RopeofSilicon Movie Club: 'Tokyo Story' (1953)

Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama in Tokyo Story
Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama in Tokyo Story

Considering McCabe & Mrs. Miller was unable to get you chatting, I'm concerned what the response to Yasujiro Ozu's slow moving, generational family drama Tokyo Story will result in, but that won't stop me from trying. This time around, however, I am going to write a little less than I have in the past and hopefully hand the majority of the conversation and exploration over to you. Of course, I won't go without saying anything, that's just not my style.

Prior to Tokyo Story my only experience with Ozu was Floating Weeds (which I wrote about briefly back in 2010) and Late Spring. Neither of those films necessarily floored me and are a bit too slow for my taste as Ozu isn't one to spice up his narrative with visual flourishes or editing trickery. This, again, is evident in Tokyo Story, a film considered to be the Japanese director's masterpiece and a film most certainly not for the impatient.

I think I counted a total of two times the camera is actually moving in this film, not including a scene from inside a bus where the camera remains stationary even though the bus is moving. Often situated low to the ground and capturing the action as it happens as if it were an innocent bystander, much of Ozu's talent is found in the framing of his shots.

Look at the shot to the right and the location and position of each of the characters. Five people fill the room and Ozu gives each of them plenty of space to occupy the frame as they bow their heads in somber remembrance of their deceased mother. Similar shots can be found throughout the film and I can only imagine how long it took him to set up each shot to make sure the blocking was to his exact specifications.

I don't want to dwell too long on filming techniques, however, though I welcome the conversation in the comments. As far as the story is concerned, it doesn't get much simpler than this. You've seen it plenty times before and you've seen it told with far more embellishment than is found here. Hollywood would tell this story with grand orchestration and forced tears, but Ozu goes for realism with scenes that play out closer to real-time than the sliced and edited down films of today.

The story is set in the year it was made, eight years after the end of World War II, and follows Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), an elderly couple leaving their small village to visit their children in Tokyo. Planning on an extended visit after not seeing their children for some time and having never been to Tokyo, it's instantly realized their presence is hardly met with enthusiasm by their children and more out of a sense of obligation. In an effort to get them out of the way, they even decide to send them off to a local health spa for a few days.

We've seen elements of this story dealt with many times before, even as recent as the Jim Broadbent's storyline in Cloud Atlas or the fantastic animated feature Wrinkles. It's best summed up in a quote from Shukishi and Tomi's son Keizo (Shiro Osaka) who says, "No one can serve his parents beyond the grave." It doesn't get much more on the nose than that, but this is only the start of the quotes that caught my attention.

After witnessing the lack of respect shown by her elder siblings, Shukishi and Tomi's youngest daughter Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa) says to the widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), "Isn't life disappointing." It's a sentiment that runs through the picture, and shades each smile with a bit of sadness behind it.

Shukishi and Tomi have plenty of love for their children and even after witnessing their behavior do their best to make excuses, at one point saying, "They're certainly better than average." But it was one statement made by Shukishi that stuck out for me when he says, "We can't expect too much from our children."

This is a quote that can be read one of two ways, one is to say we simply shouldn't put too many expectations on our children. Understandable, if not challenging. The other way of reading it, however, is to say we can never expect too much from our children, we should always be pushing them and driving them to be better. Shukishi meant the former and he says it with such a defeated tone it comes across as a matter of acceptance and almost a sense of failure.

As far as the overall film is concerned, I respect the hell out of it and wish more of today's filmmakers would take a lesson in the art of "less is more" as frenetic, hand-held camera work and close-ups have become the norm nowadays. The idea of storytelling is pushed to the background and nuance is absent from so many of today's features. The simple task of suggesting something is going to take place is something Ozu clearly understood and realized audiences don't need to see everything to know it happened along with the understanding that a few words alone can say far more than a lengthy speech or close-up shot of forced tears and wailing into the night.

