3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Criterion Collection: Tokyo Story [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
At the film festival where I watched this film, almost half the audience got up and walked out long before the end - that will tell you that it is not a film that will have mass appeal, especially if you take into account that film festival audiences are normally more into art films than the "normal" filmgoing public. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful movie, which will richly reward those with the patience to carefully consider what is happening and what is being said.
An elderly Japanese couple living in a rural town decides to visit their children in Tokyo. There is the doctor Koichi, the hairdresser Shige and their daughter-in-law Noriko, who works as a lowly clerk in an administrative office. She was married to their son who was killed eight years before during World War Two. On the way to Tokyo they stop at Osaka station, where they meet up with their other son. The old couple is not really welcome in Tokyo, Koichi and Shige being far too busy with their own lives to sacrifice time to spend with them. The cramped space in the Tokyo apartments also means that it is quite uncomfortable for them. Only Noriko gives up her time and specially takes off from work to show them around. She goes out of her way to make them feel welcome. The children send the old couple off to a spa to get rid of them. The spa does not cater for their more sedate lifestyle and they decide to go back home. Upon returning to Tokyo unexpectedly, they find that their children cannot put them up for the night and they are forced to split, the mother staying with Noriko and the father forced to look up some old friends from his village now staying in Tokyo. On the way back home, the mother falls ill and she has a stroke upon her arrival back home. The children has to hurry if they still want to see her before she dies, forcing them to look into their priorities to decide how they will handle this new development.
So far the storyline. Not much outward action, with the action (feelings and emotions) happening within the characters. The major clue the viewer get is through the scene setting and the words and being Japanese, they are polite to a fault. It is only once you put yourself into the shoes of the characters that the emotional force hits you and the understatement actually adds to the impact. This is aided beautifully by the scene setting. In one scene, when the old couple realises that they have to make alternate arrangements to spend the night, they are sitting on the sidewalk eating their lunch (like hobos would, but still in the dignified manner they portray throughout the film), and the father says: "Now we are really homeless". This is just one example of how the setting and the words complement each other.
The film has a lot going for it. It is an in-depth study of ordinary people in an ordinary family and their lives, frustrations, ambitions and relationships. It examines how people are so preoccupied with what is happening in their own small worlds that they lose sight of what is really important in life. It sheds light not only on the parent-child relationship, but is also very insighful in its portrayal of the relationship between the mother and father. Whilst they are clearly happy together, there is just the hint of their past and present relational problems and a subtle reminder of the need to cherish that which is precious, especially if it is not everlasting. It is enlightening about Japanese culture, manners and way of doing things and it sheds a great deal of light on that nation's psyche after World War Two. The generally polite and reserved nature of conversation is only sometimes breached, always with significant impact, as when the mother opens up her heart to Noriko ("I am a burden to everyone") or when at the end Noriko opens up her heart to her father-in-law about her desires. Because this happens out of culture and is a rare portrayal of intimacy, the impact is enhanced.
A beautiful film then, which can be regarded as a true classic. Why only four and not five stars? The subtitles were a little disappointing. Whilst I do not know Japanese, the subtitles sometimes seemed clumsy and not as refined as one would expect, which was out of step with the general sophisticated "feel" of the film ("It is such a privilege to sleep in my dead son's bed" is one example). I suspect that the translators did not always capture the essence of the meaning, rather concentrating on a literal translation. Often there is conversation with no subtitles - whilst one suspect that it is mundane conversation such as "thank you" or "good morning", it is disconcerting to hear people talking and not see the subtitles. Towards the end, with the essential messages already delivered, the film then dragged on a bit, with no new insights being added - bearing in mind it is already slow-moving.
A wonderful film, thoroughly recommended - but not everybody's cup of tea.