One of the most highly regarded films of all time and the title that brought Ozu to the attention of cinephiles in the West, Tokyo Story (a.k.a. Tôkyô monogatari) has quite a reputation. It’s been given the Blu-ray treatment by the BFI before, but to celebrate their Japan 2020 season, they’re releasing it again in a new (to the UK at least) 4K remastered print.
Much has been written about the film over the years often with more eloquence than I could ever muster, so I’ll try to keep my review brief and add thoughts on the 1941 Ozu film The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family which is included on the disc as a special feature.
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Screenplay: Yasujirô Ozu, Kôgo Noda
Starring: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama, Sô Yamamura, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura
Running Time: 136 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Tokyo Story sees an elderly couple, Shukishi (Ozu’s ‘fetish’ actor Chishû Ryû, who appears in all but two of his films) and Tomi Hirayama (Chieko Higashiyama), travel from their coastal home to Tokyo, to visit two of their adult children, Koichi (Sô Yamamura) and Shige (Haruko Sugimura), as well as their daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) who lives alone after her husband died in the war. Koichi and Shige, beyond the usual niceties, treat the visit as an obligation rather than a pleasure, annoyed by their parents getting in the way of them living their usual lives. However, the non-blood relative Noriko treats them respectfully and takes time out of her working schedule to look after them during their stay. Over the course of the film, the members of the family question their relationships with one another, particularly after tragedy strikes later on in the story.
The film follows Ozu’s template he set back in the 30s and rigidly stuck to throughout the rest of his career; portraying a family drama using largely static shots, with the camera set low to the floor and eschewing dissolves and other transitions, as well as using many cast and crew members he’d worked with a great deal in the past. So what makes Tokyo Story special among the director’s oeuvre, causing it to regularly crop up in prestigious ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ lists and such?
I could be cynical and say nothing does. Ozu has made many masterpieces in his career and it might simply be the fact that Tokyo Story was the first to be widely screened in the West, despite him having been directing since the silent era. However, even though I lean towards Late Spring as my personal favourite (helped by being my first experience with Ozu), there is something about Tokyo Story that does help it stand among the finest of the director’s work. It’s hard to put my finger on, as its qualities are shared with other Ozu titles, but there is a level of perfection it reaches that perhaps isn’t matched elsewhere. The director always aimed for this through his rigorous approach but here it is indeed difficult to fault the film.
Saying that, when I first saw Tokyo Story maybe 15 years ago, I must admit, though I thought it was a beautiful film, I did find it slow-moving and difficult to sit through. It’s quite long and like in all of Ozu’s films, the drama is subtle, to say the least. Don’t expect high-pitched melodrama or fiery confrontations. Instead, scenes are understated, feelings often kept below the surface, unsaid or implied. Over the years though (this was my third viewing of the film), I’ve grown to appreciate this pace. I could have happily stayed in its world a good deal longer this time around. Ozu’s famous ‘pauses’ in-between scenes, when we linger on an empty room or have our attention drawn to an object or location, give the audience time to breathe and contemplate. They also help establish the tone as well as setting, rather than thrust us through a story like a fairground ride.
What I think makes Ozu’s films effective in general, on top of his meticulous craftsmanship, is how universal they are. Some might see them as very Japanese stories, but I believe his family dramas can be appreciated by anyone. So much of Tokyo Story’s family dynamics and themes of generational shifts and respect between them can be directly relatable to anyone. I can certainly see some of the characters’ actions reflected in my own or those of my family.
The universality of Tokyo Story might also be something to do with the fact that it is indebted to an earlier Hollywood film, Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow. Reportedly, Ozu hadn’t seen the film prior to making Tokyo Story, but his co-writer and regular collaborator Kôgo Noda had and loosely based the story around it. McCarey’s film is equally as good as Ozu’s in my opinion. It’s more emotionally powerful, if a touch less subtle.
I said I’d keep this short, so I won’t go into lengthy detail as to why Tokyo Story is so greatly admired, but I will say that I believe it’s fully deserving of its lofty status. Deceptively simple yet elegant, masterfully crafted and quietly poignant, it’s a slow-moving and finely-drawn journey but one I’m always more than happy to take.
The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Screenplay: Yasujirô Ozu, Tadao Ikeda
Starring: Mieko Takamine, Shin Saburi, Hideo Fujino, Ayako Katsuragi, Mitsuko Yoshikawa, Masao Hayama, Tatsuo Saitô
Running Time: 105 min
BBFC Certificate: U
There is a good reason behind The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family being added to the Tokyo Story Blu-ray package. It hasn’t simply been included for the sake of it. On top of drawing inspiration from Make Way For Tomorrow when making Tokyo Story, Ozu and Noda looked back at one of the director’s earlier films, The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, which follows a fairly similar story.
In it, Shintaro (Hideo Fujino), the patriarch of the Toda family, dies suddenly after celebrating his wife’s (Ayako Katsuragi) 61st birthday with their five children and their families. When going through the will and legal formalities, the family discover Shintaro was greatly in debt and are forced to sell the large estate in which he lived. This leaves his wife and their youngest, unmarried daughter Setsuko (Mieko Takamine) with nowhere to live except an old house by the sea. The siblings initially step forward, volunteering to let their mother stay with them, but as she and Setsuko get passed from house to house due to them ‘interfering’ with their usual lives, the pair begin to realise they’re not welcome. During the first anniversary of his father’s death, the initially insolent second brother Shojiro (Shin Saburi), who moved to China to work after the incident, comes back home to discover what happened. He’s disgusted by his siblings and confronts them.