Perhaps the secret to enjoying today's films can actually be found in Tokyo Story. Maybe Sukishi was onto something... can we expect too much from today's directors? If we do, is it not just a matter of time before we're left consistently disappointed?

Screenshot from Tokyo Story


The rules are simple and, if necessary, will update as we go along.

  1. No topic is off limits as long as it pertains to the movie of the week or comes as a natural progression of the conversation.
  2. Keep your comments to a reasonable length. I know the urge to write a lot at once is there, but try to rein it in and get out one thought at a time. That way the conversation will move more fluidly and make sure none of your thoughts are overlooked.
  3. NO BULLYING: This is important, while you are free to disagree, do so in a mature manner. Hopefully I won't have to explain that any further.
  4. Suggestions for future Movie Club titles must be emailed to Comments on actual Movie Club articles pertaining to future discussions and not the film being discussed will be deleted to make sure we remain on topic.


Based on last week's poll, the December 24, 2012 Movie Club selection is Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974).

Use the following poll to vote for the December 31, 2012 Movie Club selection and to suggest films for future entries direct all your emails to

NOTE: All five of the selections in this week's Movie Club poll come from Quentin Tarantino's Top 20 Spaghetti Westerns list and three of them are available on NetFlix Instant right now -- Death Rides a Horse, The Mercenary and Navajo Joe.

Vote for the December 31, 2012 Movie Club selection

  • The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci) (29 Votes)
  • Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni) (28 Votes)
  • Navajo Joe (Sergio Corbucci) (21 Votes)
  • The Mercenary (Sergio Corbucci) (12 Votes)
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Next week's film will be Erik Skjoldbjærg's Insomnia, which Christopher Nolan remade in 2002. For more information on where to watch it and an updated schedule, visit the Movie Club homepage.

  • IngmarTheBergman

    When it comes down to minimalism in cinema, it’s rarely done right. Some examples of minimalist movies are Ordet, Bicycle Thieves and finally, Tokyo Story. Films like Tokyo Story focus on a single message or theme and remove most metaphorical content to make it easier to understand the theme or message. For some people, Tokyo Story might be a perfect reminder of essential theme in life as in “always love family”, however I watched the movie for more than a It’s A Wonderful Life happy kind of message. I would like to credit director Ozu on account of a very realistic world to match a very realistic film. However, I believe Ozu went too far and began using the most dull and uninteresting camera shots. However, there is a fair bit of balance, especially in that shot you showed an image of above. However, it does seem like Ozu read a book on the elements of design right before shooting the movie. The actors were excellent, it all seemed very natural. However, Chieko Higashiyama’s face forced me to close my eyes on numerous occasions. Finally, this is the kind of film that can be loved for being so simple by some audiences and hated by others for its simplicity.

  • Scott

    I've been meaning to re-watch this for years. It's an astonishing film. And with its recent inclusion on the Sight and Sound top10 list, plus this, now's the perfect time to revisit it! I really love this movie club, by the way. I hope it continues!

  • Timothy

    I didn't love this film, but i didn't hate it. It was boring, but i don't usually mind boring as long as the filmmaker is taking the times to paint a beautiful, albeit slow, film (ahem, Tarkovsky). In Tokyo Story, Ozu follows, as Brad mentioned above, the "less is more" idea faithfully. Scenes play out in real time, focusing on the reality of life. Unfortunately that makes it harder for the average viewer to experience the film the way it is meant to be.

    That isn't saying it is gem, it is not. In some scenes, you really do want to like it, but there is something missing. I can't quite define what that something was, but at the end I felt empty, and I'm pretty sure that isn't how I was supposed to feel. I haven't seen Make Way for Tomorrow, but from things I have read it was apparently an inspiration for this film.

    The post-war Tokyo and the beach side town seem totally different from each other, so the idea of the "older" slower town, versus the busy bustling city is an interesting contrast. I believe there is a line when the father says "If we get lost, we'll never find each other again", or something along those lines.

