Anyone worth their salt in the film-fan industry knows of Sight & Sound’s list every decade of the greatest films of all time, gathered by critics reviews and top # collections of films, a list that recently usurped Citizen Kane with Vertigo as the greatest of all time. But there’s another list they publish along with their main one; a list, exclusively by film directors, of their personal picks for the greatest films of all time, compiled and arranged together in a master list. In the most recent edition of S&S’s list, 2012, the film that topped this director’s choice list was Tokyo Story, by Yasujiro Ozu. It also came in third in the overall poll, behind only Vertigo and Citizen Kane, so there’s gotta be something really special about this one. The story is almost a foreign version of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow; it deals with an elderly Japanese couple who visit their children and in-laws, and, save for their widowed daughter-in-law, none of them seem to even appreciate the company of the parents. In terms of a plot summary, that’s pretty much it; the film is very situational, and goes from one smattering of a segment to the next one; none of it all that important, but all of it necessary to get the full picture of what the film is trying to get across.
There are very little frills to this one, or at least, it seemed like there were. I couldn’t tell if the production value was just that, or if it was simply found as-is with the locations, a la Dogme. I wasn’t sure if the actors were actually professional actors, or just random people Ozu had gotten for the production alone; that’s how natural they all were. And the script, while still being a script, barely felt like one; it spoke as people of the time spoke to each other, and didn’t cut excess material to keep the film lean and free of fat. Normally, I would say to that that it is a mistake the film makes, but in the case of Tokyo Story, it instead provided a way for the film to come across so average and realistic that, aside from the actors looking into the camera for probably half their lines, you can barely tell you’re watching a film. That’s a tough bit of magic for a film to possess, especially a film that doesn’t go the obvious route of covering it up with pure entertainment value, so kudos to Ozu for what he accomplishes here. As I mentioned, Ozu also has an odd habit of filming his actors saying their lines directly to the camera, and precisely in the center of the frame; for instance, a conversation will switch back and forth between the two parties, with both of them looking right at the camera or just off-center, and will only switch when the person is finished talking. Expecting fancy things like cross-cutting between the visuals and the audio is expecting a modern film, and this is not a modern film. I suppose it has been a while for me, since I’ve seen a film of such an antiquated time as this, and it took some getting used to, so heads up.
As I’ve found with vintage films, it’s the imperfections that make it what it is. The flickering of the frames, the static of the audio, the miniscule shaking of the camera; they all provide a nice bit of study for the modern film viewer. Now, as I’ve said before, I try to view films as if I am watching them for the first time in the year they were released, but even with that mindset, Tokyo Story didn’t seem all that overwhelming. I could very easily compare it to La Regle du Jeu, in that the film is very nice to watch, and (aside from the technicals) is pretty much flawless, but that there just wasn’t enough entertainment value for me to really call this one of the best of all time. It might be up there, but for me, it wouldn’t be by my vote. What the film offers is a loving and protracted look at the relationship between a Japanese family and their elders, which is quite the different relationship than we have with ours, but even still, I can imagine the plot of this film to be somewhat shocking to a Japanese audience, that holds their elders in such high esteem and personal regard, and thus can hardly imagine what it must be like to forsake them so as this family does. That’s what the film had for me, and for that, it was very well done, but that would be about it in my regard.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10