Choosing how to interact with your aging parents is one of the most monumental decisions of your adult life.
You can remain in their home and never grow up, you can move far away and never see them again, and everything in between. You won’t know if you made the wrong decision until the bitter end and your punishment will be self-imposed sorrow and regret.
The classic “Tokyo Story” explores the relationship between an elderly Japanese couple and their children.
Shukichi and Tomi are the couple. On the face of it, they are sweet and adorable grandparents. They live in the Burlington-sized southern city of Onomichi. Tokyo is more than a day away by train, and most of their children have moved there to take advantage of the post-war economic boom.
For the first and only time, Shukichi and Tomi are traveling to the big city to reconnect with their loved ones. It doesn’t go all that well.
They arrive at their eldest son Koichi’s suburban house with anticipation. But they learn soon enough that Koichi is busy with his medical practice and their grandsons are put out by having a room taken up by their presence.
The couple is even more unwelcome at their eldest daughter Shige’s house. Things get really ugly when Shukichi stumbles in at 1 a.m. with a drinking buddy.
The only one in Tokyo who treats the elderly couple with respect is their daughter-in-law Noriko. Noriko’s husband was killed in the war and she lives in a one room apartment. But she opens her door and her saké bottle to her dead husband’s parents.
Pretty clear morality tale, right? Koichi and Shige are bad children and Noriko is a saint. Not quite. Director Yasujiro Ozu only shows empathy for his characters and he never makes things simple.
It is perfectly understandable that Koichi and Shige have moved on from their parents and are focused on their own lives and families. And Noriko is as sad as she is sweet. She’s quietly traumatized by the fact that her marriage wasn’t all that good while it lasted.
We learn more about friendly old Shukichi as the film goes on. While he’s out drinking with his friends, he articulates his disappointment with his children and himself. We see that there is a rich emotional life behind his bland smile but he just doesn’t know how to express his feelings to his kids.
Perhaps the root of the family’s dissolution is Shukichi’s emotional distance. Or perhaps the problem goes back generations.
At its core, “Tokyo Story” is a Buddhist film about the nature of impermanence.
Yasujiru Ozu compares family to the slow-moving river that flows through Onomichi. Family is always changing and everyone you know and love is inevitably headed away from you forever. And yet the essential nature the family remains the same.
Family seems like too big a topic to tackle in one movie. But Yasujiro Ozu nailed it, with extraordinary insight and compassion. “Tokyo Story” is one of the greatest films of all time.