© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
There are two Japanese films of the early-to-mid-1950s that hold a special place in the history of world cinema. One of these, the more widely known to popular audiences, is Godzilla (1954), a film that vividly reflects the trauma of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. This film would go on to inspire a vast array of giant monster (or “kaiju”) films in Japan, while Godzilla would also become the center of a global pop cultural franchise. Godzilla films are still being made to this day, as in the American Godzilla vs. Kong (2021).The other most crucial Japanese film of this period is Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a quiet, unassuming film that could not be more different from Godzilla. As opposed to the unprecedented trauma depicted in Godzilla, the leisurely Tokyo Story gives us a slice of ordinary, everyday Japanese life. Yet the critics’ 2012 poll conducted by the British Sight and Sound magazine ranked Tokyo Story the third greatest film (and the greatest non-American film) in the history of world cinema. In addition, the special directors’ poll conducted as part of that same project named Tokyo Story the greatest film ever made.
In Tokyo Story, the Hirayamas, an old couple living in the small Western Japanese coastal city of Onomichi travel to Tokyo to visit two of their adult children and the widow of their son who was lost in World War II. The visit, in small and unstated ways, is a disappointment to almost everyone involved. The couple then return home, with the woman falling ill on the way. Now the members of the younger generation in Tokyo travel to Onomichi, where the old woman soon dies and the survivors begin to process her death. This simple plot summary, though, does very little to explain why Tokyo Story is so special. Declaring that Tokyo Story is “one of the greatest films of all time,” Roger Ebert goes on to note that the film “lacks sentimental triggers and contrived emotion; it looks away from moments a lesser movie would have exploited. It doesn’t want to force our emotions, but to share its understanding. It does this so well that I am near tears in the last 30 minutes. It ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections.”
Tokyo Story tells a very simple story in a very straightforward way. There are very few camera movements (only a couple of slow, unobtrusive tracking shots), no fancy match cuts or swipes or dissolves between scenes. There is relatively little movement within each shot; when significant movement does occur (as in the train journey of the old couple to and from Tokyo), it generally occurs off-screen. As a result, each carefully composed scene is like a painting: many of the shots are, in fact, essentially stills, interposed between actual scenes. Yet the painterly nature of the film does not call attention to itself. There are no flashy or ostentatiously artful scenes. Instead, we see ordinary shots of the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Ozu’s realism is such that one comes away from Tokyo story having been granted an almost documentary look inside the lives of the family at the center of the film. This is how, it seems, people really lived in Japan in 1953. And this seeming accuracy of depiction is not a deception. At the same time, while the film is firmly rooted in 1953 Japan, there is something almost universal at the heart of it, something almost everyone can relate to. It deals with big social themes, such as the nature of modernity and change, that have been central to the history of the entire world since the rise of capitalism. But it also deals with personal themes—family, love, estrangement, hopes, dreams, disappointments—that affect us all at one time or another.
There is, however, a great artistry to the way in which the simple scenes of this simple story are presented to us. Despite the sense of realism and the lack of artful flourishes, the film is not shot in a documentary way. It is, in fact, a very stylish film, perhaps made more so by the fact that the style is so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable. Note, for example, the frequency with which everyday objects—such as kettles and bottles—are carefully used to embellish scenes, populating the screen like the objects in still-life paintings. Yet the film also demands close attention. Many events are not shown on the screen and must be filled in by viewers, who must pay close and careful attention to pick up on even basic details, such as who the characters are and what the relationships among them might be.
Tokyo Story begins with a series of shots of Onomichi, which act to establish the fact that this town is relatively small and traditional in comparison with Tokyo. Onomichi is known for its temples and shrines, and we get shots that emphasize this fact, as well as the traditional nature of the architecture. But this is 1953, and even Onomichi has been thoroughly penetrated by the energies of modernization. The first shot, of a temple with an old-fashioned boat moving along in the background, is followed by a shot of Japanese school children, walking to school and looking very much like Western schoolchildren. When, later, we see a shot of a boy actually studying, he is studying English, indicating the heavy influence of American culture in postwar Japan. The memory of the war is still fresh, though we will learn that, unlike Tokyo, Onomichi was spared American bombing during the war. Yet no one seems to bear a grudge against the Americans, including the Hirayamas, who lost a son in the war. Indeed, English became a required subject in Japan after the war, and much of the subsequent rebuilding and modernization of Japan was facilitated by following American models—to the extent that many in Japan would eventually worry that their own culture was being erased and replaced by American culture.
