Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they discuss the guilt of disconnecting from your parents – a topic thoroughly explored in Yasujiro Ozu‘s absolutely gorgeous Tokyo Story. Two great questions arise:
How did a man who never had children and never drifted from his mother empathize with these characters enough to tell the story so well? and Why hasn’t everyone with parents seen this movie?
Cole: So my confession this week is that I hadn’t seen Tokyo Story until now. It’s stunning, and it made me wonder why (hoity-toity lists aside) it hasn’t gotten more broad-based attention.
Landon: It’s a beautiful movie.
Cole: Especially since it clearly looks like the inspiration for Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
Landon: I’m sure there’s a great many other pop culture products in which the story seems to resonate. Though the film really captures a moment in Japan’s postwar history in a really wonderful way, the story goes far beyond those borders and that era.
In fact, Ozu admitted the film was inspired by a Hollywood film, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow from 1937.
Cole: Have you seen that too?
Landon: Yeah. It’s heartbreaking. About an older couple who retires and has to shift separately between equally aloof children. Now, that was made in 1937, so these older characters were probably born around 1880 at the earliest. They couldn’t anticipate the mobility from innovations in transportation that would separate families…
Cole: But that’s something that’s really apparent in Tokyo Story – the simultaneous closeness we achieve through technology and the disconnect that happens as we mature and move away.
It’s a train in Tokyo Story, but it could be The Internet today.
Landon: Exactly. And here it’s in the context of Japan attempting to recover economically post-WWII, so there’s a work ethic demanding six-day weeks, etc. which seems to cause these children to lose sight of family.
Point being, as you said, it could be any new technological factor, but ignoring one’s parents is apparently nothing new.
Cole: But I wonder if it doesn’t resonate as loudly here in the US. I mean, it made me want to call my parents, but Americans tend to look to nursing homes more than welcoming our elders back into our nests. It may be nothing new, but the shift seems like an especially powerful one to capture in the context of that culture.
But let me ask this: are the children villains?
Landon: No. James Stewart is.
Cole: Very funny. Flashback humor.
Landon: I’m not sure. I think you’re right that there’s something specific going on here in terms of this movie capturing Japan’s cultural shifts at the time it was made. The parents are so nice and patient, and all but one of the kids are so awful, but we never get a sense of how they were raised.
Is the city itself a villain?
Cole: The city might seem like a hurdle, and their work definitely keeps the children from spending time with the parents, but it’s really their unapologetic attitude that’s most grating. These are people who are fine hunting for excuses to avoid dear old mom and dad. Granted, like you said, we don’t know what their parents were like growing up, and that seems important.
Maybe they were loving and kind then, and their children are horrible monsters, or maybe they were distant, and only now is it that they’re looking for a connection. It might mirror the distance created by parents as well.
Landon: What’s interesting about the fact that this story was told in the US in 1937, in Japan in 1953, and in a 1974 folk song is that it not only gives credibility to the complaint about unappreciative successive generations, but it challenges the notion that there has ever been, at least in the last century, a “good old days” when people respected their elders.
Cole: Wow. Definitely.
Landon: Sure, the kids don’t have to be so damn mean, but the familiarity of this story suggests that this is somehow inevitable in 20th and 21st century living.
Cole: And even the one child who is nice to Tomi and Shukishi breaks down, admitting she’s lonely, which is why she’s compelled to do so much with them. The one silver lining comes with a storm cloud attached.
Landon: Good point. Though what a beautiful movie about loneliness and alienation.
It’s also important to point out that while it’s #3 on the critics list, it’s #1 on the directors list even though it’s a movie that doesn’t necessarily call attention to the work the director is doing, at least not on first viewing.
Cole: Especially considering that it barely bested 2001 and Citizen Kane, two movies absolutely stamped with the director’s vision. Ozu isn’t as ostentatiously present with his film, but it’s easy to see why directors would find the overall product compelling.
And, for some reason, our favorite movies collectively are stories of human misery. Vertigo, Kane and now this. What’s wrong with us? Is despair just richer storytelling material?
Landon: Good thing we’ll be talking about a comedy next week.
That’s the thing, though. Yes, there’s despair here, but I get the sense that Ozu is an optimist as much as he is a realist, not only in giving us hope with Kyoko, but by capturing beautiful little things about everyday, lived life.
Cole: So you get the sense that even in sacrificing time with their parents, the children are still leading very fulfilling lives?
Landon: Well, I get a sense that the parents are still people content with their bond together and their life outside the city, and they’re able to appreciate things little and big.
Cole: Aha. That makes sense. Tokyo Story simply puts the deficit of the older parent/grown child non-relationship under a microscope. It’s a bit like being made aware of something we already know about.
Ozu, who a lot of critics and the movie-obsessed think of as the best of the best of the best ever, also proved something more important here.
Landon: That sake is really fun to drink if you’re elderly?
Cole: And if you’re young.
Landon: Ha, anything non-alcohol related?
Cole: What people might find sobering is that Ozu didn’t have children, and he lived with his mother. It was frequent collaborator Kogo Noda who wrote the script, but due respect has to go to the man who directed a story about a concept he knew absolutely nothing about.
Which is most likely why it’s done in such a universal way – loneliness is not exclusive to older parents.
Landon: Definitely. I didn’t know that about Ozu, but I think that should also give credit to the director as a man of incredible empathy. And that’s something you can really see in his films: he feels for people.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much Ozu. The only other film of his I’ve seen is his early I Was Born, But… And the movie is about children, who Ozu treats with just as much respect, empathy, and seriousness as he does for the elderly here.
I love the fact that a movie about life’s subtle, seemingly meaningless-in-the-moment moments beat out a movie about space travel and the history of the universe on the directors list. It really speaks to the power of film to not only capture spectacle, but to profoundly reflect everyday life.
Cole: It also beat out Orson Welles screaming a lot.
Landon: But I love Transformers: The Movie!
Cole: Everyone does, Landon. But it can’t be #1.
Landon: Just wait until 2022.
Cole: My sincere hope after watching this movie is that Ozu’s name will get a bit more notice. That may sound strange in movie circles, but outside of them, it’s unclear if anyone knows his work. Not the same way as people know Kurosawa, at least.
Landon: What was it like seeing the movie for the first time recently?
Cole: Like discovering there was a brand new type of dessert that I didn’t know existed.
Landon: Great description.
Cole: Some can dismiss the S&S list, but one thing it achieves boundlessly is acting as a list of movies that belong on a rental queue. I might not like all the movies on it, but it’s worth digging through it to find gems like this. I know we normally close with a snarky line, but seriously, there are some damned fine films on that thing to discover.
I’m especially fond of Orson Welles’ work in Transformers: The Movie.
Landon: Good thing we’re not ending on a snarky line this time.