The Japanese family’s postwar disintegration: this is the theme of a noble, massively humane work by Yasujiro Ozu, all of whose films bear the universal appeal of family (or surrogate family) concerns. The war’s demoralizing outcome and the chauvinistic U.S. occupation that followed aren’t mentioned in Tokyo monogatari, nor do they need to be. We grasp, as Japanese audiences certainly did, that what we are witnessing is, at least partly, fallout from what Japan endured over the previous decade.
An elderly couple visit their married son in Tokyo. Both the son, a pediatrician, and his wife work, leaving little time to attend to these guests; and their son is a disrespectful, unruly child. Only the widow of the elder couple’s other son, who died in the war, is warm and attentive. Meaning well, the younger couple send the elder couple off to a spa, but thus being denied the company of those they came to visit only intensifies the older couple’s loneliness and disappointment. At home, the doctor’s mother falls ill and dies.
As it happens, the younger couple also are disappointed, but their sense of the traditional Japan that they’ve lost is less tangible. Ozu’s film, then, is a study in disenchantment, disappointment, about a national mood as it affects the thoughts and feelings of individuals. Acting is key in such a film, and the performances are wonderful, especially those of Chishu Ryu as the father and Setsuko Hara as his compassionate daughter-in-law.
No film better portrays upheaved lives in a “society in transition.” Moreover, Ozu’s shots, such as those showing the backs of the elderly couple sitting outdoors, which convey their shared loneliness and suggest the world—the past—that is now behind them, are material and poetic, elegiac, mundane and transcendent.
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