The next shot, a seeming still of traditional Japanese-style rooftops, is interrupted as a modern train (long a symbol of modernity) moves across the screen. Nothing is made of it in the film, but the train clearly anticipates the journey that the old couple will be taking early in the film. In addition, all of the movement in these early scenes—the boat, the children, the train—proceeds from left to right on the screen, just as the old couple will be moving from West to East, or left to right on a conventional map, as they travel to Tokyo. Then, an immediate cut shows the train from the other side of the track, now traveling from right to left, anticipating the return journey the couple will be making. Such cuts violate one of the basic principles of Hollywood-style editing, in which it is felt that moving the camera in this way across a cut calls too much attention to the cut, while the goal of Hollywood films is to make cuts seem natural and almost unnoticeable.
When we finally meet the old couple—Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama (played by Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama)—they are sitting inside their home on traditional tatami mats placed on the floor. The camera is placed at approximately eye level for someone sitting on the floor in this way, a level that remains common throughout the film and that is common in Ozu’s work. In this way, we see much of the action as it might be seen by someone sitting on the floor, a perspective that would certainly be unusual in an American film (or in American life). Meanwhile, this camera placement also serves the formal function of allowing Ozu to show most of his characters from head to toe, a composition he seemed to prefer. The couple are talking and planning their trip. Significantly, though, they are not facing one another, as one might expect from a couple in conversation. Instead, Tomi, the wife, is sitting behind and to the left of her husband, who faces in the same direction as she. In this way, careful viewers can already ascertain (from the fact that she is behind Shúkichi) that Tomi is accustomed to occupying a relatively subservient position relative to her husband, as well as the fact that (because they do not face one another), they remain emotionally detached from one another, however accustomed they might be to each other through long familiarity.
Soon, a young woman walks into the room from the left. We will eventually be able to identify her as the couple’s younger daughter, Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa), an unmarried primary-school teacher who still lives with her parents. She brings lunch for her parents, then heads off to work, not to be seen again until late in the film, even though she apparently sees her parents off at the train station when they leave for Tokyo, a departure that is not shown in the film but that would surely be featured in almost any American film. Soon after she leaves, we again see Tomi and Shūkichi sitting on their mats, but now the camera again shoots them from the opposite side, thus now placing the wife on the right and the husband on the left. She is still behind him, though, suggesting that, while their relationship can be viewed in different ways, she will always be the secondary figure. Again, as with the earlier train, Ozu has violated a basic principle of Hollywood-style camera placement: according to generally accepted Hollywood editing rules, when two characters are shown in conversation, cuts within the conversation must leave the camera on one side of a straight line between the two characters (the so-called 180º rule).
Ryū, it should be noted, would be a very familiar figure to Japanese audiences in 1953, though he would become even more familiar later, given that he continued to perform for decades after this film. Though he appears rather aged in this film, he was actually not quite fifty years old when it was shot. He was Ozu’s favorite actor, ultimately appearing in 52 of Ozu’s 54 films, an actor-director collaboration the extent of which would be almost unthinkable in American film. Higashiyama (who was fourteen years older than Ryū) also appeared in a number of films by Ozu, including one in which she played Ryū’s mother!
In the next shot, the camera has moved back to its original position, again reversing the relative left-right positions of the two main characters, in blatant violation of Hollywood editing practice. Then a neighbor comes to wish the couple well on their trip, and is interestingly shot in the background between the two main characters, a type of shot we will see several times in this film. By the time she leaves, the camera has again changed sides. Then, suddenly and without warning, we cut to a shot of smokestacks in Tokyo, signifying that we have now jumped ahead to the arrival of the couple in Tokyo, though it takes a while to realize this fact. Ozu’s narrative jumps can be disorienting at first, especially as they often occur in such a way that it is not at first clear that a jump has even occurred, but they are relatively easy to follow once one becomes accustomed to them and learns to look for them.
