widow of their youngest son who died eight years ago in the war (and whose death poignantly everybody prefers to justify as a prolonged absence), chooses to care for them. Ozu seems to offer Noriko as a beacon of hope, almost as an angel, in a modern world where we prefer to look after our jobs rather than one another. The actress Setsuko Hara’s performance lends Noriko charming grace, while never letting us forget that immense pain and grief lie just underneath the surface.
It is the spectre of modernism that is the true source of anxiety in Tokyo Story. Its ambassadors are steam trains and cargo boats, seemingly in perpetual motion. Ozu’s stillness is offered up as a silent protest to this ineluctable movement; he offers us a pièce-de-résistance in the form of quiet contemplation; a sanctuary into which we can for a couple of blissful hours forget the incessant pulse of our mobile phones. The old couple stand as a powerful bastion of noble acceptance in the face of change, united in their unspoken love for each other. So much so that with the death of the grandmother Tomi, Ozu seems to suggest that not only have we lost a wife and a mother, but also an irretrievable part of our humanity in the face of an unrelenting modernity.