Tokyo Story (1953)

After thirty minutes of watching Tokyo Story, a film I heard a lot of great things about, I asked myself that terrible question: When does this film get good? As I watched this tale of family unfold, I found my mind drifting to the plethora of other films about family I found better, Zhang’s To Live and Yang’s Yi Yi being a couple of prime examples. These films exhibited interesting characters, moving moments and deep insights into the family unit. Tokyo Story bogged itself down in stereotypes, sentiment and miscalculated moralizing.

When an elderly couple travels to Tokyo to visit their family, they’re greeted with open arms, but find that everything is not quite as they expected. There’s some contention, not everyone is as well off as they would have hoped and their grandchildren aren’t nearly as wonderful as they imagined. In other words, they face the fact that their children and grandchildren are human and not remarkable.

Take the grandson of one of their children. He throws tantrums in front of his grandparents, trying to get his way and then running off to pout when he fails to get his way. The grandmother comments that her son was the same way and that she didn’t know how to deal with it. Seems the cycle has repeated itself, and yet it’s to no real end. There’s no progress, insight or conclusion to this. It just is an oddity that is noted, one that, honestly, I’ve noticed through simple observation of human beings in a family unit.

The children of the old couple are wrapped up in their own affairs, busy with their careers and social lives, so when the parents return early from a break from visiting family, they find they’re no longer particularly welcome, even by their own children. The film plays this as a blowing shock, but it’s not as if this wasn’t glaringly obvious by the way the elderly couple has been treated by their children throughout the film.

From that moment, the film tries to tug at the audience’s heartstrings, play up the pitiful state that has befallen the old couple as they no longer have a place in society. But the film hasn’t earned that. The two remain so abstract and unknowable that they’re not identifiable or endearing characters and the sentimentally wrapped around them is misplaced.

Equally displaced is the trite contrast between one of the daughters and the widowed daughter-in-law. The daughter is rude, disrespectful and self-centered in every interaction with her parents while the daughter-in-law is such a luminous being of graciousness and warmth that she’s more of their true daughter to the parents than their biological one. Besides being such a terribly black and white contrast, the film proceeds to then have one of the characters say what any intelligent audience member could observe.

The dialogue in this film is terrible. Unless this is a horrific translation, a lot of the dialogue in the latter section of the film is trying to spell out the obvious relationships the film has shown us. It culminates in a terrible ending where the film tries to leave the audience with some lesson about what all these various glimpse into a family means. The writing is too preachy, too blatant and too obvious to be taken seriously.

Tokyo Story is a film lacking in subtlety. The points it makes are made too forcefully, too obviously. It’s sledgehammer tactics to pound in the themes of the film. It’s not a bombastic film, a lot of it is slow and quiet but it’s painfully obvious what it’s trying to say at every turn. And then, it goes out of its way to make its message explicit, preaching to an audience instead of slowly revealing its point. It’s a nice sentiment, but told in the worst possible way.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing