Connect with us

Disc Reviews

Criterion Collection: Tokyo Story | Blu-ray Review

Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story CoverYasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story from 1953, now available in a superbly packaged Blu-ray edition from Criterion, is a film that subtly captures the dynamics of family life in ways that feel stunningly real. There are moments here of such immediacy and personal truth that it seems impossible for Tokyo Story to be a relic of a bygone age and culture. Yet, due to Ozu’s masterful – one could say otherworldly – powers of observation, this sixty year old glimpse into the everyday lives of the Hirayama family presents the human condition with a universality that still rings true in 2013.

Tokyo Story is the final installment of what film scholars call The Noriko Trilogy; three films Ozu made shortly after WWII that feature a female character named Noriko, played by the charismatic Setsuko Hara. However, the films are not narratively continuous and, in fact, Noriko is a different woman, with different circumstances and conflicts, in each picture. Yet the films are tied together by similar themes of quaint family traditions versus the forces of modernity that seek to undo those traditions. The people of Japan may have been traumatized by atom bombs, but in Ozu’s delicate vision, the corporate world and early forms of feminism have wrought the most enduring changes to his nation’s social fabric.

In Tokyo Story, we meet Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishû Ryû and Chieko Higashiyama), a long married couple in their sixties who live a quiet life in the small town of Onomichi. As the film opens, the pair are packing for a long train journey to Tokyo, where they will visit their adult children, who are now busy with careers and families of their own. This expository sequence, which Ozu plays largely for subtle laughs, is complete with a nosy neighbor and a good natured squabble over a missing cushion. But in between the giggles, Ozu manages to establish the Hirayama’s family history and, more importantly, their outsized expectations for this trip. Those expectations are rooted in societal traditions of generational reverence, but those traditions are fading rapidly as Japan’s younger generation rushes to catch up with the Twentieth Century.

Once in Tokyo, the elder Hirayamas get passed from son Koichi (Sô Yamamura), a doctor, to daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), a beauty salon owner, and back again in a game of musical guest rooms. Koichi and Shige have precious few moments to spare for their parents and their visits feature long, restless silences and brief, disinterested conversations. Shige even ships Mom and Pop off to a seaside resort for a few days, but the constant noise of swinging singles in full party mode makes it a hellish stay for the reserved Hirayamas. Once back in Tokyo and again left to his own devices, Shukishi meets up with some old drinking buddies and experiences the sweet oblivion of too much sake, much to the comical alarm of Shige, who leaves her father to sleep it off in a barber’s chair.

Up to this point, Tokyo Story could be considered a gentle, rather modest comedic look at manners and mores in contemporary Japan. However Ozu has much more profound messaging in store. When the Hirayamas visit Noriko (Setsuko Hara), wife of their son Shoji who went missing in the war and is presumed dead, they find a kindred spirit who understands the unspoken purpose of their journey. Throughout the film, Ozu has used Tomi’s brief, bittersweet mutterings as a foreshadow of Tokyo Story’s tragic and transformative final act. The rapid spinning away of one’s time on earth, especially as that time grows ever shorter, is brought from subtext to full blown narrative catalyst, and ultimately all the characters are called to account for their actions. As the Hirayama family reunites for one of life’s most challenging yet inevitable passages, Ozu creates rhythms and moments of such touching clarity Tokyo Story is transported into the rarefied realm of the unforgettable.

Disc Review

Criterion’s colorists have out-done themselves on this one; the 1.33:1 transfer is a thing of wonder, delivering deep, pure blacks and superb contrast. The source material has been meticulously cleaned and restored, breathing vibrant new life into Tokyo Story. Even if you’ve seen Ozu’s classic before, this marvelous transfer brings the film new depth and visual richness. The audio is equally crisp and clean, allowing viewers to enjoy Tokyo Story’s quiet, contemplative atmosphere free from distractions.

