Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tokyo Story - The quiet Passage of Life

'Tokyo Story' is one of the simplest works of cinema I have witnessed and it is also one of the most profound. In its structure and narrative, this 1953 classic made by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, is simple and dignified like its main characters, but underneath that veneer lies a thought provoking story about the circle of life and its many vagaries. An elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi, travel far from their small village to visit their children in Tokyo. Their son, Koichi, who is a neighborhood doctor with a wife and two children, is suitably happy to have them. However, a busy life leaves him no time to be spent with them. When they move to their daughter Shige's house, who runs a hair salon from home, a similar story greets them. They also have a daughter in law, Noriko (the beautifully serene Setsuko Hara), with a husband who went missing since war, in the city who despite her work is the only one willing to take time out to show them the sights of Tokyo.

The children pool in money to send the parents to Atami Hot springs, a spa, probably to absolve themselves of having to look after them. The vibrance and late night parties of that place is not for the elderly and it is effectively conveyed in a beautiful single shot of their slippers lying side by side outside their hotel room, whilst the rest of the occupants party to music and mahjong. Sleepless and weary, they leave the spa before their time, leading to inconvenience for the offsprings and the parents quietly understand not to burden them even for a night and ponder on whose doors to knock for sleep time. They separate with the mother choosing Noriko's small but welcoming place, leading to a soulful conversation between a mother and daughter in law where behind the everlasting smiles, tears threaten to spill off the two women . The father meets his old friends from the village leading to an all night of sake, where cautious reserves see the wind and the disappointing truths of old age and parenthood find way to their lips. The parents now know it is time for them to go back, some dreams may be broken, few hopes are possibly lost to the sad cycle of life. Children grow up, move away to build their own lives and families. It is an inevitable cycle from which none is spared. The children we build our lives around develop wings and fly out at a stage when the roles start getting reversed and we might be needing them. The bustle of life gives way to the echo of silence.

Ozu, whose works I have not had the fortune of being familiar with till now, calmly makes his audience a fly on the wall to his tale, his camera mostly placed stationary at the eye level of people hunching on tatami mats . There is no drama whatsoever. Little is said, so much doesnt need words to be understood. We observe how lives are lived, what families become. The parents realize the shift in attitude that the busy lives of their children have brought. They still have each other, the only companions. We see how important that companionship is in that last wait in life. And once one is taken away, loneliness and possible regrets assume companionship for the other. Ozu shows this quietly with the death of the mother at the end and the father left alone sitting on his tatami mat fanning himself, waiting.

Ozu was one of Japans most influential directors, who I learn made a career of contemplative tales of ordinary familial bonds. 'Tokyo Story' which features in every list of all time great cinema of the world, with very good reason, is a lesson on life devoid of any melodrama. The characters are ordinary, their circumstances ordinary and in that they impart an extraordinary lesson about life. Note the scene in which a grandmother quietly watches her grandson play and reflects if he shall take after his father's profession of a doctor and whether she would live to see it, all the more profound in her melancholy look and the fact that we witness what she knows, that she wont. The instance when two parents sit side by side on tatami mats and acknowledge with reluctance that their children were probably disappointments but at least they have it better than most. And at the end of it all, are moments depicted with extreme grace and wisdom, that have the power to rock our core. Two sisters in law understanding that life can be disappointing, a father in law giving his wife's precious keepsake to the one not related by blood, a widow acknowledging her loneliness in watching life pass her by and then that final heartbreaking moment of an old man sitting alone, his solitude palpable in weary eyes accepting the law of life.

There have been movies about families, the inevitable disappointments in their dynamics. They lead to moments of heightened drama and while all good, none could match in my book, what Yasujiro Ozu mastered with his austere narration about the paradoxical nature of life and the unit a man sets out to make for himself, create a family and then be left on his own again. Can anyone really escape that?

Originally Released in 1953
In Japanese with English Subtitles
My Rating: 5/5

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