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Tokyo Story: points of view and that phone call to the family by Aditi Singh

Updated: May 15, 2021

Tokyo Story 1953, Japan Direction: Yasujiro Ozu

Screenplay: Yasujiro Ozu & Kogo Noda Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta Editing: Yoshiyasu Hamamura

Cast: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama and Setsuko Hara

Tokyo Story depicts the journey an elderly couple take from their countryside home to the bustling city of Tokyo in order to meet their children after years of not seeing them. The elderly couple (Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama) addressed as Mother and Father, quickly come to realize that their city-dwelling sons Koishi, Keizo, and daughter Shige, are neither doing well nor are they the compassionate children they used to be. The city has hardened them into stingy and seemingly selfish individuals who don't think twice about compromising their parents' comfort for their own convenience. This alone is enough to tug at even the most stoic viewer's heartstrings, but the grace and unconditional love with which the elderly couple accept and embrace their children’s' behavior and subsequent treatment towards them is what builds up the emotion in the narrative manifold- "Parents expect too much from their children", says a drunken Father to an old friend who faces the same situation with his son.

The plot initially appears to be a depiction of ordinary people with ordinary lives. It is Ozu's craft as a storyteller that unravels the complex undertones of culture, politics and social structures that uphold this mundane scenario. Ozu's films have time and again shown that simple people live profound lives, and Tokyo Story is the prime example of this. Shot by Yuharu Atsuta, Tokyo Story exhibits a sublime picturization that is very typical of Ozu.

Tokyo Story is also about the shifting points of view. In order to change the audience's points of view from third person to first person, establishing shots often use objects or setting as a frame through which the characters can be seen. Characters are framed by the sliding doors of Japanese houses, rows of shirts hanging from a clothesline, the crisscrossing electrical wires that adorn the city, and so on. Observing the characters through these frames distinctly makes the audience the outsider. That is before Ozu cuts into continuing action, and you come face to face with the speaker of the next dialogue. Now, you're an insider.

Aditi Singh sketches mother and father from Tokyo Story

By cutting to a front-facing close-up of the first speaker, the audience is brought to second-person point of view. When the next character speaks, the audience is again confronted with their face, looking straight into the camera. Having absorbed the previous character's statements in second person, and now face-to-face with another character, the audience is brought into first-person experiencing, with each statement seeming, as if they were being spoken to. A dialogue scene often ends with a concluding shot, which, much like the establishing shot, is a wide shot of all the characters involved in the scene. You are the outsider again. This wonderful interplay of all points of view- first, second, third, omniscient- is something I have seen in Ozu's films alone. The viewer's shifting perspective from outsider to insider and back again plays a large role in the audience's involvement with the movie, making the plot easier to retain and respond to.

The lone character that engages with the elderly couple with genuine love and respect happens to be Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widowed wife of their dead son Shoji. Although Shoji died in the war 8 years ago, Noriko has yet to remarry. She treats the couple with a kindness they haven't experienced in the city. The couple begin to question their natural association of “values” and "goodness" with blood relatives once they see that Noriko has no real motive to look after them, while their children continue to be neglectful.

Soon after the couple's return to their hometown and the city-dwelling children are informed that the Mother is critically ill. As the entire family solemnly convenes over a dying Mother, they each begin to reflect on their shortcomings as children. Mother dies. She, by far, is the "purest" character in the story- with no temperament, expectations or vices. A character so "good', that as a viewer, conditioned to cinematic tropes, one would think she was practically immortal.

Emphasizing this existential tangent, Kyoko, the couple's youngest daughter who stays with them in the countryside, laments to Noriko- "Life is so disappointing". With the warmest smile she can muster, Noriko replies, "Yes, it is."

As his children hastily leave after having paid their respects at Mother's funeral, Father sits in the living room, solitary. He fans himself with a faraway look in his eyes.

Noriko stays back for a day more, and she finally lets out the loneliness and resignation she has bottled up inside her ever since Shoji's death. Both she and Father agree that she cannot continue to live her life in this tumultuous state of hopeless ennui. Father hands over Mother's old watch to Noriko, a memento of thanks and also a symbol of time passing, of moving on.

As the house resounds with the silence of his lone breath, Father sits deep in thought. He has understood that he can't expect much support from his children. He has given Noriko his blessings to remarry and start a new chapter in her life. Before their trip to Tokyo, the couple, with their fantastical assumptions and ambitions regarding their children, never felt unfulfilled. Fanning himself listlessly, Father realizes that the nest is truly empty now. P.S. If a viewing of Tokyo Story made you call your family members to tell them that you love them- don't worry, you're not alone.

Aditi Singh is pursuing her Bachelor's degree in Human CenteredDesign from Srishti Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Bangalore. She is learning Mandarin, plays the violin and uses pen and brush technique to sketch her favorite stills from noteworthy films. Aditi is a self-proclaimed film enthusiast.

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