“Tokyo Story” is a daunting movie that can only be appreciated starting on its second viewing. It’s like taking a single deep breath throughout the film and then only being able to exhale after its ending. The first viewing is an initial bore, we watch an elderly Japanese couple sit and talk about wanting to visit their adult children in Tokyo. So they depart from their small town and head to Tokyo, dismayed at how little attention their children give them but pleasantly surprised that their daughter-in-law, who was married to their now deceased son, is so courteous. Then they leave.
Don’t worry, you didn’t lose any type of film buff status if you thought that sounded boring. Compared to a typical Hollywood picture, the acting is fairly reserved and one-note, where people express their direct thoughts without obtrusion at all times. As an American audience, this makes us naturally distrust the dad, played by Chishū Ryū, and the mom, played by Chieko Higashiyama, since they are always so nice and pleasant with one another. No married couple gets along that well! They are either saying everything on their mind or hiding everything.
Or maybe this stark contrast from American movie acting and directing shows just how “Tokyo Story” is an exemplar not just of Japanese film but of Japanese life. Most shots take place in open rooms, giving you a look at the full scope of the interior of a building, never feeling cramped mor empty. This is tedious at first, but when you get used to the careful detail of these shots, they reveal themselves as stunningly beautiful. When the only moving shot takes place, when we watch the older couple walk side by side along a Tokyo path, it evokes a deep sense of awe while taking our breath away.
Three scenes in particular stick out as proof of “Tokyo Story’s” greatness. The first is when the dad meets up with some old friends, each a bit regretful about the path of their lives. One friend is disheartened about the amount of success his son has had, a stark contrast to our movie’s dad who is disappointed with the amount of time his son has given him. It’s like a beautiful, balanced zen poem, showing that the grass is always greener, even in a black-in-white film.
The second is near the end of the film when their daughter-in-law expresses her loneliness and admits that she doesn’t honestly think about her dead husband that much. The dad understands, says “forget about him, marry someone else.” And the third is when two adult daughters of the old couple talk about how drifting apart from one’s parents is natural. One of the daughters has children of her own, and while her dialogue is reserved, you can catch a glimmer in the character’s eye of the pain she’ll feel when her children too stop caring about her.
But you really don’t feel the full impact of these scenes until the end. “Tokyo Story” is like someone is typing a story in a language you don’t understand, and the end scene is where you can finally translate it to your native tongue for full emotional impact. And then you immediately want to rewatch it again to fully breathe in every piece of dialogue and reflect on how each character relates and reacts to each other. It’s a soothing film for its sense of space, honestly reminding me of “The Godfather” for important scenes that take place in intimate but not minute rooms. Yet it is wholly and certainly Japanese, a film that carries itself with a sense of purpose and dignity, packing a small story that holds the wisdom of a 1,000 years.