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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth
by Donald Levit

With its debt to Leo McCarey’s trenchantly titled Make Way for Tomorrow sixteen years earlier, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story/Tokyo monogatari is no less true, shattering, and not for viewers fretting about unsympathetic grown-up children. In subtitled Japanese three consecutive weekday lunchtimes in the Museum of Modern Art’s open-ended auteur presentations, the 1953 work was sparsely attended even though it is its lauded director-cowriter’s showpiece in theme and technique.

Andrew Sarris was put off by Ozu’s pessimism and insistence on the quotidian “vast void of time in which nothing much even happens.” But the themes of family and tradition being lost to modern progress --  ironically, the unmarried filmmaker’s family was his mother -- are more than frequent-comparison Chekhovian, and the letdowns of individual existence-and-death not so easily (if effectively) reconciled through social do-gooding as in the previous year’s Ikiru/Doomed/To Live from Kurosawa.

Like the “curious incident” dog’s bark in Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze,” the technique is noteworthy for its (apparent) absence. The camera is positioned at a height of about a meter, stationary and taking things in at the eye level of Japanese kneeling on their haunches. Absent as well are fades or dissolves between scene changes. Actors may enter only after a pause or exit seconds before shifts, leaving the location space empty but, as with an approaching or lingering perfume scent, inviting us to fill in their human presence.

“Your heart stops -- for there will be no more tomorrows,” and death is obliteration, but unlike Kurosawa’s consolation for his dying civil servant, Ozu’s Shukishi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) accepts that one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. With no wormwood in his heart, he echoes just-deceased wife Tomi (Chiyeko Higashiyama) in urging loyal daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) to live and marry after eight years’ widowhood mourning the war death of their second son Sonji.

A recurrent symbol of mobility and consequent loosening relationships, trains and tracks open and close the two-and-a-quarter hours, and one of the elderly couple’s sons (Shiro Osaka, as Keizo) works for the railroad in Osaka. In their late sixties, the parents leave schoolteacher daughter Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa) at home in the port of Onomichi for a rare four-hundred-mile trip to visit two married children and grandsons in the capital.

Doctor son Koiko and wife Fumiko (So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake) welcome them, as do beautician daughter Shige and husband Kurazo Kaneko (Haruko Sugimura, Nobuo Nakamura), though city housing is cramped and, crossed by rail lines and trestles, the neighborhood less upscale than expected.

Not so nasty and grasping for a share of the parental pie as Lear’s Goneril and Regan, the adult children are simply modern urbanites caught up in their lives and businesses, with a limited amount of room and patience for the slow-moving parents who apologize for the inconvenience. Still, the younger generation and its lack of filial generosity contrast to non-blood daughter Noriko, who takes time off from work to show them around, feeds them in her tiny room, and beds down there with mother-in-law Tomi in the visitor’s “happiest night in Tokyo.”


Welcoming enough by their own lights, the children treat the old folks to a stay at Atami, incidentally getting them out from underfoot. The crowd at that resort spa proving too young, noisy and bent on pleasure, grandma has an ominous dizzy spell and, to their offsprings’ consternation, the couple return to Tokyo. Grandpa goes off his yearslong wagon with two former buddies from home, resulting in non-dramatic drunken iterations of theme as the three voice dissatisfaction with their grown “children, who have changed, living with them isn’t easy.”

Looking, and feeling, out of place, sad and ridiculous in the big city, the couple pack their old suitcase and head for home. Keizo misses connections with them, and grandma falls ill on the train. Relieved at their departure, the rest of the family must now find time in their busyness to gather at the hilltop house of their childhood, pay dutiful respects, and grab a few items.

Youngest Kyoko’s bitterness about her siblings’ being less considerate than strangers is countered by Noriko’s remaining after the others and stoically agreeing that life, not people, is disappointing, “Yes, it is.” Acknowledging that he might have been nicer to his wife, grandpa Shukishi, too, is accepting of the limitations and loneliness of life, especially near its end.

There is no reprieve, merely largeness of heart and participation while one is still aboveground. Resignation is not the same as despair.

(Released by BFI Production; not rated by MPAA.)

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