You know how there are some movies that are downright depressing, but since they deal with sad things on a sort of grand scale, its sometimes hard to access the emotional content and really feel it in your gut? Well, Tokyo Story is the exact opposite of that. It's a film that is deceptively simple, but don't mistake subtlety for a lack of emotional resonance, because it basically feels like a sucker punch.
There are two old people who live a quiet life out in the sticks of post-WWII Japan. Their youngest daughter still lives with them, but the rest of their children have grown up, fled the nest for the big city, and become giant douchebags.
This sweet elderly couple is currently very excited (in their own subdued Japanese way, of course) because they're about to go visit their grown children in Tokyo, seeing them for the first time in what we have to assume is quite a while. But when they arrive in Tokyo after a long train ride, it becomes immediately clear to everyone that their visit is more of a burden than anything else.
Their son is too busy with his practice as a local doctor to pay much attention to them, and their daughter is embarrassed by their provincial ways and makes no attempt to hide the fact that their presence is an inconvenience. She even chastises her husband for buying a nicer quality of snack when they visit, saying that the cheaper version is good enough for them.
Outings are cancelled at the last minute, arguments are had over who has to take them next, and they're basically just horrible, horrible children. They even decide to send their parents on a trip to the seaside, convincing themselves that they're doing something kind for them when really they're trying to get them out of their hair. As you might be able to guess, the seaside resort is a complete disaster -- the beds are uncomfortable, the young guests are loud, and they end up leaving early.
The only shining light of humanity is the couple's widowed daughter-in-law, a kind, lonely woman living on her own after the death of her husband (their son) presumably in the war. But honestly everyone else in the movie is so terrible that the mere fact that she doesn't treat her in-laws like literal trash is enough for me to proclaim her the Mother Theresa of the film.
Have I mentioned that I hate these selfish brats yet? Because when the mother dies (come on, you knew it was coming), they're all, like, annoyed that they have to journey all the way back to their hometown to sit at their mother's deathbed. Couldn't she have died in a little more convenient location? So they all show up, bitching and moaning, to the memorial, and feel legitimately sad...for about five minutes.
Then they're trying to find excuses to leave early and laying claim to their dead mother's prized possessions before she's even in the ground, which is cold-blooded, if you ask me. Isn't Japanese culture supposed to revolve around respect for your parents?
I guess maybe that's part of the point of the film, modernity and movement away from the rural society where people are born, live, and die in the same time eats away at traditional values.
What shocks the hell out of me is that there are people who watch this film and identify with the children. And when Ozu made this film, he never intended for them to be the villains of the piece. To me, they represent the worst of everyday humanity -- people who are so caught up in their own lives that they are incapable of feeling anything for anyone else.
Even the character who seems to be a paragon of virtue, the daughter-in-law, admits that basically the only reason she is kind to the old couple is because she doesn't have anything more important going on in her life. She's a widow, with no children, and a job rather than a career -- the implication being that if she had a family or a more important job, she too would flip good old Mom and Dad the giant bird.
And what's worse, when the youngest daughter who still lives at home is appalled by her older siblings' behavior, this bitch just smiles indulgently at her and says that when she has a family of her own, she'll do the same thing. NO. DON'T TELL HER THAT. We do not all become the kind of people who contemplate pushing their parents off a bridge at the first sign of a cold.
But to be totally fair to her, there is and always will be a conflict that everyone feels when they're trying to balance their relationship with their parents and this new life that they've created for themselves as adults. How do you make sure that both get the attention they deserve? Sadly, things are not as straightforward and simple as they were when we were children. And that really speaks to one of the last exchanges of the film (and arguably one of its most remembered):
I find this movie especially interesting because there are a lot of old Japanese movies that I just don't get. Sansho the Bailiff and Rashomon are two good examples -- I appreciate what they're trying to do but there's something about their storytelling style that is mired in a culture so different from my own that while I can acknowledge their high quality, I have a difficult time responding to them emotionally. Tokyo Story and indeed, most of Ozu's films, are different. They have a universality to them that most people can relate to, no matter where they're from -- everyone has parents, right?
I watched this movie in October, but you will absolutely see me share my review when Mother's Day rolls around again. Return your mother's phone calls. Hell, even initiate them once in a while. Don't be like the pricks in this movie. Your mother didn't abandon you when you were covered in shit and screaming uncontrollably -- you owe her the same courtesy.