In Tokyo, we will meet the couple’s eldest son Kōichi (So Yamamura), his wife Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), and their two sons, Minoru (Zen Murase) and Isamu (Mitsuhiro Mori). Kōichi, a pediatrician, is perhaps the most successful of the children, though physicians were not necessarily all that well paid in Japan at this time. Indeed, he and his family do not appear to be particularly affluent. He keeps his office in his home and makes house calls even on Sundays, neither of which would not be all that unusual in 1953 Japan, but both of which combine with other signs to suggest that his practice is not a great success. We also meet the Hirayama’s elder daughter, Shige Kaneko (Haruko Sugimura), who also runs her own business (a hair salon) out of her home and who also does not seem to be particularly prospering, despite what we will learn to be her extreme miserliness. Still, the fact that she is a businesswoman suggests postwar changes in traditional Japanese gender roles, as does the fact that Shige essentially bullies her husband through the film, as opposed to Tomi’s deference to hers.
One of the key themes of this film will be the fact that the Hirayamas’ children are something of a disappointment to them, a fact that they (especially Shūkichi) seem to have accepted stoically as the natural way of the world. Meanwhile, despite the fact that this visit is such an unusual one, neither Shige nor Kōichi seem to have much time to spend with their parents, being much too busy with their own lives. The task of showing the old couple around Tokyo thus falls to Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the apparent widow of their middle son, Shōji, who was lost in action during the war and is presumed dead. One of the ironies of this film is that Noriko, clearly the most virtuous character in the film, treats the old couple far more kindly than do their own children.
Incidentally, Hara was a major star of Japanese cinema at the time, the biggest star of all the actors in this film, even though she plays a supporting role in this particular film. Just as Ozu eschews much of the action and romance of Hollywood film, so, too, does he decide not to play on the star power of his most famous actor. Instead, Noriko is treated as just another character, perhaps the humblest of them all. Thus, when she is first introduced, she is not even given a close-up, as any major star entering aa Hollywood film for the first time would surely have received. Just as Ozu’s characters are treated as ordinary, unremarkable people, his actors are also treated simply as professionals, who are doing their acting jobs without glamor.
It is also worth noting that this is the third film of Ozu’s in which Hara played a character named Noriko, after In Late Spring (1949, in which Ryū played her father) and Early Summer (1951, in which Ryū played her older brother). Despite having the shared name, the “Noriko” characters in these three films are not literally meant to be the same person. Instead, they are variations on the same type, or maybe archetype, of the dutiful and self-sacrificing Japanese woman. Just as he so often used the same actors in multiple films, Ozu also often re-used character names, establishing an interesting web of intertextual connections among his films by suggesting connections between these similarly named characters.
Feminist critics, of course, might object to this Noriko archetype as a sort of updated version of the famed “Angel of the House” figure from British Victorian culture. It should be noted, though, that the Noriko we see in this film, while perhaps a bit idealized, is still a working woman who supports herself and seems to have no particular desire to find a new husband, despite the fact that Tomi urges her to do so. She also, of course, serves as a contrast to Shige, reminding us that not all Japanese women of this generation are quite so selfish and materialistic.
After the Hirayamas arrive at Kōichi’s home in Tokyo, it becomes clear that Minoru and Isamu (who are as obstreperous and disrespectful as any American children) hardly know their grandparents, if at all, and aren’t particularly interested in getting to know them. Minoru, in particular, finds their arrival a much resented inconvenience. One of the ways the theme of social and historical changes is woven into this film is in its depiction of the breakdown of the multigenerational extended family, once the backbone of Japanese society. In this modern age, the struggle to get ahead in the competitive system of capitalism takes precedence over familial loyalty. Hard work helped the Japanese recover from the damage of World War II in an almost miraculous fashion, but it came at a price. The Hirayama children are too busy working to have much time to worry about re-establishing their connection with their parents. Meanwhile, the behavior of Minoru and Isamu suggests that they will treat their own parents no better when Kōichi and Fumiko grow old.
