TOKYO STORY – Blu-ray review

Yasujiro Ozu’s exceptional “Tokyo Story” (1953) yields potential readings to suit all temperaments.

The die-hard optimist might draw inspiration from the dignified manner in which the characters endure life’s inevitable hardships. The rural elderly couple visiting their children in Tokyo may be treated dismissively by their busy, self-absorbed adult children, and face the prospect of a lonely life in their dotage, but that’s just the way life has always worked and always will work. Planned obsolescence is the price worth paying for love and family, to be part of the great cycle. What matters is how they cope, and they do so with quiet strength.

The more sullen viewer will take one of the film’s key exchanges to heart. Youngest daughter Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa) says to devoted daughter-in-law Noriko (Ozu superstar Setsuko Hara), “Isn’t life disappointing?” Noriko doesn’t sugarcoat her response, “Yes, it is.” The query comes from the youngest and presumably least jaundiced adult character in the film, but remember that Kyoko grew up during wartime and it’s easy to understand that her question was intended to be rhetorical. If life isn’t going to be disappointing for Kyoko, it will only be because she has already learned to set her expectations very low.

Ozu spent much of his storied career following the baton as it was passed from one generation to the next, most frequently in the form of an aging father who must let go of an adult daughter who needs to get married and, therefore, abandon him. In “Tokyo Story,” it’s the elderly parents themselves who are passed along, from one adult child to the next.

It’s hard to tell what Shukichi (the other great Ozu star Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama, best known for her work with Keisuke Kinoshita)  expect from their visit to the big city. They’ve already lost one son to the war and can’t be filled with optimism after several years of American occupation, but they greet their children with sturdy smiles and at least a guarded sense of hope.

The smiles are returned, but it soon becomes clear that they have planned their trip at a bad time; it is equally clear that every time is a bad time. Their children have jobs and families now and schedules are called “schedules” for a reason. “What a bother” is a common refrain from children who observe their filial duty, but only with irritated reluctance. Only daughter-in-law Noriko, childless widow of the son who went missing in action in the war, is happy to drop everything to make time for them.

Shukichi and Tomi have been around long enough to understand the score. After being shuttled off by one of the kids to a resort hotel where they’re promised a fun time (they don’t have any fun) they realize that Tokyo’s just a town that ain’t small enough for the two of them and they decide to return home. When Tomi reports feeling a little dizzy as they prepare to leave and assures the children they don’t have to visit her no matter what happens, the savvy viewer might guess what’s coming in the final act.

I can’t see anything but sorrow as the story unfolds, a feeling only exacerbated by the acceptance that this is, indeed, just the way that the world works. Ozu observes this sad world through his trademarked knee-high 50mm lens that is almost always anchored firmly in place, so often the perfect place, just letting everyday life play out at an everyday pace. This has led some pundits to describe his approach as non-judgmental, but I don’t buy it.

The last exchange in the movie includes the matter-of-fact observation made by a neighbor to Shukichi, “You will be lonely.” The old man merely nods and the camera lingers as he kneels alone in his living room before the film cuts to a final aerial shot of the village, traffic bustling along the road and a barge drifting down the river. Life goes on. It’s not intended as a comforting thought. “You will be lonely” is literally a final sentence, all the more burdened with regret with the consideration that many of the alternatives are even worse. Knowing that everyone is playing with the same stacked deck doesn’t make it any better.

The films is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an IMAGER XE scanner from a new 35 mm interpositive. The original negative no longer exists, so the new interpositive created for scanning was made from the internegative, the most original film element available.”

The high-def transfer does not noticeable suffer from the lack of the original negative source print. Perhaps it’s relevant in the sense that the image quality isn’t quite as flawless or sharp as some of Criterion’s very best efforts, but this 1080p transfer is a very strong one with rich black-and-white contrast and a strong grain structure evident throughout. I noticed the occasional sign of digital artifacting (a slight digital flickering) in some of the background details, but nothing substantial. More than solid, but not perfect.

The LPCM Mono audio track is crisp and distortion-free. The music sounds a bit tinny, but this may be due to the source. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

First of all, I should note that this is among the first wave of Criterion’s new dual release format. This is a three disc package with a single Blu-ray disc that contains the film and all extras (in high-def) and then two standard discs, one with the film and one with the extras. Most Criterions will be released this way from here on out, and I’m sure viewers will be pleased with the change.

All of the extras have been imported from the 2003 SD release by Criterion. The film is accompanied by an audio commentary (recorded in 2003) by Ozu scholar David Desser, editor of “Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story.’”

“Talking with Ozu” (1993, 39 min.) is a feature commissioned by Shochiku Studio for the 90th anniversay of Ozu’s birth (Ozu died in 1963). The film consists almost entirely of testimonies by various filmmakers who relate their first exposure to Ozu’s work and share their passion and respect for him. Among those interviewed are Stanley Kwan, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Aki Kaurismaki. English and Japanese subtitles caption the various languages spoken.

“I Lived, But…” (1983, 123 min.) is a feature-length documentary about Ozu’s life and work, features interviews with cast and crew, including Chishu Ryu. It’s a fairly straightforward biographical approach, but it’s quite engaging and should capture the interest of any Ozu fan. There’s a lot more appreciative gushing than analysis, but that’s OK.

We also get a feature about “Chishu Ryu and Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio” (1988, 45 min.) which provides a biographical overview of the actor who has, along with actress Setsuko Hara, become so closely identified with Ozu.

The extras wrap up with a lengthy Theatrical Trailer (4 min.)

The surprisingly slim 12-page insert booklet reprints the David Bordwell essay (with one very slight updated revision) from the SD release.

Film Value:
“Tokyo Story” was voted the third greatest film of all-time in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, just behind “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane,” and the inclusion of “Late Spring” at number 15 makes Ozu the only director with two entries in the top twenty (Coppola and Dreyer were close). A pretty broad consensus for a director once as seen as “too Japanese” to play to international audiences.

Criterion’s Blu-ray does not include any new features from the 2003 SD, but the high-def transfer is strong, and “Tokyo Story” is worth an upgrade just to see it in the best possible format.