Tokyo Story (U)

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The Independent Culture

Yasujiro Ozu's portrait of familial relations, first seen in 1953, is marked by an indefinable melancholy that settles on the frame as softly as snow.

His calm, decorous, low-level camera tends to sit still, pausing in empty interiors and catching life on the hoof (trains, boats) so elegantly that one might think he's less interested in people than in spaces. Yet people – their feelings, their self-deceptions and shortcomings – are absolutely central to him.

The story of this film is simple: an elderly couple arrive from the provinces to visit their married children in Tokyo. It is their first visit in a long time (they have never met their grandchildren) yet the son and daughter they've come to see are too busy to play host, and pack them off to a nearby spa. Strangely, the one person who treats them in a kindly and filial way is their daughter-in-law (the great Setsuko Hara), who married their middle son and was widowed during the war.

The old couple, disappointed but uncomplaining of their treatment, take the train back home; on a stopover they discuss what's happened to their children: it amounts to a buried lament for a generation's loss of respect and affection for their parents. Then a sudden death breaks on the family, and a sad reckoning ensues.

The unshowy tenderness of this is like no other film-maker's: his actors don't seem to be acting at all, they're just living. Ozu only has to train his camera on a face to uncover a sense of resignation, or longing, or loneliness, and the mood, if you allow it, becomes quite overwhelming. Tokyo Story opens a retrospective of Ozu at the British Film Institute, and if you haven't seen it, go now.