Audio commentary featuring Yasujiro Ozu scholar David Desser, editor of Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”
Desser goes heavily into Ozu’s biography and the inclusion of Tokyo Story on Sight and Sounds’ list of the all time 10 best films. He also delivers an intense examination of Ozu’s use of screen direction to communicate subtextual elements. Desser details visual similarities between Tokyo Story and other works in Ozu’s filmography, and the director’s peculiar fondness for shots of clotheslines, which to Ozu represented a simpler, less hurried era. Also discussed is the influence of Hollywood films on Ozu, including a surprising reference to John Ford’s Stagecoach found in Tokyo Story. Desser’s thorough and learned analysis is presented at a rapid-fire pace – and can be a little overwhelming – but fans of Ozu will find it fascinating

I Lived, But . . . , a two-hour documentary from 1983 about Ozu’s life and career, featuring interviews with critics and former cast and crew members
This beautifully filmed and surprisingly moving documentary begins with the line: “From a low camera angle, Ozu observed the lives of parents and children”, which may be one of the best ever descriptions of his work. Here we learn much detail about Ozu’s life and work, from his early days as a substitute teacher – and family embarrassment – to his first job as an assistant cameraman at Shochiku Studios, which served as a springboard to directing. Through interviews with surviving brother Nobuzo, sister Tobi and numerous industry colleagues, a detailed mosaic is created that reveals the gentle but driven man behind the myth. Also covered are Ozu’s illness and painful final days, culminating in the director’s death on his 60th birthday. The documentary moves at a measured pace reminiscent of Ozu’s films and his highly recommended.

Talking with Ozu, a forty-minute tribute to the director from 1993, featuring the reflections of filmmakers Lindsay Anderson, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aki Kaurismäki, Stanley Kwan, Paul Schrader, and Wim Wenders
This program provides an intriguing twist on traditional supplemental fare by asking a selection of renown directors to comment on Ozu’s influence on their work. All provide deeply personal insights, obviously drawn from long periods of introspection. Kwan finds Tokyo Story to be remarkably similar to the events surrounding his father’s death and was obviously strongly affected by it. Schrader discusses his efforts to find Ozu’s films – which were rarely screened in American theaters – and promote them to his fellow film students. Clare Denis offers a number of poignant observations, including the impact of Late Spring’s story of gender role conflict on her own life. The filmmakers are generally interviewed in their homes or offices, lending their commentary a relaxed and conversational quality. This supplement is also highly recommended.

Documentary from 1988 about actor Chishu Ryu’s career at Shochiku’s Ofuna studios, featuring a lengthy interview with Ryu
The 45 minute piece is a bit odd; sort of a combination interview and press release for an extensive renovation project about to be undertaken at Shochiku. Age 83 at the time of the production, Ryu was then the oldest actor still working in Japan, and the documentary captures his memories of the many films, silents and talkies, he appeared in during his long career, He also discusses his relationship with Ozu – who it is clear he never quite figured out – and his recollections of working with Setsuko Hara, whose performances never failed to impress him. Along with the Ozu films, there are clips of Ryu’s performances in numerous musicals, comedies and crime dramas produced at Shochiku Studios. As a poignant note, the film includes scenes of Ryu solemnly watching as the old, outdated structures where he used to work are torn down to make room for new facilities.

A booklet featuring an essay by critic David Bordwell

As expected, Mr. Bordwell’s essay, while relatively brief, is a clear and cogent assessment of Tokyo Story’s unique artistry as well as the film’s place in cinema history. The booklet is a nice feature of Criterion’s deluxe edition package. Along with the Blu-ray, a standard definition DVD is included as well. Both formats include the bonus material in its entirety, and all the materials are enclosed in a sturdy and attractive storage box. This Blu-ray edition of Tokyo Story would make an excellent – and much appreciated – gift for the movie buff on your Christmas list.

Final Thoughts

Experts generally consider Tokyo Story is be Yasujirô Ozu’s overall best film – a task akin to picking out the most beautiful gem in bag of diamonds – and Criterion’s wonderful Blu-ray will augment that reputation. It is a film this reviewer has enjoyed several times over the years, with each screening bringing new and profound facets to the surface. The extraordinary chemistry among Ozu, Chishû Ryû and Setsuko Hara – also found in Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) – reaches its zenith here, delivering an impassioned plea for remembrance and respect. Tokyo Story is really humanity’s story, and a stinging indictment of the myopic selfishness common to all members of the family of man.

Film: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

Click to comment

More in Disc Reviews

To Top