Tony Rayns describes The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family as one of Ozu’s most complicated family dramas, and there is indeed quite a lot going on, but only in comparison to the director’s usual work. This is still a fairly low-key affair, even if it has one or two more openly-aired arguments than Tokyo Story.
As usual, the direction and composition are immaculately conceived with no unnecessary visual flourishes and Ozu’s signature low, static angles are in use. The story is gently-flowing again too, with plenty of breathing room, though the busier narrative and shorter running time mean it has a faster pace than Tokyo Story.
There are some quietly tense scenes between family members, nicely reflecting the frayed nerves between them when trying to live under one roof. Most notable is a key scene when Setsuko asks her sister-in-law to stop playing the piano late one night.
There are some touching moments too. I particularly liked the scenes between grandmother and grandson. The latter is plain-speaking and rude, but clearly has a great affection for his grandma and she enjoys being around him so their interactions are sweet without becoming cloying.
My only issues with the film came from the final act. Shojiro’s return, lambasting of his siblings and subsequent efforts to improve the situation smacks a little of deus ex machina, neatly tying up the narrative in its conclusion. There’s a broadly comic final sequence too which seemed oddly out-of-place.
Generally, however, The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family sees Ozu continuing to do what he does best. He may have refined his style a little in later years, but the ingredients are all here and it deserves more than the mere ‘special feature’ status it gets on this disc. Problems with sourcing a decent print might be more of the issue here though, and I’m more than thankful it was included, so I shouldn’t complain.
Tokyo Story is released on 15th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by the BFI. It’ll also be available on the BFI Player within a collection of 25 Yasujirô Ozu films released on BFI Player’s Subscription service as part of Japan 2020, a major new BFI season (more details can be found here – https://www.bfi.org.uk/japan).
I watched the Blu-ray version. The picture quality of Tokyo Story is absolutely immaculate – clean, sharp and incredibly detailed. This is especially impressive given that the original negative was destroyed in a fire. Audio is fairly solid, though there is a little hiss in places. I don’t have the previous BFI Blu-ray release to compare, but it’s a huge step up from the old Tartan DVD copy I have.
The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is a different story. It’s in SD and looks as though it’s not undergone any restoration, so the picture is badly damaged. The soundtrack is even worse, with a lot of noise proving quite distracting. The subtitles have a fair number of mistakes too. It’s a shame, but it’s not one of Ozu’s better-known films, so going to the great expense of remastering it might have been too much to ask. Having it included in the set is more than welcome though and it’s still watchable, despite any technical shortcomings.
There are several extra features included in the set:
– Remastered in 4K with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– An introduction to Tokyo Story (2020, 26 mins): Asian-cinema expert Tony Rayns provides an introduction to Ozu’s most acclaimed film
– The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941, 105 mins): following the death of her husband, Mrs Toda realises she has been left with sizeable debts and an extended family reluctant to support her
– Talking with Ozu (1993, 40 mins): a tribute to the legendary director featuring filmmakers Lindsay Anderson, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aki Kaurismäki, Stanley Kwan, Paul Schrader and Wim Wenders
– Furnival and Son (1948, 19 mins): recounts the difficult choice a recently demobbed serviceman has to make between an unexpected job offer elsewhere, and resuming his pre-war position as his father’s cutlery firm, Furnival and Son
– ***FIRST PRESSING ONLY*** Fully illustrated booklet including an essay by Professor Joan Mellen, archival writing by John Gillett and Lindsay Anderson and a biography of Yasujiro Ozu by Tony Rayns
The inclusion of The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is obviously the biggest draw in the package. It’s surprising that it’s only mentioned in the extra features and not on the cover as with the previous release, but the hugely notable difference in picture and sound quality between the films might be a good reason for this.
Tony Rayns’ introduction is fairly illuminating, discussing Tokyo Story and its influences. It’s a shame a longer commentary track wasn’t included though as I’d have loved to hear him provide a more detailed analysis. It felt like he was often worried about spoiling plot details in this introduction.
The Talking With Ozu documentary is very good, if rather unusual at times (particularly Aki Kaurismäki’s amusing segment). In it, famous directors, all of whom are considered to have been clearly influenced by Ozu or have written books or made documentaries about the director, discuss his work and what it means to them. Some contributors are better than others (Wim Wenders was my favourite) and I could have done without the occasionally overlong travelogue sequences, but it’s an interesting and engaging piece.
Furnival and Son is pretty clunky in its voiceover narration storytelling, but I appreciated getting to see Sheffield in the 40s, as it’s a city not far from where I grew up. Plus it’s quite nicely shot for a film that seems to be primarily an advert for Sheffield steel.
The booklet is excellent, crammed with thoughtful essays on Tokyo Story and Ozu’s work as a whole, as well as details of the rest of titles included the set.