Tokyo Story (1953), The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) (Yasujirô Ozu)

Tokyo Story
I am looking at these two films together, simply because they were delivered to us on the same disc from the DVD rental company. It was Tokyo Story we ordered, on the basis of it being regularly listed amongst the best films ever made. Nevertheless, the matching showed some thought, as the films are linked using the plot device, the death of a parent and the deficiencies of (most of) the children in different ways. The great classic can be seen as a reworking of the earlier, slightly flawed essay.

Tokyo Story begins as an elderly couple from the country, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, leave their youngest daughter to look after their house as they depart for the Tokyo house of their son, a local doctor, Koichi, and his family.

As they take note of their children and grandchildren’s lifestyle, the parents initially look a little passive-aggressive, to my eyes – though I always have to be careful how I judge behaviour that is not only removed from me by the culture of the time but also of the country.

Koichi and his sister, Shige, who runs a hair salon, are both busy people and they struggle to find time to show their parents around town. An afterthought invitation to their sister-in-law, Noriko, the widow of their brother killed in the war, allows them to foist Shukichi and Tomi on to her to carry out what should really be their own duties, despite her having to, uncomplainingly, make the most difficult rearrangement of work duties. Knowing that Noriko cannot be expected to take care of their parents for the whole trip, but still unwilling to carry out their own duties, Koichi and Shige stump up the money to send them to a spa instead. Unfortunately for everyone, the spa is a noisy, young person’s kind of place, and the parents can’t stand more than one night, returning to Tokyo, only to find their children have already made new arrangements, meaning they have to find somewhere else to sleep. And one of the parents has health problems they haven’t revealed.

In The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, we encounter a family from very different circumstances but with many of the same issues. This is a family of wealth and status, although with debts that come to light when the father suddenly dies. Selling off all their property to pay the debts, one of the sons, who has until now been the black sheep of the family, leaves for Manchuria to try to make something of himself, while the mother and youngest daughter suddenly find themselves homeless and in need of the charity of the rest of the family.

This film, charming as it is, is severely hamstrung by history. It is set during World War II and, early on in the film, one of the children leaves to go to Manchuria to make his fortune. When Japanese occupied China is held up as an Eldorado, a land of promise where enterprising young people can make a fresh start, I struggle to maintain sympathy for them. How much Ozu, or the Japanese people in general, knew about what was happening is not clear to me; it’s quite possible that the deep humanitarian message of this film is sincere and he and his audience could watch this in complete ignorance of Japanese atrocities and total belief in the good intentions of the occupation. The trouble is, that I can’t.

In both films, a parent dies; in both, the grown children are shown as remiss in their duties; in both, one daughter / daughter-in-law is contrasted as an ideal, even if they are a little too good to be convincing, despite a good performance.

Nonetheless, the films are lovely. Tokyo Story, watched alone, is a meditative joy. The Brothers and Sisters… is less successful but still a good film, and interesting as much for the contrasts with the later film.

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