Sunday, March 7, 2010
#217: Tokyo Story
The first time I watched Tokyo Story, I wasn't in the mood. When it finally made it to the top of my Netflix queue, it arrived at my doorstep, only to languish on the top of my television for a month or two, its two-hour fifteen-minute running time and notorious slow pace silently taunting me. When I finally watched it, I did it more to send it back with something to show for the time it had sat there than because I actually felt ready for the film. Unsurprisingly, it did absolutely nothing for me. The simplicity of the story, the basic (some would say restrained) camera work, and the understated performances all worked against my dwindling interest, and I ended the film still mystified by the film's status as one of the ten greatest movies ever according to the Sight and Sound poll. So, of course, I had to give it another shot.
This second viewing was a much more rewarding one. Ozu is often regarded as the quintessential Japanese director, for the very reasons I had dismissed the film intially. The director cuts minimally, and he places his camera on the ground where characters sit and relate, bow to their elders and crowd around tables to eat meals. Characters speak directly to the camera, and he rarely cuts away from them to a reaction shot before they are finished. The plot is the most basic you could imagine, but you believe in the characters and put your faith in the story because you hope you will be emotionally rewarded.
But, for me, that's where Tokyo Story falls short of many of the movies that are placed in its company. I simply wasn't emotionally impacted by the story in the way other movies have impacted me. Ozu called the film his most melodramatic, and while the movie is by no means over the top or designed entirely as a tearjerker, I would agree with him. Melodramas can be classic films (the Hollywood masterpiece Dodsworth and the nearly perfect A Brief Encounter come to mind), but without that emotional response they are designed to elicit, they often seem less successful, even if the film is impeccably made like this one is.
So I don't yet understand the universal appeal of Tokyo Story. I think I need to go back and watch earlier Ozu films first (and there are a few I have yet to watch for this project) before I can view this one in the proper context. But I can safely say this film will come far short of any list of my favorite films ever made. Of course, that doesn't make it a bad movie by any means, but it's probably my least favorite film that consistently shows up on the Sight and Sound list. Ironically, Tokyo Story is exactly the kind of film that shies away from such grandiose discussions, something that I feel is both a powerful asset for the film and the major barrier between me and a better understanding of the film.