    Overall I did not find this film to be "great" and it is incredibly overrated. I did not hate it, but I shall not watch it again, if I can.

    • IngmarTheBergman

      Yes, Make Way For Tomorrow seems to be a much more original version of Tokyo Story.

    • Criterion10

      I'll definitely agree that the film is overrated. I can understand why many consider this a great film, but I don't believe it deserves to be hailed as one of the best films ever made.

      Not to get too off topic, the only Tarkovsky film I've seen is Solaris, which I also found painfully slow moving. But at the same time, Solaris is a film that has stuck with me that I have even returned to. I can't say the same for Tokyo Story.

      • Timothy

        I must agree, Tokyo Story seems like a film to be appreciated, rather than enjoyed.

        • Susan

          See, I enjoyed it. It's an engaging experience.

          • Timothy

            That's an opinion. I found the film to be overtly slow and not engaging, but that's only my opinion.

  • Baca

    The correlation to Cloud Atlas is definitely something that I noticed while watching this. One of the things that really stand out for me emotionally in this and in Cloud is that idea of dedicating your existence to making someone happy and them not appreciating it. Like holding the door open and getting no thanks. I think the sadness that goes along with that is something that is really well portrayed int his, but also in a subtle way.

  • Andrew

    My favorite film ever. The whole cast is fantastic and you realize it once the characters begin to interact with new people.

    Ozu's measured style allows the characters to emerge and he never smacks you over the head with tone. I don't know, some movies I love so much its hard to properply detail why.

    • Mikey

      Did you love this film after first viewing? Or was it only after revisiting it that you came to this conclusion? I feel that this might be a film that would benefit from repeat viewings, although I personally won't be watching it again for quite some time.

      • Andrew

        Loved it from the beginning

  • Mikey

    For the life of me, I cannot pinpoint my opinion on this film.

    This is by no means an entertaining film. Long stretches of it bored me. Now I do not personally think boredom is necessarily a bad thing. It allows the viewer to relax and accept the characters as they are. It also ups the level of reality, and will make later, more emotional moments hit harder. A recent example is The Master, a film that for periods of time would be less than interesting, but had some wonderful scenes, and more importantly stuck in my head for days after I saw it. Tokyo Story didn't seem to have any of that though. My boredom here came from the fact that the story wasn't going anywhere and the characters weren't all that interesting. While I reflected upon my feelings of the film, it was very easy to push the film out of my head.

    And yet I can't dismiss this film. All the acting is fantastic (in particular Chisu Ryu) and every character is perfectly defined and real. The film was all about 100% realism. I definitely respect this film. Ozu absolutely accomplished his goal completely, but that does not mean I liked the film.

    The best way I can describe it is if an acquaintance told me their parent had died. I'd feel sad that this event happened, but since I had never met the person, I wouldn't be overly emotional by any means. This film felt like that, it was sad and real, but why should I care?

    As an aside the few scenes that really did hit me were those dealing with the mourning clothes. The way the one daughter brings it up so nonchalantly, but then says determinedly "but hopefully we won't need them" if only because this seems like the correct thing to say. In reality she seems so happy that she thought to pack them. Now she won't have the hassle of having to borrow or buy new clothes. This contrasted wonderfully with Noriko who was so caught up emotionally that she actually forgot to bring them. I'm not entirely sure why these scenes worked so much better for me than the rest of the film.

    Finally, to hopefully stir up conversation, I'd like to ask what you all look for in a film. Whats most important to you? Entertainment, subject matter, technical brilliance? Is it enough for a film to be technically perfect, but boring (my personal opinion on Tokyo Story)? What about a film that's technically flawed, but has a satisfying story?

    • Criterion10

      I too remember having a rather detached feeling towards the characters and the story. I never really remembered feeling any empathy or any other emotion while watching the film.

      To me, a truly great film should be a perfect combination of both art and entertainment. Only having one of those can lead to a flawed experience, which I would say Tokyo Story is. While it certainly is artful, it is not entertaining in the slightest.