When the Hirayamas tour Tokyo with Noriko, we get the idea that it is a very different world from Onomichi; though not yet the flashy postmodern city of today’s Tokyo, it is a quickly modernizing city already well into the process of recovering from the extensive damage done by American fire-bombing during the war. The difference between the two cities thus symbolizes the difference between the old couple and their children, who essentially live not just in different cities, but in different times. Meanwhile, after the tour, Noriko takes the old couple back to her tiny apartment in a dilapidated apartment building. Now a widow who works at a lowly office job, she is clearly on the edge of poverty, if not beyond that edge. Yet she is willing to share whatever she has with the Hirayamas (and even to borrow from a neighbor to entertain them)—unlike the stingy Shige, who would begrudge them sashimi or fancy cakes because they are too expensive.
Back at her apartment, Noriko has to borrow sake from a generous neighbor in order to entertain Shūkichi, who (we learn) has a taste for drink that has caused considerable trouble for the family in the past. We also learn that Noriko’s husband had inherited his father’s tendency to abuse alcohol, causing difficulties for the uncomplaining Noriko as well. Clearly, Shūkichi has not been an ideal father, but then few people in the world of this film (or in the real world) are without fault, with the exception of Noriko—and possibly Tomi, whose greatest fault seems to be that she is somewhat overweight, which does not seem a terribly serious sin, though being overweight was more problematic for women in Japan at the time (or even now) than it is in our society, which still has its own problems with fat-shaming. We learn from this film that Shige still resents the humiliation she felt when she was a schoolgirl, and her overweight mother once visited her school and sat in a chair that broke beneath her weight. Even Kōichi suggests, near the end of the film, that Tomi’s death might have been related to her weight.
Kōichi and Shige decide to shuffle Shūkichi and Tomi off to the hot springs spa at Atami (near Tokyo). It’s a relatively low-budget spa (as Shige, of course, points out), and one that seems to cater to a younger clientele. Shūkichi and Tomi thus feel out of place at the spa, while finding the antics of the younger guests there decidedly annoying. In one key scene, Shūkichi and Tomi sit at the edge of the water and admit that they are beginning to feel homesick. They are essentially small-town people, and the hustle and bustle of Tokyo are not for them. Plus, while almost everyone takes pains to be formally polite, it has of course not escaped the Hirayamas’ attention that their children are not particularly thrilled to see them. Then, in a key moment, they get up to leave, but Tomi experiences a moment of dizziness that foreshadows her later illness and death, though, as usual in this film, little is made of the event at the time.
The old couple return early to Shige’s home from the spa, only to find that Shige is entertaining other guests and has no room for them. Tomi thus goes to spend the night with Noriko, furthering the bond that has been growing between them. Shūkichi, meanwhile, goes to visit Mr. Hattori (Hisao Toake), an old acquaintance from Onomichi, whom he hasn’t seen for nearly twenty years. Shūkichi informs Hattori that Onomichi has changed little since he left, furthering the contrast between Onomichi and Tokyo. In addition, we learn that Hattori’s young lodger, a law student, seems more interested in having fun than in studying. Thus, added to the sense of the Hirayamas that they did not fit in with the younger guests at Atami, the visit to the Hattoris serves as a reminder that the generation gap within the Hirayama family is not unique, but is in fact typical of this time. Hattori does note in this scene that the son of another old acquaintance, the widower Sapei Numata (Eijirō Tōno), is now a big success, but we will later learn that Numata’s son is not such a big success, either. In fact, many in Japan in the years following the war expressed concern over the state of the younger generation (younger than the Hirayama children), who were, they worried, being unduly influenced by the individualism and materialism of America.
Shūkichi goes out drinking with Numata and Hattori, and the former two of these admit their respective disappointments in their children, with Numata sounding especially bitter; both of Hattori’s sons, we meanwhile learn, were killed in the war, providing a reminder that much of this generation, in fact, perished in the war. By the time Shūkichi and Numata return to Shige’s, shepherded by a policeman, they are staggeringly drunk, and her reaction makes it clear that she has long regarded her father’s drinking as a problem for the family. Shūkichi, we learn in the film, had once been the head of the local board of education, so he has had some success in life. But he is far from perfect and seems to be something of a disappointment to Shige. Ozu is careful to make it clear that this film is making observations, not judgements, and that it is not meant as a condemnation of Japan’s younger generation as inferior to their elders. These elders also had their flaws, and there is little doubt that an aging Kōichi will probably someday complain about his sons. For Ozu the changing of generations is ongoing and never-ending, serving as a key image of the inevitability of change in all things.
