“I’m busy” a phrase most used by people with a job, a family, a romantic relationship, or a dream. Tokyo Story, is about that phrase which is uttered throughout the film by the sons and daughters of Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) Hirayama an elderly couple living in post World War II Japan, who take to visiting their children in the big city of Tokyo. When they arrive, they are treated like obligations, sitting in each of their children’s houses/and or businesses (one is a beautician) awaiting reciprocity with their children– awaiting time. The film deals with the post world war concerns like technology, industry, time and how those have a barring on tradition. The elder Hirayamas are not so much stuck in the past as they don’t let the past vacate.
Director Yasujirō Ozu remarkably incorporates the symbols of a culture shift by inner splicing shots of telephone poles, power plant chimneys, boats and railroads, within the events in the narrative. It appears we are here to consider Japan. The outskirts, Onomichi, and the city of Tokyo, and what these changes possibly mean for the Hirayamas. When they arrive in Tokyo, the only person who takes time for them, and essentially the only person they can relate to, is Niriko (Setsuko Hara) their widowed daughter in law. She takes to them and treats them like family. You can tell she loves them.
In a scene where Mother Hirayama has comes to Niriko’s house after departing from her husband for the day after a lack luster time at a resort (where the kids sent them to) they discuss, Mother’s dead son. She notes that a picture of him still hangs in Niriko’s house, and she apologizes to Niriko for not being able to do more, and she urges Niriko to remarry, in order to be happy. The daughter replies, “I’m happy. I like it this way.” Niriko seems to be someone in the film who understands loss. She is not so much trying to wash it away as she is trying to deal with it. On the other hand, Shige chooses to represses her disdain for her parents, particularly for her former alcoholic father, and tries to build a life by moving as fast and forceful as a train.
When Father comes to her house drunk, being escorted by a cop, she berates him. “He used to drink all time. Used to come home dead drunk, upsetting Mama. We hated it”, she says, sitting on the bed with her lover, (it’s hard to tell if he’s her husband–she’s more in control) looking over at her father with the hurt of a neglected child, his face covered in shadow. He is not sorry for it. It is who he is, and you can suspect that this instance is revealing for both of them. He, because he misses his son. Her, because his drunken presence is a painful reminder of the bad times that no modernization has yet helped sooth.
It seems modernization from Ozu’s framing of different industry landmarks, traditional construction the houses, Onomichi, the upgrades in houses in Tokyo, Shige’s (Haruko Sugimura) beauty salon has a modern door instead of a sliding one, and even a scene where Father and Mother Hirayama contemplate going home, sitting on the edge of bridge overlooking the ocean in their hotel robes—modernization is nice, but what else is there?
Throughout the film, there is talk about the kids coming out to Onomichi to visit their parents, but each child, including the daughter –in-law, and the their youngest son living in Osaka don’t commit to seeing their parents. Each harks on the fact that they’re busy. But the kids eventually do make it up there, but it’s not for what they think. They’re mother is dying.
In a scene where Niriko and Father, discuss loneliness, Father, nearly demands Niriko to get re-married. She defends her single-hood again, saying that she doesn’t wallow about her dead husband. But when she does think of him, she can be overwhelmed by guilt and a lack of initiative. It is her reason for not having moved on. In a gracious and dare I say, old school manner, Shukichi gets up and hands her something—it’s an old time piece. “Please believe me, I want you to be happy. Sincerely.” He goes into further monologue about how she, a “non blood relative” is the only one out of his children that really cared about him and his wife. The others, make time for themselves, while she makes time for them.
In Tokyo Story, Ozu provides contemplation on what time is, and what it can provide. Ozu is not trying to disparage us from modernization but he does not let it rule. He explores modernity’s good and bad properties the way he explores those properties of tradition. Modernization—the attempt to control time, is not the saving grace here, and nor is it pure evil. It is apart of life while, not life itself.