      • Brian Zitzelman

        Criterion10, while I can't say your opinion on what makes something a great film, I use a different criteria I suppose.

        Not all movies are meant to be watched the same manner, as is the case for books, television, music and other art forms. Just as some books are great for the beach or airplanes, others are ideally consumes with a full engaged brain. Tokyo Story fits the latter realm for me. It's not for lazy weekends or midnight starts, at least not for me.

    • Winchester

      When it comes to what I look for in a film I don't think I could really sit and describe every set of circumstances that would lead me to certain films at certain times. If you ask me what makes my mind tick and where it leads..............even I wouldn't presume to know!

      I know there are films I watch when I intentionally want to turn my brain off and be blinded by eye candy, and there are films I want to watch when I need a connection between either my brain or my emotions. There's also stuff I watch because it's the equivalent of a comfort blanket.

      Films are sometimes like music in that way, I find.

  • Chris

    I really respect this film for what it is and does, but I find it to be one of the most insufferable films to watch. I've only seen it once around a year ago and have had no desire to return to it. I enjoy a lot of classic cinema, especially foreign features, but this one did not keep my attention. Perhaps it's not my cup of tea, but I support any film that gets any discussion flowing.

  • Criterion10

    I unfortunately didn't get to rewatch Tokyo Story in time for today as these past few days have been rather busy (although if time allows tonight, I will definitely be watching then). My first visit with Tokyo Story was a few years ago, and I remember it being a very well made film with an interesting message, but it was just way too slow for an enjoyable experience.

    In terms of cinematic techniques, the one thing that really struck me about the film was Ozu's editing style, in which he frequently will break the so-called "180 degree rule" to show a close-up of a person's face. There are many times he does this throughout the film, and I believe I even remember reading somewhere that this was a quality that showed up throughout many of his films.

  • Harry Fuertes

    I actually love Tokyo Story. There isn't much to discuss and I could see why some people find it overrated. This is one of those movies that have a connection with very few people, including me. Considering I saw it after my grandparents left our house after Christmas break, it really hit me hard. I definitely cried all throughout the last 30 minutes which is rare nowadays. The end is just beautiful and the last exchange between Noriko and the grandfather is unforgettable. Like people have said before, this is more of a movie to appreciate than enjoy. I agree that the pacing is horrendous. This is not a movie I would see again anytime soon. I last saw it a year ago and yet I remember several scenes clearly as if it were yesterday. The acting is perfect and the cinematography and script are subtle but brilliant and superbly intimate. The score is also beautiful. If I were to compare this to one movie, it would be A Separation(another masterpiece). In the end, this is one of my favorite movies and I honestly hope this is something that'll endure through the next couple of decades of cinema as a testament of the human spirit. The final image of a lonely Shukishi sitting without his wife overlooking the town as a tear streams down his face as he realizes he is alone will haunt my cinematic emotions forever. 10/10- A

    • KW

      Agreed, TOKYO STORY is certainly a film that will increasingly resonate with me as I age. I keep thinking of the heartbreaking character of Minoru (one of the grandchildren). He's youthful, impulsive, petulant, and self-centered but not with malicious intent. This is probably the first time he's ever seen his grandparents. Unbeknownst to him, this would also be his last encounter with Tomi, his grandmother. Such is life in Ozu's universe.

      As for the film on a whole, it is definitely an appreciation piece. On top of the previous technical comments, I'd like to highlight the score for its perfect balance of schmaltz, nostalgia, and joy. It feels like the embrace of an old ghost.
      I imagine myself rewatching TOKYO STORY every 10 years or so (similar to BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET), revisiting these themes and old friends as the priorities and perspectives in my life change.

      • Brad Brevet

        Thanks for bringing up the grandchildren. I think this is a film you could almost map out and explore from every generational level and analyze every word said and un-said for that matter. I also think there is something in there for almost anyone to find some parallel to their own lives, which is quite an accomplishment given when the film was made.

