Features Live Action Movies

Tokyo Story
(Tokyo Monogatari,

Director – Yasujiro Ozu – 1953 – Japan – Cert. U – 136m


Plays in the BFI Japan 2021 season October / November at BFI Southbank. Also currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the Japan programme alongside 24 other Ozu films together with a much wider selection of Japanese movies.

Elderly couple the Hirayamas (Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama) live in the seaside town of Onomichi, a day’s train ride from Tokyo at the time the film was made. Of their five children, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa) still lives at home with them and works locally as a primary school teacher, two live in Tokyo, one in Osaka and one went missing in action during the war, presumed dead. The son and daughter in Tokyo, Koichi (So Yamamura) and Shige (Haruko Sugimura), work as a doctor and a beauty parlour owner respectively. Both are married while the missing son has left behind a widow Noriko (Setsuko Hara). The fifth child is a son Keizo (Shiro Osaki) in Osaka which is on the train between Onomichi and Tokyo. The couple want to visit their offspring and see how they are doing for themselves. And meet the grandchildren.

Kyoko is a devoted daughter and the parents expect the other three surviving kids to be much the same, but they’ve reckoned without the pressures of working, married and family life in the big city. Neither Koichi nor Shige really want to spend much time on their parents and do their best to get them out of their hair, first palming them off on Noriko who takes a day off work from her office to take them on a bus sightseeing tour then sending them away for a few days to a hot springs resort at Atami.

Owing to a noisy party in the hotel, the Atami trip doesn’t really work out and the elderly couple return to Tokyo the next day to discover they’re not really wanted; the husband goes out drinking with an old friend while his wife stays with Noriko, the one person who has time for the two old people. Two further, minor episodes (the first not shown, the second shown only briefly) involve the couple’s stopping off in Osaka with Keizo both on the way out to Tokyo and on the way back.

Ozu made his first film in 1927 and by the time of this one, which regularly crops up on critics’ lists of the best films of all time, had honed something of a personal cinematic language. He rarely moves the camera and loves small, domestic interiors. Part of the joy of this film comes in watching static set ups where characters move in and out of rooms and react with each other within those spaces.

There are offscreen intrigues – we see downstairs rooms and upstairs rooms but never the staircases connecting them, except for people exiting offscreen to and entering from what are obviously stairs. Ozu has a reputation for making his actors do multiple takes to lose the acting quality from their performance. What he ends up with from his cast after that process is very low key yet somehow utterly compelling. The movie has a freshness about it even today: it has stood the test of time well.

The BFI’s new Blu-ray of the film benefits considerably from a superb new digital 4K restoration (from a dupe negative because the original camera negative has sadly been destroyed in a fire).

Critic Tony Rayns’ film introduction on this disc helpfully suggests that while the film is not an actual remake as such, it owes much to two films. One is Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, US, 1937) about an elderly couple whose kids let them down, which being a Hollywood movie is straightforward and doesn’t lend itself to multiple or ambiguous interpretation, a quality it shares with Tokyo Story which may help in part account for the film’s enduring popularity. The other is Ozu’s own The Brothers And Sisters Of The Toda Family (1941), happily included on this Blu-ray, which explores many of the same themes as the later film – the pressure on women to get married, the relationships between parents and their children.

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Also on the disc is the documentary Talking With Ozu (1993) in which film directors Stenley Kwan, Aki Kaurismaki, Claire Denis, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders and Hou Hsiao-hsien talk about what Ozu means to them.

BFI Player is currently screening some 25 Ozu films including Tokyo Story, The Brothers And Sisters Of The Toda Family and The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice (also out on Blu-ray), among them a good number of silents including his earliest surviving film Days Of Youth (1929). In a coup of inventive programming, the Tokyo Story disc also includes the British COI short Furnival And Son (1948) – which can be watched by anyone for free on BFI Player – about tensions between parents running a small Sheffield steel business and their returning son who they expect to help them run it.

Tokyo Story is out on Blu-ray in the UK on Monday, June 15th 2020.

Plays in the BFI Japan 2021 season October / November at BFI Southbank. Also currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the Japan programme alongside 24 other Ozu films together with a much wider selection of Japanese movies.

New 2023 trailer:

Here’s an earlier trailer (NB this is not the trailer for the restored version, which looks much better than this):


Blu-ray from Monday, June 15th

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