JPRI Critique, Vol. X No. 8: December 2003
Images of Aging: Ozu's Tokyo Story
(Tokyo Monogatari); Director, Yasujiro Ozu, 1953, B&W, 139 min.
by E.B. Keehn
 
(Ozu’s great work was released on DVD on October 28, 2003.)
 
Tokyo Story tells the tale of intergeneration gaps in early postwar Japan. It is both a commentary on social shifts in the years immediately after defeat, and an intimate examination of the complexities of adult relations between parents and children.  The film is considered Ozu’s masterpiece and made its way onto several all time best film lists when it was finally commercially released in the United States in 1972. 
 
American audiences did not view the film with the same historical context as Japanese audiences did nearly twenty years earlier, but they identified with the themes the film embodies.  Intergenerational tensions, unresolved feelings, and unacknowledged hurtful behaviors from the past are universal family experiences, regardless of cultural or historical setting.
 
Plot
 
The plot is deceptively simple. An elderly man, Shukichi Hirayama, and his wife, Tomi, travel from their village seaside home in southern Japan, where they live with their youngest unmarried daughter, Kyoko, to visit their married children in Tokyo.
 
They first stay with their son, Koichi, a doctor working out of a home office in a lower middle class suburb.  They discover they are not particularly welcome by his son and their grandsons, and are in fact an unwanted burden.  The grandchildren are rude and uncommunicative, the son cold and easily distracted by a medical practice that is not particularly busy.
 
They move on to visit their eldest daughter, Shige, who runs a beauty parlor and is married to a pleasant but unimaginative man. Shige is even less welcoming than her brother was.  She is bitter, penny pinching, and complaining.
 
Shukichi and Tomi lost a son in the Pacific War, eight years ago, and his widow, Noriko, also lives in Tokyo.  They visit her. Unlike the others, she is open, warm and friendly, and takes them on a sightseeing trip around the city.  She is the high point of their stay.
 
Shige sends her parents off to a hot springs resort several hours south of Tokyo, to get them out of the way.  She finds them a cheap place to stay, where the other guests are all young and stay up late carousing.  Shukichi and Tomi feel out of place and decide to return early.
 
When they get back to Tokyo, Shige is put out. She’d planned a dinner party that evening. They feel even less welcome than before and decide to get out of the house for the evening.  Tomi will go stay with Noriko and Shukichi will seek out old village colleagues who now live and Tokyo and try to stay with one of them.  They wander around Tokyo together for awhile, feeling emotionally lost, and then go their separate ways.
 
Noriko and Tomi spend a warm and emotionally open evening together.  Noriko lives in a run down one room apartment with communal sinks and toilets, but she does not complain.  Tomi encourages Noriko to remarry, worried about how hard and lonely life is in Japan for an unmarried older woman.  They forge a deeper connection and sleep side by side in Noriko’s little room, like mother and daughter.
 
Shukichi hooks up with two old friends and they go drinking.  One man, Hattori, lost both his sons in the war and seems a distant and depressed individual.  The other man, Numata, lives with his son in Tokyo.  Numata admits he lies about his son, telling friends he is an executive, not the office clerk he really is.  He’s embarrassed by his son’s lack of drive.  Shukichi confesses his son is not much of a doctor.  They drink themselves into a stupor. Hattori finds his way home, but Shukichi and Numata are brought by the police to Shige’s house in the middle of the night.
 
Tomi and Shukichi return home to their village, but Tomi falls ill along the way.  They have to stop in mid-journey until she can recover, visiting another son who is a railway clerk in Osaka.  This man too is uninterested in them, even when his mother is ill.
 
When Shukichi and Tomi get home, Tomi becomes critically ill.  The children are summoned, coming reluctantly.  The daughter-in-law Noriko also comes.  Tomi falls into a coma and dies. Yet, there is little remorse shown by the Tokyo children. Shige callously demands some of her mother’s treasures over a shared meal immediately after the funeral service.  She and Koichi leave that day.  Kyoko, the youngest daughter, is outraged.  “Even strangers would have been more considerate,” she tells Noriko. 
 
Noriko stays on for a few days, helping Kyoko, the unmarried daughter, with her widowed father.  As she did with Tomi in Tokyo, Noriko forms a deep emotional bond with Shukichi and Noriko during her stay. 
 
Comments
 
Shukichi and Tomi seem very old and gentle.  But they are probably only in their late 60s, and the film hints that things were not always right in the household. The daughter Shige recalls what a hard drinker her father was when she was young, and how she hated his drunkenness.  It is a glimpse into the difficulties of growing up with these parents.  They are kind and weak now, but this was not always the case.
 
Aging is portrayed unromantically. The world has changed radically, and there is no longer a place in it for the elderly.  Shukichi and Tomi are living uneventful lives in their village, but lives without substance.  They have no interests or passions, nor friends their own age. They seem hollowed out by age and the weight of experience.
 
But this very hollowing out has not led them to bitterness. Or perhaps it has hollowed out their bitterness and led them to kindness tinged with befuddlement, and a pride in behaving well without troubling others.  There is nothing left for Tomi and Shukichi but to be pleasant to each other, and to those around them. Their children have moved into a postwar future where their parents cannot join them emotionally or psychologically, and where they do not want to be joined. More than age separates parent and child here. They are also separated by different ways of life, of being, thinking and feeling.
 
Though the film is never overtly critical of any of the characters, there are three unspoken subplots that would have been obvious to Japanese audiences in 1953. 
 
First, the three men who go drinking together were all important officials in Japan’s prewar and wartime fascist state.  Shukichi was the head of the school board.  This position made him responsible for helping to carry out emperor worship in the schools, and responsible for the marshal style of education that prepared young village men to fight and die at home, in China, and in the jungles of southeast Asia.  Hattori was an official in local government and would have implemented the central government’s aggressive policies.  Numata was the chief of police, responsible not just for law and order, but for surveillance of his own neighbors. 
 
In this context we understand why the children have abandoned their elders in postwar Japan.  These parents, and parents like them, led them into war, international isolation, disaster and death.
 
A second suggested subplot is class-based.  None of the children is as financially successful as their parents, nor do they occupy positions of particular importance. The family is diminished. The postwar world knocks them off their pedestal and makes it impossible to maintain the family’s status. There is a feeling of shame, at least on the part of the father, that his children are not fighting to rebuild their fortunes in a new world.
 
Third, the movie suggests the centrality of forgiveness and acceptance.  Toward the end of the film, Shukichi says to his widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko, “Its funny, but though we have children of our own, you are the one who has been kindest. Thank you.”  His Tokyo children are callous and inconsiderate, but Noriko accepts him, and the world, as it is now.  Noriko’s husband was killed in the war, and we are meant to sense she knows forgiveness is the only way forward if we are to retain a sense of dignity and humanity about ourselves and others.  There has already been too much suffering. 
 
By the end of Tokyo Story, Noriko becomes the film’s central character.  She represents the wiser alternative to the behavior of the others – the way of acceptance of life’s commissions and omissions.  This may not be pleasant, or even particularly healing, but it is a way forward, summed up in one of the last pieces of dialogue in the film.
 
Kyoko says to Noriko, “Isn’t life disappointing.”
 
“I’m afraid it is,” replies Noriko.
 
E. B.KEEHN is the former president of the Japan America Society of Southern California, taught at Cambridge University in the U.K., and holds a doctorate in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. He is currently completing an additional doctorate in Clinical Psychology and can be reached at keehn@hotmail.com.

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