  • Brian Zitzelman

    Didn't finally see this until a year or so ago; it's a movie that I found to live up to all the hype. Tokyo Story is supremely moving, and while I can understand the pacing being boring for some, I found it perfect for the story it was telling.

    It's a painfully human tale. One can see how each character is motivated to do their particular action. Ozu isn't judging the kids here, not specifically. Tokyo Story may disprove of their decision to pass of the parents, yet Ozu never makes them nasty people; they merely can't relate and/or have other things to worry about it. It's a disconnect between generations that is ever present.

    For me it's a timeless classic.

    • Brad Brevet

      Yes, Ozu's style certainly lends itself well to playing the non-judgmental observer, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions on what they make of each character.

  • Kessler

    I haven't seen many of Ozu's films either, but if they are anything like Tokyo Story, then I won't be watching them anytime soon. Not that I hated Tokyo Story. I admired it, but didn't enjoy it. The pacing is way too slow for me and the story is very simple for a film that is over two hours long. I certainly saw the art in it and appreciated the acting and the realism of the story, but it's almost a chore to sit through it. I don't even think it's a movie that sticks with you after the credits roll.

    The camera angles are interesting and I haven't seen them done like that before. I read Ebert's review and he said the camera moves once which is more than usual. It's an interesting style because I think the frames present the characters and allows us to judge them on our own based on our own perceptions. The problem is that I couldn't stay engaged with the film so it was hard for me to get involved with the characters.

    An interesting thing that Brad touched on was that we may be expecting too much with these days. That one line, "We can't expect too much from our children" and when they make excuses for them relates a lot to the movie-going audience today. Movies are more highly anticipated today, and when expectations are so high it's more likely that you will be disappointed. When a certain movie doesn't live up to the hype, people will make excuses for it the same way the parents excused their children. The audience wanted to like the movie and will try convince themselves that they did, but sooner or later, we all come to terms that The Phantom Menace or Indiana Jones 4 or any other movie with sky high expectations just wasn't as good as we'd hoped. I'd guess The father in Tokyo Story will have a similar reaction with his children too.

    As many commenters said above, it's easier to admire this film than to actually enjoy it. For me, it moves very slowly and there's not enough story there to fill up its running time. It could have been cut down and I don't think it would have hurt it. That being said I did like the realism in it and that it didnt try judge the characters or manipulate your feelings towards them. I can certainly respect the film, but can't seem to get any entertainment out of it.

  • Winchester

    I only had a chance to watch it once and I did probably admire it more than loving it by the end.

    The slow pace wasn't a big problem and I liked the way Ozu used the camera. Keeping it low and static made me feel like a silent extra person in these rooms watching the film unfold. I'm with them but I'm not kind of thing.

    I think I found generationalism to be a very key thing in deciding what I thought about some of the characters. I agree with KW that this film is one you will see a different way at different stages in your life and perhaps that's what gives the seemingly simple story it's long term power. Each of us will be at the stage in life each generation here is. We have been the kids who had to make way in our bedrooms for Grandma and been unhappy about it. Been the older children with our lives busy, too busy to keep proper touch (you have the second son who doesn't even appear until it's all too late because he's so busy) and we'll be the old people in the future the world rushes around and ignores. I guess in that way there's a great deal of layering.

    It seems a simple film, but it's not.

    And I felt some of the themes of loneliness were interesting. Does the daughter in law treat them better because she is just lonely and welcomes somebody to spend time with. The other children are not lonely. They have busy lives. Or because she feels some respect for the old couple their own children have lost sight of?

    It is a film I've been mulling over. I have more thoughts but I'm still working on them so I will post again once I have a better idea of what I want to try and say.

  • Vic Flind

    There is a key factor in TOKYO STORY that remains a perennial theme in social storytelling, which is of how life and family, despite how ever hard we try, ultimately disappoints. Our children, despite however much we loved and provided for them economically/ emotionally, never turn out the way we hoped. In the end all you’re left with is each other: husband and wife. You come into this world alone and leave it much in the same way.

