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The Criterion Collection presents
Tokyo Story (1953)

"What a treat, to sleep in my dead son's bed."
- Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 23, 2003

Stars: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama
Other Stars: Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Nobuo Nakamura, So Yamamura
Director: Yasujiro Ozu

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:16m:00s
Release Date: October 28, 2003
UPC: 037429183922
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AB-B- A-

DVD Review

This is a movie that will intimidate you even before you get it out of the shrink wrap. Every ten years, Sight and Sound, the British film magazine, surveys critics and directors, asking for them to list the ten greatest films of all time. In the most recent poll, taken in 2002, Tokyo Story finished fifth in the critics' survey, ahead of such heavyweights as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 8 1/2; only Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Rules of the Game and the first two Godfather films were rated more highly. Yasujiro Ozu's was also the only Japanese film on the critics' list. What does one do, what can one expect, in the face of such reputed greatness?

What you'll find about Tokyo Story is that it's a sinuous and sly masterpiece, really—it's not a film on the epic scale of, say, Lawrence of Arabia, and its story and its trappings seem almost mundane. But emotionally, the cumulative effect of Ozu's film is harrowing—this may be the most domestic of all the great films, the most family-oriented. And it proves once again that the more specific a storyteller gets, the more universal will be the appeal of the story. Ozu is often referred to as the most Japanese of all Japanese directors, but he treads on emotional and dramatic territory familiar to Shakespeare, and Eugene O'Neill, and Ibsen; the journeys of Ozu's characters will have resonance to anyone who is a member of a family (i.e., to everyone).

The narrative is really very straightforward—Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and his wife, Tomi (Chieko Igashiyama) leave their small village of Onomichi to visit with their children in Japan's capital city. As so often happens in journeys of this sort, their trip is fraught with anxiety, and ends with more than a little disappointment. First they stay with Koichi (So Yamamura), whose own children are essentially indifferent to their grandparents; that they learned as much from their own parents is all too evident. Then it's to their daughter's, and then to their son's widow; and soon it's back home again. The children are at best annoyed to have Mom and Dad on the scene—the try to fob off the old folks on one another, or ply them with fancy outings or foods. It's clear, though, that the children consider the visit an annoyance; and in private moments, Shukichi and Tomi lament the mediocrity of their offspring. It's a film in which the emotional punch is packed by what's left unsaid, and those tacit understandings and excruciating silences can be brutal.

Ozu's visual style is distinctive and striking as well—he favors long shots and frequently tries to elongate the space, giving us a keener sense of three-dimensionality. Frequently we peer at the family through an open door, which gives us a sense of eavesdropping, as well as extending the plane of the two-dimensional screen. (It's a visual strategy that's the exact opposite of the one frequently employed by the most Western of Japanese filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa, who favors telephoto lenses and is always looking to compress and flatten space.) And when those doors open and close, it's thunderous, with screeches and squeaks and bells; they're the emotional equivalent of guns being fired in a war movie. Similarly, Ozu's exposition is leisurely—he doesn't spit out all the necessary information up front, but doses it out as necessary, forcing his audience to make connections and draw conclusions. It can be work watching an Ozu film, especially for contemporary audiences used to being spoonfed every last story point; but it's worth making the commitment, because the rewards are so rich.

As in so many families, the characters here get a sense of relief only when they can speak with outsiders; sometimes this is fueled by sake, but at others it's clearly just a relief to be able to talk to someone with whom you don't have an intricate emotional history, who will take your words at face value, who won't anticipate their own disappointment and sorrow at whatever it is you have to say. What's all the more painful, of course, is that there's a tremendous amount of affection underlying these familial relationships, but it can't all get sorted out in our limited time with one another.

You'll be hard pressed to watch Tokyo Story and not reflect on your own family, and that's a mark of Ozu's achievement. It's a beautiful and quietly devastating movie, one that has rightly earned its many plaudits, and is a profound expression of the difficulties and rewards of dealing with those we love the most and who know us best.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion has done solid work trying to clean up the tattered print of the film; their efforts are admirable, but even their technicians aren't alchemists. The black-and-white photography frequently looks dulled down and mushy, and the ravages of time can be detected in many scenes, with the marks of acid burn, debris, and scratching.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: There are similar issues with the audio; the mono track has been restored some, but it's still full of hiss, which is especially apparent given the spareness with which Ozu has scored the picture. This is mitigated some for those of us who don't speak Japanese and are reading along with the subtitles.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ozu scholar David Desser
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet with an essay by David Bordwell
Extras Review: Criterion has provided a handsome, respectful package of extras, which are especially good at introducing Ozu to an American audience. Ozu scholar David Desser's commentary track is very helpful particularly on the physical details of the production—where Ozu liked to place the camera, his storytelling and exposition strategies, the odd elisions and ellipses that may be unfamiliar to Western audiences. Desser is also strong on the biographical information—Ozu could put away the sake himself pretty well, apparently, and boldly worked without master shots, relying on his own eye for coverage and editing. Ozu is especially important as the last major Japanese director to move from silent pictures to sound, and in his influence on future generations of filmmakers—Desser aptly singles out Jim Jarmusch in this respect. The first disc also included an original trailer (04m:15s), which succinctly sums up the film's themes: "Relationships between parents and children will bring boundless joy and endless grief."

The second disc offers two illuminating documentaries on the director. I Lived, But...(02h:02m:40s) is a feature-length overview of Ozu's life and work, and it's exhaustive—loaded with detail, it includes things like where Ozu went to kindergarten. Many actors who appeared in his films are interviewed, as are members of his family and other collaborators, critics and film historians, even Ozu's high school buddies. (They report that the first American film he saw was Thomas Ince's Civilization, and he loved it.) Ozu started as a director of silent comedies, served in the army, and moved to color filmmaking only in 1958. His films all seems cut from the same bolt of cloth—they're tales of family ennui and change, and he kept tight control over his actors. Their signature styles couldn't be more different, but in terms of riding herd over his cast and in honing his craft on a single genre of filmmaking, Ozu's career and Hitchcock's have some parallels.

Finally, Talking with Ozu (39m:32s), produced on the occasion of what would have been the director's 90th birthday, in 1993, is testament to his international influence. Speaking directly to the camera are seven contemporary filmmakers, visited in their home towns—from Hong Kong, Stanley Kwan tells us that "Ozu's films helped me grow up," for instance, and from Helsinki, Aki Kaurismaki talks about Ozu as an antidote to the nearly omnipresent American movies. There's a religious quality to these directors' devotion to Ozu—as Wim Wenders remarks, "his work is something of a cinematic shrine"—and pilgrimages to Ozu's grave seem like a rite of passage for directors of a certain stripe.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Criterion has produced a DVD set that's appropriately respectful of one of the great films, and is illuminating especially on Ozu's entire life and work. If you're a high priest of all things Ozu or are encountering his work for the first time, you'll find plenty here that will entertain and provide intellectual nourishment.


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