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‘Isn't life disappointing?’

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Tokyo Story is a 1953 Japanese film by director Yasujiro Ozu. It’s about Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama, an elderly retired couple who visit their children in Tokyo. Their children are:

  • Their son Kōichi, a pediatrician who is married to Fumiko. They have two sons, Minoru and Isamu.
  • Their daughter Shige, who runs a beauty parlor, and is married to Kurazō.
  • Their daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Her husband, the old couple’s second son, was killed in World War II.
  • Their son Keizō, who actually lives in Osaka. They make an unplanned stop to visit him on their way back home, after Tomi feels unwell on the train.
  • Their youngest daughter Kyōko, who still lives at home with her parents.

The movie explores the relationship between two (three, if you count the grandchildren) very different generations in Japanese culture. Widely considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made.

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Tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: Shūkichi used to be this, causing a lot of problems for his family, as Shige reveals after he comes back from a night at the bar with a drunken buddy in tow.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The widowed Shūkichi sits alone at home, preparing for the loneliness he will now face, while Kyoko comes to terms with the fact that she will eventually grow up to lose contact with her father, and Noriko, though having the hope for remarrying, is still lonely and depressed. Although this sounds like a Downer Ending, in practice it's simply a beautiful, poignant reminder of the way that life goes on.
  • The Caretaker: Kyōko has stayed home to look after her parents. She resents her siblings for their lack of similar filial devotion.
  • Central Theme: Life goes on along with many other things.
  • Chubby Mama, Skinny Papa: Shūkichi is still lean in his old age, while Tomi has a grandma’s plumpness.
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  • Dysfunctional Family: A quiet, understated example. There isn’t any melodrama, but it’s made plain that the parents and children have grown distant from each other. Koichi and Shige don’t have time for their parents, leaving them alone at home, eventually packing them off to a spa resort to get them out of the way. All but Noriko leave as soon as possible after the funeral, but not until Shige starts claiming her mother’s stuff, much to Kyōko’s disgust. Apparently the grandparents have never met their grandchildren Minoru and Isamu before, despite the fact that the older boy must be at least ten.
  • Foreshadowing: There are several scenes implying that Tomi is aware that she is going to die soon.
  • Growing Up Sucks: The young Kyoko, learning from Noriko that it's natural and inevitable for children to lose contact with their parents in order to live their own lives, remarks that life is disappointing. Noriko agrees that it does, as a simple fact of life.
  • Happily Married: Shūkichi and Tomi, to a degree. He occasionally pokes fun at her and briefly berates her for her occasional forgetfulness; he regrets not treating her better after she dies. The others... not quite so much.
  • Henpecked Husband: Shige pushes her husband around. Shūkichi notes this in one of his more candid moments.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Downplayed. The shot continues even after the scene ended and the characters left for a few seconds at a time every now and then.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Tomi’s. Grasping, selfish Shige wants her mother’s stuff. Kyōko resents her for it.
  • The Mourning After: Noriko for her husband, although, as she confesses to Shūkichi, it isn’t quite that simple. In fact, she feels terrible loneliness, but is racked with guilt about her desires to move on after her husband’s death.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Shūkichi muses on how hard this is when remembering his son Shōji, killed in the war.
  • Shout-Out: The basic plot of the movie was inspired by Make Way for Tomorrow, a film Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda admired greatly.
  • Signature Shot: Ozu liked to shoot with stationary cameras three feet off the ground (the height of a kneeling Japanese person), and to film two-person conversations as shot/reverse-shot exchanges in which each party addresses the camera directly. Both are used frequently in this film.
  • Slice of Life: It’s a portrait of children growing distant from their parents, and family bonds breaking down. As far as plot goes, little happens over the course of the movie, other than Tomi’s death, which is perfectly ordinary and undramatic.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Kyōko is disturbed by her siblings not bothering to stay with their father after their mother’s death, while only Noriko did above and beyond to help; Noriko tells her that eventually people lose contact with their parents and have to think of themselves first, and someday that would happen to her, too. Kyōko is very saddened by this.
    Kyoko: "Isn't life disappointing?"
    Noriko: (smiles) "Yes".
  • Stepford Smiler: The ‘depressed’ variant. The smile that Noriko has plastered to her face only cracks once, during the scene with Shūkichi in which she breaks down crying and confesses her loneliness.

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