    Even AMOUR shares a thematic correlation with TOKYO STORY.

    • Winchester

      But I think the reverse is also the case.

      Parents can disappoint their children. In Tokyo Story we hear how the father used to be a drinker and perhaps this shaped the daughter's feelings about him.

      But perhaps one of the wider questions is why do people find such disappointment. Is it the expectations of the parents being unreasonable? Both Shukishi and his friend when they drink in the bar express a sense that neither of their sons is as 'important' as they would like them to be. Are they really disappointments on that basis? The children all have good jobs still. Do parents put expectations down that children just can't satisfy and does that reflect back from child to parent?

      I think that is a universal aspect of family storytelling and it recurs frequently but I always have to wonder who is the cause of disappointments.

  • Eric G

    It was fortuitous that I just watched this film. My first Ozu. I don't have too much to add but in doing a bit of study I learned a little about what defines his unique style. He displays Japanese life in a very undramatic and realistic way. Scenes focus on sweeping and cleaning the house. Conversation and action together confirm to the audience that these are normal people - like when Shukishi and Tomi are packing their things for the trip or when the mother of the little boys is sweeping and arranging the rooms. That scene also shows how he introduces space very clearly and directly, helping the audience to understand the physical layout of the scene and making it clear how rooms in a house are related. Then there are the "intermediary scenes" as one academic explains (see Wikipedia entry for reference) the shots of trains, flowers, clothes on a line, industrial building, etc. that play transition between scenes. They help to put things in real time.

    All these things weren't clear to me at first - at it is definitely a film that requires analysis beyond the immediate reaction. The characters and the plot are so easy to relate to. With a little bit of thought we can probably all think of ways that we are like or have been like each of the characters. One of the lessons I believe Ozu might be trying to communicate is finding simple joy in life and having patience with life's inevitable inconsistencies and disappointments - moments of joy and peace come, but not quite as often enough to make us exuberantly joyous.

  • Susan

    I'm kind of surprised by the lukewarm reception Tokyo Story's receiving here. It's a favorite of mine, along with last week's McCabe and Mrs Miller oddly enough.

    Do the people who admire it more than like it on here enjoy modern movies of a similar pace? I'm thinking, to some extent, Steve McQueen, Ramin Bahrani or Kelly Reichardt?

    • Winchester

      I haven't seen any Bahrani, and I've only seen 'Shame' from McQueen which I did really like but I felt it did also have some issues I couldn't overlook entirely.

      I've seen Reichart's 'Old Joy' (didn't do much for me although I don't think I disliked it), 'Wendy and Lucy' (which I did like and enjoy) and 'Meek's Cutoff' (which I thought was indulgent indie rubbish personally). So I'm pretty variable on her.

      The overall pace of the film wasn't too bad for me though. I've seen other films with pacing issues which affected me more but it here seemed like part of the intention of the film.

      • Susan

        I guess I'm less curious but individual directors; I mean to discuss the pacing more. I don't see Tokyo Story having a pacing issue, rather it has a slow pace. I don't find them to be of the same thing.

        • Winchester

          Then I would say that it depends on the end result. As I said the slow pace seemed to be part of Tokyo Story's design and an intent of the director. Which is fine.

          But I actively disliked Meek's Cutoff because it seemed to serve no point. Although I would say Tokyo Story actually has a structure and a story it's pace follows and Meek's just has utterly nothing at all even resembling a story or a structure.

          • Susan

            Ok, that's what I was wondering.

    • Criterion10

      See, I love the films of Steve McQueen (Shame was my favorite film of last year). I don't think his films are boring at all, but I did find Tokyo Story to be so.

    • Brad Brevet

      I will say this, I like both McQueen and Bahrani, but of the two Reichardt films I've seen, Wendy and Lucy I had a middling response to, but Meek's Cutoff I did not enjoy in the slightest.