Sunday, 3 November 2013

TOKYO STORY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Ozu Masterpiece Gets Deluxe Criterion BD

One of the great, if not the greatest of all films ever made about family by one of cinema's true masters. Tokyo Story often feels like it stands alone in its indelible and consummately perfect portrait of lives well lived to lay a groundwork - for better or worse - for future generations to benefit and carry on from the love and sacrifices of those who came before and that life, in all its joy and sadness is a never-ending cycle of growth and regeneration through death.

(Top L to R) Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Sō Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake
(Bottom L to R) Mitsuhiro Mori, Chieko Higashiyama, Chishū Ryū, Zen Murase

As Noriko, Setsuko Hara, Japanese Cinema's greatest actress
and one of its biggest and most beloved stars.
Tokyo Story (1953) *****
Dir. Yasujirō Ozu
Scr. Kōgo Noda, Ozu
Starring: Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara
Review By Greg Klymkiw

Is there anything sadder than children living their own lives at the expense of forgetting their parents, or worse, acknowledging their parents' "mere" existence as something which, annoyingly, impedes upon their own growth, their own lives? Is there, finally, anything more selfish? Probably not, but is it simply a terrible truth we all must accept as the normal course of life, love and death? Is forgetfulness an act of thoughtlessness or is it that thing we ultimately need to keep living?

These are questions that face us during and after seeing Yasujirō Ozu's perfect film, Tokyo Story. It is a film that instills considerable pain in us, yet it's not one we experience solely within the context of viewing the lives of others - a deep sorrow that we can toss off as one experienced by watching sad figures on a celluloid landscape belonging to fictional characters or, indeed, dramatic recreations of those we know exist, but that we can feel a complacent disconnect from by the act of passively witnessing their actions up on a screen. No, these are finally real people and in Ozu's masterful hands, they are, indeed, all of us.

The tale told here is as simple, and as such, as complex as life itself. Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama (Ryū, Higashiyama) are the elderly parents of three sons (one of whom never returned from World War II), two daughters and two grandchildren. They have never left their rural enclave and in their waning years, they decide to visit Tokyo, the city they've never seen and the home of their married children.

Their presence, however, is merely tolerated and the greatest welcome and kindness they receive is from their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Hara). The elders' vacation is a bittersweet affair - some sightseeing, an uneventful stay in a spa, less than hospitable treatment from their children, a madcap night of drinking for Shūkichi and an old buddy, several warm visits with the daughter-in-law who still carries a torch for their deceased son and finally, a sad journey back to their home far away from the bustle of Tokyo - a sojourn that ends in an unexpected loss.

There aren't any beats in this narrative bereft of emotion. As seemingly straightforward as the events are, Ozu manages to touch us more deeply than any film seems to have the right to do. He achieves this by employing the same deft simplicity in his style as he and his screenwriting collaborator Kōgo Noda bring to bear upon their gorgeous script.

Ozu compliments the writing perfectly by training his camera steadily upon the life of the story, allowing the events to unfurl naturalistically within the frame of a fixed position - never moving, except for one shot, and another that feels like it's moving, but isn't - and rooted in low, yet eye-level perspectives that resemble the position taken by the characters as they sit upon their traditional Japanese tatami mats. Dialogue never seems to overlap, nor does Ozu cut away (at least not so we notice) from characters when they are speaking.

The pace is slow, but always riveting in spite, or rather, because of the stillness. In fact, what tends to move us in the deepest ways is how we watch, ever-so painstakingly and painfully as we see a family torn by time, space and finally the sort of differences inherent in all the characters and their sense of individuality. There are no shrill screaming matches or barbed verbal sparring - instead it is both time and silence that provides us with an ineffaceable sense of decay.

Life, as it unfolds, is death - one that creeps slowly, yet inexorably to where all our lives do. Is there disappointment experienced and expressed? Of course and it's conveyed with both delicacy and the kind of matter-of-factness that we all recognize as the way things are.

At one point, Shūkichi notes: "We can't expect too much from our children." On one hand, it feels like he's almost sighing this notion in defeat and disappointment, but the character is also someone who observes life pass almost like a wry Cheshire Cat. Rather than betraying inscrutability, he expresses a truth that seems less terrible and rather one of acceptance. This is finally what's so heartbreaking. He does not say this with resignation, but with the kind of truth that can only be gained by a lifetime of both observation and just plain living.

Shūkichi's consideration of the reality of what parents must or rather, must not expect from their children parallels the equally powerful moment in Tokyo Story when Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa), the youngest (and unmarried) Hirayama daughter asks, "Isn't life disappointing?" and the wise, warm Noriko offers up a knowing smile and replies, so simply and so tellingly, "Yes, it is."

And damned if Noriko isn't right! Life is disappointing, but so it must be to allow for those momentary bursts of joy and elation to shine like the light sparkling upon us in the clear of a night sky. When youngest son Keizo (Shiro Osaka) says, "No one can serve his parents beyond the grave," he delivers yet another of the film's seemingly terrible truths, but in the end, it's actually not so terrible - our parents ultimately never want us to serve them beyond or even before the grave.

The glorious (and yes, somewhat melancholy) truth Ozu delivers is that it is our parents who selflessly serve us, and if we're doing the right thing, what we must all do to preserve the regeneration and perpetuation of life is to selflessly serve our children, but to never expect or demand that it be reciprocated.

This then, is love and Tokyo Story is nothing if it's not about that.

"Tokyo Story" as presented in the glistening new Criterion Collection dual format package is yet another home entertainment package to own and to cherish. In addition to the exquisite film itself, Criterion has pulled out all the stops and gone well above and beyond the call of duty and included the following supplements to our enjoyment and appreciation of this truly great film: a new digital 4K restoration and transfer to Blu-Ray, a commentary track by Ozu expert David Desser, "I Lived, But . . .", a feature length 1983 doc about Ozu’s life and career, "Talking with Ozu", a forty-minute 1993 "Tribute to Ozu" by Lindsay Anderson, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aki Kaurismäki, Stanley Kwan, Paul Schrader and Wim Wenders, a 1988 doc on actor Chishu Ryu, a trailer, an all-new English subtitle translation and a lovely booklet featuring an essay by David Bordwell. It doesn't get better than this, folks!