No one can serve his parents beyond the grave: Tokyo Story (1953)

The saddest story of all time comes from Tokyo. Yasujirō Ozu‘s Tokyo Story (1953) depicts a universal heartbreak by telling a story of an elderly couple — Tomi and Shūkichi — who travel to Tokyo to visit their children. The film does not exploit the moments in which children ignore their parents because they’re busy with their day-to-day affairs. It just shows them bare and naked as they are, with a staggering sense of guilt that pervades even the most stubborn audience. Their love is confronted by their children’s indifference, who politely usher their parents to a nearby inexpensive resort at Atami Hot Springs rather than spend some time with them. This is contrasted with the behavior of Noriko, their widowed daughter-in-law, who is the only one paying attention to them without them being actually related. The hotel turns out more like a gambling den, and since they are unable to sleep, they decide to leave Tokyo after all. The film then slowly grows into a meditation on mortality, disappointment and regret.

Tokyo Story is a regular top-10 contender in the famous Sight & Sound polls of greatest films.
Tokyo Story is a regular top-10 contender in the famous Sight & Sound polls of greatest films.

This is the part where the story slowly reduces you to tears, and I will not provide the details of it. But even if I did, such a detailed film study of disillusionment and frustration will knock you sideways every time. You cannot really write a spoiler for sadness. Tokyo Story is not a story about generational conflict, but the conflict between your inner desires, your make-believes, and reality. Ozu himself was devastated when his mother passed away, and a famous line from Tokyo Story is the one he wrote down in April of that year in his diary, an overwhelming sense of sorrow combined with guilt:

“No one can serve his parents beyond the grave.”

Yasujirō Ozu did not conform to traditional Hollywood conventions of the so-called 180-degree rule in his directing style, which usually makes it look like two characters are looking at each other while they are talking. His camera glares at the actors directly, and we as an audience feel we are a part of the dialogue scene instead of being an external observer in the over-the-shoulder shots. We are piercing through the mask of politeness and gaze straight into the inner feelings of another human being. But you never notice that, which only emphasizes Ozu’s skill as a director.

Ozu's characters are engaged in alternating frontal shots, instead of over-the-shoulder shots.
Ozu’s characters are engaged in alternating frontal shots, instead of over-the-shoulder shots.

Throughout his films, Ozu used the tatami shot, where he placed the camera at low heights, comparable to the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami pillow, which grants us with a sense of intimacy. But he never focalizes the story through a single person: the ultimate theme of his films is the concept of a family. Emotional shots are not overused, and there is no subjectivity of any kind: we just see the reality, bared to its bones, and are provided just with grief-striking facts.

Kyoko: Isn’t life disappointing?”

Noriko: Yes, it is.”

Ozu's tatami shots make us a part of the scene, shot at an eye level of a person sitting on a tatami pillow.
Ozu’s tatami shots make us a part of the scene, shot at an eye level of a person sitting on a tatami pillow.

There’s no dramatic music nor close-ups even during the most devastating scenes. In contrast, he’s either shooting such scenes from a distance or elliptically skipping the most tragic parts, which is a heritage of the classical Greek tragedy where death was never shown on stage. And what can we gain from showing death? It’s the most natural thing out there, and we should rather observe the consequences and scars left on people. When Noriko and our protagonists are bonding with their son’s widow, they’re taking a bus tour of Tokyo, and Ozu does not show the March 1945 bombing of Tokyo aftermath at all. Ozu is skipping the happiest parts as well, for example, in Late Spring (1949), we do not see the wedding ceremony, which is the focal part of the story, because Ozu wants us to focus on the causes and aftermath. The saddest and happiest events pass in an instant, but their imminent traces are what makes us the people we are today. Everything that affects us as individuals also affects the society as a whole.

Ozu: “I only know how to make tofu. I can make fried tofu, boiled tofu, stuffed tofu. Cutlets and other fancy stuff, that’s for other directors.”

Ozu often depicts family stories of middle-class families, where parental figures often sacrifice themselves for their offspring, while the children are participating in a generational conflict and, being Western-like individuals, do not seem to comprehend such choices. Regarding gender gap, Ozu’s characters are not typical fairy-tale characters. Men are often helpless, while females make their own choices. Ozu isn’t a fan of modern times, but he’s neither a fan of all traditional values. For example, in Early Summer (1951), he is dismissing patriarchal beliefs and letting a female character marry the one she loves, against the wishes of her family.

Ozu: I tried to represent the collapse of the Japanese family system through showing children growing up.”

Shūkichi and Tomi alone at the Atami resort.
Shūkichi and Tomi alone at the Atami resort.

Ozu’s shots are often depicting seemingly random interior scenes, but this creates a sense of spatial intimacy. But his external compositions seem to give us an insight into inner workings of a human mind. Consider the Atami scene, where Shūkichi and Tomi talk to each other surrounded by the vast body of water. The shot is devoid of humans, because they are left alone in this world.

Ozu’s camera almost never moves. But Tokyo Story will move you in a way you never expected. Give it a shot. And if you’re lucky enough you’re parents are still there, ring them up.

Shūkichi Hirayama [Looking at sunrise the morning after Tomi died]: It was such a beautiful dawn.”



Bordwell, David (1988). Ozu and the Poetics Of Cinema. BFI Publishing, Princeton University Press.

Desser, David (ed.) (1997). Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Cambridge Film Handbooks.

Joo, Woojeong (2017). The Cinema of Ozu Yasujiro: Histories of the Everyday. Edinburgh University.

Kuplowsky, Adam (2018). Discovering the Poetry of Yasujiro Ozu, or I Also Wrote, But…

Rothman, William (2006). Notes on Ozu’s Cinematic Style. Film International 4 (22): 33–42.

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