Japanese cinema is a panther: its beauty is sleek, its action is sharp, and its presence is… mystical.
Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is one of the most influential pictures ever created. Toho’s Godzilla has rampaged the box office for decades while providing a somber metaphor for nuclear power. If these films are the elders of Japanese cinema, then the thought-provoking animation produced by Studio Ghibli is their offspring; innovative art, crisp characters, and gripping narratives exemplify the promise of cinematic posterity.
Yet, why is Tokyo Story, with its melodramatic plot and meticulous cinematography, regarded as not only the greatest of all Japanese cinema but also as one of the greatest pictures of all time? What about its story has led to the film being so globally recognized?
A quick look at the plot of this 1953 work might make you want to lambast me; admittedly, it doesn’t convey the soul-catching premise of most Kurosawa films. Quite simply, Tokyo Story chronicles an elderly couple who leave their quaint little town for, you guessed it, Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren. In short order, the grandparents turn into an annoyance, though through no fault of their own. Inevitably, they feel guilty for visiting their children who obviously don’t want (or need) them there. The elders spend most of their time with the widow of their youngest son, who died in WWII. As the grandparents learn about the virtues and vanities of their family, they eventually return home. During the trip, the grandmother gets sick and passes away. A funeral is held in their quaint little town; the rest of the family attends, but their visit is cut short by obligations at home.
I’m not going to spend time juxtaposing Tokyo Story to other pieces of Japanese cinema; there are certainly similarities, but that’s not the purpose of this conversation we’re having. Honing in on the beauty of this picture means targeting the crucial aspect fueling its longevity: universality.
I’m not going to pretend to be a cultural polymath; I know little of Japanese culture, nor have I even gotten the opportunity to visit the country. I do not know the intricacies of the country’s cuisine, pop culture, politics, passions, and I certainly don’t know much about its people outside that which is reported. Tokyo Story is not designed to educate me on “what it means to be Japanese”, because I can think of no film that has the capability of conveying an entire people’s culture over the course of but a couple of hours.
What the picture does illustrate is humanity in its purest, most horrifying form. We are typically busy people, and the idea of “busyness” can be applied to anyone, regardless of where you live. We all have house duties, work duties, social duties, personal duties, family duties. A grocery list for a giant. This does not make us selfish, but simply occupied.
So, what happens when our time is so finite that we must prioritize and, ultimately, sacrifice that which we are responsible for? What on the list, when given up, imposes the lowest cost upon ourselves? Sparing you a course on non-market economics, Tokyo Story elects to give up our familial responsibilities to provide a commentary on the consequences of doing so.
This is a shocking decision and might make you, as it did I, scoff as you recount the numerous ways that you’ve “been there” for your own families (and I do not doubt that you were), until you start to remember that time you were curt with one of Grandma’s birthday greetings (yes, I’m speaking from experience on that one). Eastern culture is predicated on respect for elders and family, so how can a film that does the exact opposite exist as a symbol of such a culture?
In part, this is because the film is an educational antithesis. Neglecting those that love you most is such an easy thing to do when their compassion feels unconditional. Highlighting this truth makes Tokyo Story a somewhat cautionary tale: when you’re consumed by the life you’ve made for yourself, be aware that you stand at risk of losing that which you’ve had the longest.
The other half of this paradox is the aforementioned idea of universality. Most of us can’t relate to Leonardo Da Vinci based on his diverse talents, masterful artworks, and ingenious scientific mind. Yet, does the fact that Da Vinci was a bastard child, that his father married as often as he bathed, and that Leonardo the boy would explore caves with childhood friends and fantasize about finding mythical monsters make him more relatable?
That is the true legacy of Tokyo Story. You may not know about its character’s culture, but you’ve had to make the same life decisions that they’ve had to. Like them, you’re continuing to build a life for yourself and, in doing so, choosing how and with whom you spend your time.
Tokyo Story is not persuasive, but enlightening. Everyone’s life is their own, as are their decisions. But, when making these choices, always be mindful of the consequences of such acts, especially those that shall come to impact the ones that love you the very most.
That is what this story teaches me.