IN THE COMING OF AGE, Simone de Beauvoir recounts the plot of the ancient Japanese novel Narayama. It tells of the primitive custom, the "Feast of the Dead", the execution of village elders who have become a burden on their children, or have merely reached an untenable age. "Do the sacrificed elders often have a reaction of dread and rebellion?" de Beauvoir asks. She thinks evidence proves they do. Yet spanning the centuries as well as the distance between East and West, she concludes that old age has become life's parody in all societies, an end to life so degrading that it incurs more dread and rebellion than merciful death itself.
For de Beauvoir the only solution to this ignominious situation is to go on pursuing the ends that give out life meaning, and to fight society's greatest crime of stealing this meaning away. But her condemnation is born of her disgust with the whole capitalist "system" that destroys old and young alike. In his masterful film, "Tokyo Story" (made in 1953 but-only eventually released) Yasujiro Ozu draws no such socialist conclusions, although to him the continual "meaning of life" is even more sacred than to de Beauvoir. He draws no conclusions at all. Not compromising the simplicity of presenting things as they are he thereby forces his audience to from its own judgements. Ozu tells an unadorned tale of old age and generational conflict, which awards the ultimate victory to the sacrificed rather than the sacrificers, and shows us not life's parody but life's beauty.
Like most Ozu films, "Tokyo Story" is about the increasing contrasts between old and new Japan. And like all Ozu films, the plot is so plain, despite its variety of psychological and emotional levels, that it can be summarized as an anecdote. An old couple leave their home in the port-town of Shimonoseki to visit their children in Tokyo. But there they are intruders in spite of a fond reception: there is no place for them in their children's homes, and they are sent away to vacation at some hot springs resort. There, the boisterous carryings-on of young people drive them back to Tokyo; they then decide to return home. On the way, the wife, who has always seemed the stronger of the two, suffers a stroke; her children come rushing to her sickbed. She dies, leaving her husband alone--the children, of course, depart immediately.
The story revolves around the family, the drabness of their bourgeois lives, their struggles to make a respectable living, whether as doctor, hairdresser, or clerk. But it is essentially a love story. It celebrates the ever-deepening love of two old people, who have shared sorrow and happiness, and now resign themselves to old age and death, in a manner so dignified that it bespeaks a stoic philosophy, a metaphysical experience of life.
At the end of some fifty years, they still do not know each other completely; the husband reproaches his wife for sleeping at night when the has been restless, and gets the same pettish reprimand in return. But they seem to grow closer and closer, even during their few days in Tokyo, in the face of a new world and the exclusion from the lives of their children. They attain a perfect unity as they sit side by side gazing out to sea, lonely misfits at a holiday resort, so attuned that even their kimonos match.
This tranquil resignation is strongly contrasted with the harried, impatient, worrisome lives of their children and grand-children. One son's profession as neighborhood doctor forces him to neglect his family, the Tokyo daughter is so stingy that she begrudges her parents every bite they eat, while a total lack of traditional calm surfaces in the grandson who throws temper-tantrums whenever he is crossed.
"IT'S LIKE A DREAM to be in Tokyo," the grandmother remarks upon arrival. "I never realized it was so close." These words imply how Ozu illustrates that "the Japanese family system has began to come apart." Tempo, life-style, mood and environment are so different in Tokyo, that the short train trip from their home creates an unsurmountable gap for the old people between their customs and the modern ways of their children. The old man looks very uncomfortable and slightly ridiculous in his Western-style travelling suit, and immediately changes into his kimono upon entering his son's house. His wife never exchanges her kimono for more occidental garb, but their children have thoroughly adapted to European clothing.
Ozu's film technique is instrumental in delineating both the visible and hidden contrasts that are splintering the family--and all of Japanese society. He directs transitions from one locale to another by introducing each new scene with a shot not only loaded with symbolism, but prolonged to the extent that it almost becomes a still. After the opening scene in Shimonoseki, the shift to Tokyo is indicated by the stark image of smokestacks against a smutty sky, and the title "an industrial neighborhood in Tokyo." Setting the mood for each episode with similarly fitting images, Ozu unrolls a cinematic parchment of Japanese prints, the black and white photography of the film heightening its formal links to traditional Japanese art. Each interior, every landscape shot, whether bleak or beautiful, instills respect for an eye so fine that it can turn the view of a train rushing through the industrial wastes of Tokyo into a sight as pleasing as a misty seaside mountainscape. Ozu has often been criticized for sets that are too neat, tidy and unnatural, but his love for the smallest details reveal the perceptions of a superb visual artist.
Like his settings, his characters' movements and gestures appear stylized to Western eyes, for they move with the grace and ceremonial formality of traditional Japanese etiquette. No one says hello or bids good-bye, pays a compliment or enters a room, without bowing politely to show respect, or even deep affection. These motions raise the most ordinary pastimes to a kind of cherished ritual. The langorous physical actions and static facial expressions actually serve to heighten one's awareness of constant tension. For even at the most peaceful moments, fans tremble incessantly in the hands of the actors, attempting to dispell what must be the sweltering heat of summer, and to relieve the friction of increasingly jangled nerves.
Past, present and futures, although clashing and straining against each other so frequently, are also inextricably entwined in a pattern of memories, emotions and family-ties. The old father's predilection for alcohol, nervously alluded to throughout, breaks out in one tragi-comical scene, when he gets together with two old cronies and the ancient threesome proceeds to get quietly plastered. Even then, they cannot escape the disillusionment of the present. They spend their time together not thriving on old memories, but discussing the sad state of their children, the sorrow or facing the reality that their offspring are failures, that they lack "the spirit young people used to have...a son today would kill his parents without a thought."
A happier mood suffuses a stroll the grandmother takes with her tiny grandson. "What will you be when you grow up, and where will I be then?" she questions the oblivious tot, with a wistful but optimistic view of the future. Her strongest link with the future, although she successfully hides it from both children and husband alike, is a sure fore-knowledge of her own approaching death. This is to be her first and last visit to Tokyo. But she never lets her intuition become evident; she cannot lower herself by making her children feel guilty, though they have sinned against their parents by failing to show them the devotion traditionally due one's elders.
"One cannot serve one's parents beyond the grave," sobs her youngest son at her funeral. This is her final gift to her children, rather than a reproof. Like Ozu, she realizes that, in modern Japan, they have neither the time nor the means to serve their parents, their ancestors, their family traditions. Her quiet death creates little stir, and is over so quickly that the inconvenience to her family is minimal. Left alone in the end, her husband is still surrounded by the rich web of time Ozu has managed to weave by his story. The family never speaks of "dying"; the term they use is "not living". The old man speaks of his wife as if she were yet alive and watching over him at the remove of a distance much smaller than the trainride from Shimonoseki to Tokyo.