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Reviewed by Ivana Redwine
"Tokyo Story" ranks high on most lists of all-time great films—for example, it is number 5 on the 2002 "Sight and Sound" Critics' Poll—yet it has been rather difficult to see in the United States in recent years. My first viewing was on the big screen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I was blown away by the experience. At one point I was looking around for a copy of the movie on videotape, but I'm glad that didn't work out because on October 28, 2003, Criterion Collection released "Tokyo Story" on DVD. The sound and picture quality on the DVD is not quite pristine, but it certainly is very good for a restored classic, and in fact, it seems quite a bit better than what I remember seeing at the museum.
Since other Japanese films, notably Kurosawa's "Rashomon," were popular in the United States during the 1950s, I was surprised to learn that "Tokyo Story," which was made in 1953, didn't get a commercial American release until 1972. The reason seems to have been that filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (1903 - 1963) was thought to be "too Japanese" for Western audiences. At least in the case of "Tokyo Story," I am puzzled by this thinking since I believe Americans will have no trouble connecting with the movie's characters and situations. Also, I'm amazed at how well the film's theme has held up—the estrangement between parents and their adult children remains as relevant today as it was five decades ago.
Universal in theme, humanistic, and accessible, "Tokyo Story" is one of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema. To my mind, this movie's incredible power comes from its seeming simplicity, which allows emotions to build slowly and subtly, much as they do in real life. I find that there's a verisimilitude to this film that startles me, even upon repeated viewings.
The narrative in "Tokyo Story" centers around an aging married couple who travel from the provincial town where they live to Tokyo to visit two of their adult children. But the children have gradually drifted far away from their parents, and the oldsters try to come to terms with what has become of their relationship with their offspring. Still, there is one bright spot for the aging couple during their stay in Tokyo, and that is the brief time they spend with their lovely widowed daughter-in-law. But soon one of the oldsters falls ill and dies, and the family members gather at the ancestral home for the funeral. As the film winds down, I'm almost in tears as three of the characters contemplate their futures. It's a mark of Ozu's genius that by the time the film reaches its end, it moves me with a power that feels more like reality experienced than make-believe.
The visual style of "Tokyo Story" is unlike what I've seen in other films. There is very little camera movement—no pans, no zooms, no dollies, and only a couple of tracking shots. I was brought up on Hollywood movies and found this nothing short of astonishing. The film consists of several hundred shots, and most of them are only 10 to 20 seconds in length. Nearly all the shots are taken from a low-camera angle, typically from a height of two or three feet, and I suppose Ozu does this so that the viewer is placed in the room more or less as an invisible family member kneeling on a tatami. To me, the story revealed itself rather like one in a folding book of woodcuts.
The DVD set provides some interesting bonus materials. There's an informative feature-length audio commentary track by scholar David Desser, editor of "Ozu's Tokyo Story," a compilation of writings and reviews. The DVDs also provide a two-hour documentary titled "I Lived, But …" about Ozu's life and career. It shows clips from 15 or so of Ozu's 54 films, and there are interviews with many people, including critic Donald Richie and two of the "Tokyo Story" actors: Chishu Ryu (the old man) and Haruko Sugimura (the aging couple's older daughter). Also on the DVDs there's a 40-minute tribute to Ozu from directors Stanley Kwan, Aki Kaurismäki, Claire Denis, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Below I've listed all the special features on the DVD set.
Selected Special Features on the DVDs:
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