Tokyo Story - Noriko's Smile
By Doron B. Cohen (Kyoto, Japan)

This is the third in what became known as "the Noriko trilogy": three films in which Hara Setsuko plays a different young woman called "Noriko". These are Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953) (in between came two other films in which Hara did not participate). In all three films she plays a "modern" young woman: dressed in western cloths (while the slightly older women around her usually wear kimono), works in an office of a large company in Tokyo, and seems confident and self-reliant. In the first two films she turns out to be a little more traditional than expected: in Late Spring she agrees to an arranged marriage, in spite of her personal preferences; in Early Summer she displays independence by choosing her spouse against her family's wishes, but in fact she marries the boy next door, preferring going to the backward countryside with a poor doctor she likes, over life in the modern city with a rich businessman she doesn't trust. In Tokyo Story it is the other way around: she seems extremely traditional to begin with, loyal beyond measure to her old parents-in-law, but she eventually confesses to being selfish, no longer thinking constantly about her dead husband but rather about her own life and what would become of it.

Tokyo Story is usually regarded as Ozu's greatest masterpiece or most representative film. To those of us who know his films well, and regard his entire oeuvre as one unity, it is probably just one in a series of truly great films. Still, one cannot deny the variety of deep human feelings displayed in this particular film, as well as the amazing performances by the whole wonderful cast. Ryū Chishū gives here arguably his greatest performance as the old father (about twenty years older than his actual age at the time; the actress who plays his wife in this film played his mother in Early Summer two years earlier), and Hara Setsuko too has one of her most memorable roles. And Ozu, as always, keeps surprising us with what he does and does not show. For example, there are many train rides in the story, but only one is actually shown, towards the end of the film, when Noriko goes back to Tokyo, after opening her heart to her father-in-law, and receiving his blessing and encouragement to start a new chapter in her life. While on the train she takes out the watch that belonged to her late mother-in-law and was given to her as a memento; she opens the lid of the old-fashioned watch, reflecting nostalgically on the past, and then she closes the lid back, looking forward to her life from now on. This is a very typical conclusion to an Ozu film: every ending - even one involving death - is another beginning.

While Noriko seems the paragon of filial piety, the old couple's own children are depicted mostly as the complete opposite: cold, selfish and self-absorbed. But as with Noriko, the depiction is not totally black or white. These grown-up children must fend for themselves and their own families. The father's old friend, when getting drunk, complains about his own son, who had given up and would make no effort to progress in life; Hirayama's children, on the other hand, strive constantly: Kōichi is dedicated to his patients, and Shige to her business; they cannot let go. And they are not emotionally sterile either; Shige even displays true sorrow over her mother's death (although one can't help wishing that she had been a little nicer to her in life). The old parents conclude that they are lucky since their children are better than average, and although they may say so mostly to comfort themselves, we can also see the grain of truth in that statement.

Perhaps the parents-children relationship could be explored from another angle as well. Shige brings up childhood grievances: her mother embarrassed her at school, and her father was often drunk. Her current attitude may have something to do with what she had to endure. Perhaps their son and daughters-in-law are nicer to the old couple because they did not have to grow up with them as their own children did. As we know from every culture and every period, families can be hell. So while they are expected to treat their old parents with respect, the grown-up children cannot be expected to be totally free of the sediments of the past.

Unfortunately, the original negative of Tokyo Story was lost in a fire, and what we have left are only second-rate copies. We shall therefore never be able to enjoy this film in all its original beauty. Still, as we watch it again and again, many scenes linger in memory, and above all Noriko's warm, accepting smile when speaking with her young sister-in-law: Yes, life is disappointing, but that is all we've got. Once again human reality is reflected, both brilliantly and modestly, through Ozu's incomparable art.

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