Life as we all must some day know it: My Blu-ray review of Tokyo Story

Before watching the Blu-ray Sunday night, it had been years since I’d last seen Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story. I remember loving the film, but I wasn’t ready for the emotional wallop it delivered. Perhaps my own mental state contributed to the experience–I’ve seen my son get married and lost two close relatives this year. That certainly put me in a receptive mood for a drama about losing your children to their adult lives, and losing your parents to their mortality.

But I don’t think my recent past marred my critical faculties. Tokyo Story is a great film. You don’t need to have experienced the life changes in it to appreciate it. And if you haven’t experienced them, don’t worry–you will.

An elderly couple travel from their small-town home to Tokyo. They have a son and a daughter living there–each married and with a life of their own. They also plan to visit their daughter-in-law–the widow of another son who was killed in the war. (They also have another daughter, still living with them, and another son who lives elsewhere.)

But their Tokyo-based children are busy with their own careers and their own families (the son, a pediatrician, also has two spoiled, misbehaving brats). Everyone greets them with the proper respect, but only the widowed daughter-in-law offers real warmth, and takes the time to give them a tour of the city.

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This could easily have turned into a melodrama about worthy parents and ungrateful children, but Ozu was too smart to take that easy approach. The younger adults (they’re not all that young) really do have responsibilities and concerns that make hosting Mom and Dad difficult. And the old man once had a drinking problem, which returns in the course of the film.

After a trip to a resort hotel doesn’t work out (it’s geared to a much younger  clientele), the elderly couple are moved from one house to another like King Lear–except that this time the children feel guilty about it.

Eventually the elderly parents cut their trip short, but the story takes another turn and becomes about dying and loss. And even then, the grown children have to return to their own lives and their own kids.

Ozu and cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta shot Tokyo Story in a way that is simple, direct, and extraordinarily Japanese. The camera never movies, and is usually about the height of someone kneeling on the floor—appropriate considering Japanese sitting and eating traditions. And yet, every so often, the film cuts to an empty room, or a landscape, or a factory, or a train. Ozu is putting his story into the context of the world where it’s set.

Most films look at the exceptional–people showing great courage or doing amazing deeds. In Tokyo Story, Ozu does something altogether different and remarkable. He looks at an ordinary family going through experiences that don’t happen every day, but happen pretty much in every lifetime.

First Impression

imageCriterion’s new release of Tokyo Story comes in a fold-out disc holder inside a slip case. Instead of the illustrations that have adorned most recent Criterion box covers, this one is decorated with stills from the film. Considering Ozu’s simply style, that’s appropriate.

Following Criterion’s new policy, the package contains both the film and all of the extras on both Blu-ray and  DVD. It’s actually a three-disc set; the Blu-ray can hold both the feature and the extras, but all that content requires two DVDs.

There’s also a slim book with credits for both the film and the restoration/transfer. It also has an article, "Compassionate Detachment," by university professor and film blogge David Bordwell, author of Pandora’s Digital Box

Like all Criterion Blu-rays, Tokyo Story has bookmarking. If you remove the disc and insert it again later, you’ll have the option to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

In a word: Lovely.

Visually speaking, most of Tokyo Story shows people in cramped rooms, talking. That’s not cast-of-thousands viuals, but you want to see every facial detail, as well as get a good sense of what those rooms are like.

And when Ozu cuts to an exterior long shot, the fine details of everything you see puts you into 1953 Japan–despite the black and white, narrow-screen aspect ratio (pillarboxed to 1.37:1).

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How It Sounds

Criterion presents the original mono soundtrack in uncompressed PCM. Unless you feel that everything needs to be in surround–including dramas originally released in mono–you should have no complaints.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by David Desser: As I write this, I’ve only had a chance to listen to the first 20 minutes. So far, it concentrates on Ozu’s artistic choices, from the screenplay to the blocking, camera setups, and editing. I’m looking forward to finishing it.
  • Talking with Ozu: 39 minutes.  Different filmmakers talk about Ozu, and some of them have important things to say. Stanley Kwon talks mostly about his family–a reasonable reaction to watching Ozu films. Claire Dane offers the best insight: "I knew that the film had spoken to me and addressed me in a way that had nothing to do with being a film buff."
  • I Lived, But…: Running more than two hours, this Japanese 1983 TV biography covers Ozu’s life and work. It’s interesting, but would have been better at half the length.
  • Chishu Ryu and Shochiiku’s Ofuna Studio: 45 minutes. I haven’t yet had a chance to see this documentary on the actor that appeared in so many Ozu films, including Tokyo Story..
  • Trailer

Few cinematic family dramas work as well as Tokyo Story, and Criterion has done the film justice with this release. It goes on sale today.