Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
“Isn’t life disappointing?” “Yes, it is.”
Tokyo Story is a very melancholic film that deals with the generational gap between a small handful of adults and their visiting elderly parents. There is a pretty big divide between the two generations (and a third, the grandchildren), but at first this feels one-sided until we receive some perspective from the elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama.
The elder Hirayamas maintain peculiarly calm smiles throughout the film, even when things aren’t going well. The soft grins plastered on their face, at a certain point, started to feel like the smiling grandparents from the beginning of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). They start as a calm old couple, visiting their children in Tokyo, and they seem completely at peace with everything. But then we see how their children pawn them off on each other, seeing them as burdens more than anything else. The elder Hirayamas, though, try their best to stay out of their children’s way. They are the most unassuming and sensitive couple you may ever meet. As their children treat them worse and worse (from what the audience sees, not necessarily the elder couple), their consistent smiles feel more and more in vain, like it’s a symbol of their strained effort to maintain a sense of normalcy as everything decays.
Later, in separate conversations, we learn that both Shukichi and Tomi understand that their children are highly flawed. They love them regardless, of course, but they do see them as they are. In one scene, Shukichi talks with two other fathers who lament what their children have become. Shukichi tells them that their children will never and possibly could never live up to the parents’ expectations, but it’s for them to accept their children as they are. There is a deep pain felt by these fathers, made more overt as they drink themselves into a stupor.
Later, in the last conversation featuring Tomi before her sudden death, the elderly couple openly discusses the way their children have failed. Throughout the film they are treated with the most kindness by their daughter-in-law, Noriko, married to their now deceased son who we are told has been dead for 8 years, meaning he was killed in 1945 (the same year WWII ended and the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Shukichi and Tomi treat their deceased son almost more harshly than their living children, saying he must’ve treated Noriko poorly (he was a drunk) and that she should move on with her life and marry again. They don’t mean to disrespect their son, but they hold him accountable for his actions.
In this scene, they come to the conclusion that even though their children aren’t perfect, they could be worse and are “better than most.” As Tomi says this, the music swells as if what they’re discussing is some grand declaration of love for their children when really all they are saying is that their kids aren’t as bad as they could be. It’s an odd moment, and the swelling, orchestral music suggests this is the pinnacle of their expression of love for their children. Going a step further, it suggests that the most love they can shower on their family is still grounded in practicality. Love, then, is unobstructed. It’s restrained by a certain level of objectivity.
Now, this objectivity, or whatever you might call it (because that’s probably not the right word) feels, tonally, like it has a lot to do with the shadow cast by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have to imagine that for up to 20 years after these bombs, everything in Japanese art and culture had a lot to do with this event.
So I wonder how much the melancholia of the film and the expressions of love among the characters is shaped by that moment in 1945. All of the adults feel held down by pain but also by an understanding that this pain (or their children’s inability to live up to their expectations) is part of the new reality of life.
And their children certainly seem to disrespect their parents by claiming not to have any time for them. The parents’ increasingly calm and respectful demeanors only emphasizes how poorly their kids are treating them.
In the end, Tomi dies pretty quickly after she and Shukichi leave Tokyo to head to another town to visit their last son whom they never end up seeing before her death because he doesn’t make time for them. The family gathers to mourn her, but they remain selfish, as one of the daughters observes. She angrily talks smack about her siblings to Noriko, the widow of the Hirayama’s deceased son, but Noriko doesn’t return the smack talk. She explains that everyone is trying their best, or something like that. Noriko, like the elderly Hirayamas, is always smiling, and again, these smiles feel like some kind of tuxedo you wear to a fancy event. She smiles not because she wants to but because she has to. At a certain point, smiling in the face of adversity loses its meaning if it doesn’t create any meaningful change.
The film ends with Shukichi by himself at home. A neighbor comes by and tells him how lonely he will be without his life, and Shukichi nods in confirmation. He agress, “I will be very lonely” while maintaining that same smile as before, but when the neighbor leaves, he slowly turns his head forward, and he stops smiling for the first time.
In this film everything is sad, and none of the characters seem to have much of an illusion of what life means, at least the older characters don’t. The younger characters take their jobs too seriously, saying they can’t leave to accompany their parents for even just a few hours, but the retired Hirayamas look at everything (life, their children, modern Tokyo) with a strong sense serenity. The good, the bad, it’s all just kind of okay even if it isn’t, because it has to be. It’s what they have. Everyone is resigned over something, and these characters only seem to keep on living out of habit.