By the time the Hirayamas head back to Onomichi, they seem unlikely ever to return to Tokyo. Everyone has strained to be polite, but no one has particularly enjoyed the visit, except for perhaps those moments between Noriko and Tomi. Meanwhile, Tomi (who has shown signs of weakness and forgetfulness throughout the film) will suffer a stroke on the trip back home and will die soon afterward. Then, a similar politeness will inform the last segment of the film, in which Tomi dies (off camera, of course) and is then mourned by her family, with youngest son Keizo (Shirō Ōsaka) expressing regret that he had been too busy with his job to make it backfrom his home in Osaka to Onomichi before his mother’s death. For her part, Shige gets one last chance to display her selfishness by immediately starting to call dibs on various items of her recently-deceased mother’s clothing. Noriko, meanwhile, again comes off better than the Hirayamas’ own children, seeming to mourn Tomi more deeply and authentically than Tomi’s own children. For his part, Shūkichi takes the death stoically, partly because he seems almost in shock, stunned at the loss of his lifelong companion and almost surprised that the world is continuing in her absence, as it always does when anyone dies. In any case, it is clear that Shūkichi is now in for a lonely existence, while Kyoko will perhaps be stuck with caring for him in his waning years, perhaps grudgingly.
Tomi’s death is an unusually dramatic event for an Ozu film, though that death and its aftermath are still treated as a rather ordinary and inevitable part of life, just one more element in the inexorable change that the film continually depicts as a crucial part of the texture of life. This theme, though, is more philosophical than historical or political. Ozu wants to argue that the dramatic change that was sweeping across postwar Japan was merely a special case of the kind of change that is the very stuff of life. Given the special circumstances of Japanese society at the time, this attitude seems a bit questionable and comes close to downplaying the shock and trauma of the Japanese defeat in World War II, a defeat that was capped by the most destructive events in the history of warfare. Indeed, Tokyo Story is undeniably a great work of cinematic art, but it might well be that Godzilla, released a year later, shows a more profound understanding of the unique state of Japanese society in the postwar years by featuring a giant, destructive monster that attacks Japan, clearly serving as an allegorical reminder of the American bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, the calm acceptance of life that pervades Tokyo Story might provide a key to the special aspects of the Buddhist-infused Japanese culture that allowed Japan to recover so quickly and so successfully from the traumas of the war. In any case, read together, Godzilla and Tokyo Story clearly demonstrate some of the complexity of a Japanese society heavily steeped in Buddhism, but also greatly influenced by Western modernity.
Dore, Ronald Philip. City Life in Japan: A Study of a Tokyo Ward. University of California Press, 1958.
Ebert, Roger. “Tokyo Story.” RogerEbert.com, 9 November 2003, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-tokyo-story-1953. Accessed 16 February 2021.
Geist, Kathe. “Buddhism in Tokyo Story.” Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Edited by David Desser, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 101–17.
Noletti, Arthur, Jr. “Ozu’s Tokyo Story and the “Recasting” of McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow. Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Edited by David Desser, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 25–52.
 Indeed, however Japanese it might be, Tokyo Story is actually loosely based on an American film, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), though Ozu makes the story very much his own. On the relationship between Tokyo Story and Make Way for Tomorrow, see Noletti.
 Look for the moment, about 24 minutes into the film, when the boy Minoru can briefly be heard whistling the theme from John Ford’s 1939 Western Stagecoach, the first great modern Western. Ozu himself was a great admirer of American film, even if he didn’t feel obligated to obey its conventions.
 Ironically, there was also widespread concern over the irresponsibility of the younger generation in America at this same time, a period when the term “juvenile delinquent” became a key element of public discourse.
 Ronald Philip Dore notes various “elements of Buddhist thought … so thoroughly absorbed into Japanese culture that they no longer depend on Buddhist institutions for their perpetuation,” such as “the high value placed on the state of non-self,” certain aesthetic values related to Zen, and a “fatalistic determinism emphasizing the necessity of resigned acceptance of one’s lot” (362). For a detailed discussion of the relevance of Buddhism to Tokyo Story, see Geist, who concludes that “no Ozu film begs to be looked at in terms of its links to Buddhism more than” Tokyo Story (102).