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Tokyo Story: The Criterion Collection

Beneath the placid surfaces of Yasujiro Ozu's cinema lies a persistent and despondent acknowledgment of life's brutal brevity. Children grow up quickly, moving out of the house and starting families of their own, while the grandparents are left helplessly pondering their mortality in the vibrantly youthful personage of their grandchildren. As a result, these characters lead lives not in the pursuit of happiness, but simply in a flurry of activity designed to stave off thoughts of dying until the tyranny of old age makes it absolutely unavoidable. But while Ozu's cinema doesn't necessarily brim with reassuring themes, it is supremely life affirming for its brilliantly minimalist craft and gentle humanism. Comprising mostly static set-ups that highlight the director's mastery of composition, Ozu's films make up for their dearth of action with a wealth of subtext hidden in the silences. These are works that defy authoritative interpretation because they attain resonance through the outside emotional baggage brought to them by the viewer. Though his films are famously daunting for their long stretches of inaction, they are boring only to those who have never felt. In Ozu's world, it is the audience's point of view that is of primary importance, not the filmmaker's, which is why his masterpiece, Tokyo Story (1964), is often hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. At the peak of his empathic powers, Ozu says more about life in that one movie than most artists can hope to articulate in their entire career. Structured around a trip taken by two elderly parents, Shukishi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), to see their grown children in Tokyo, Ozu and his co-scenarist Kogo Noda have devised a narrative even more devoid of incident than normally evinced in their work. Before leaving their country home, Shukishi and Tomi chat with their neighbor about how well their children have turned out, but as soon as they arrive at their pediatrician son Koichi's house, this glorious façade slowly gets chipped away. Tomi quietly observes that Koichi doesn't live in Tokyo per se, but actually a suburb, leading Shukishi to note that their son had tried for something better, but was forced to settle for a house outside of the city. Meanwhile, Koichi's sons are less than thrilled to have their grandparents in town; the oldest pitches a fit at having to make room for the couple, while the youngest scampers out of the room whenever spoken to. But while Koichi is forced to ignore his parents because of work, his sister, Shige (Haruko Sugimura), does everything in her power to avoid spending time with them. First, she enlists Noriko, the widowed wife of one of Shukishi and Tomi's other sons, to drag the couple all Tokyo, which she does graciously. Next, she convinces her husband to pay for her parents to stay at a spa for the weekend, which proves less than restful thanks to a lively wedding party staying in the surrounding rooms. Much to Shige's chagrin, they return a day early, as Shukishi opts to go out drinking with a pair of old co-workers while Tomi spends more time with the kind-hearted Noriko. Finally, they leave Tokyo, but as soon as they return home, Tomi falls critically ill. Now, the children are forced to visit their parents, and they arrive just in time to watch their mother die. Noriko offers to stay, but Shukishi is adamant that she return to Tokyo to resume her life; thus, Shukishi is left to spend his waning days in virtual solitude, watching the boats pass on the river, and waiting for his time to die.

*          *          *

Probably the most emotionally bracing work of Ozu's career, Tokyo Story film proceeds very slowly to its heavily foreshadowed final tragedy, accumulating a sorrowful power as the viewer watches these parents get passed around by their ungrateful progeny. But the filmmaker carefully avoids sainting his elderly characters, hinting at Shukishi's alcoholic past, which is glimpsed when he comes home drunk after a night out with his old friends. Tellingly, it is Shige whom he inconveniences, which suggests that her mild contempt is fueled by having been forced to take the brunt of the old man's drinking problem when she was younger. Such is Ozu's brilliance that he refuses to develop the backstory, setting up an ambiguity that allows the viewer to fill in the blanks with their own familial experiences. Indeed, no one is outwardly cruel or overly decent in this film; they're all just regular human beings with their own hang-ups. And in Ozu's exacting compositions, filmed as usual at low angles in long static takes, they appear as if prisoners in their own homes, serving out a life sentence that began in the cradle and stretches out to the grave. Ultimately, it is Noriko who sounds the film's wistful thesis: "Isn't life disappointing?" The way Ozu presents it, it seems unavoidably so. Criterion presents Tokyo Story in its original Academy ratio (1.33:1) struck from a new 35mm master positive. The picture has been cleaned up significantly from what viewers have been used to in the past, though there are still traces of grain throughout. The monaural Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is as clear as can be expected, given the worn nature of the print. The supplements on this two-disc set are well selected, beginning with a fantastic commentary from film scholar David Desser that points out the subtle mastery of Ozu's framing and shot composition, while providing a decent on-the-fly history of the director's work. Disc Two features a pair of documentaries, the longest being I Lived, But… (120 min.), which gives an exhaustively comprehensive overview of Ozu's life that is probably best appreciated by those familiar with his films. As slow-paced as one of his movies, the documentary does contain some worthwhile insights, but it's also very dry in its quest to work out the meaning of "Nothingness," which is inscribed on Ozu's tombstone. Shorter, and much more interesting, is "Talking With Ozu" (40 min.), in which seven directors — Stanley Kwan, Aki Kaurismaki, Claire Denis, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, and Claire Denis — express their affection for the filmmaker through deeply personal anecdotes. Also on board is the film's original theatrical trailer, and an essay from David Bordwell. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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