A Human Story

In Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 film “Tokyo Story,” a retired couple decides to depart their rustic home in southern Japan to visit their children in the bustling city of Tokyo. They expect a warm reception on the part of their eldest son and his wife, but receive nothing of the sort. All of their children are exceedingly busy and taxed further by their presence, and it seems the elder generation has become a burden to the younger.

Here, generational conflict lies not only in differences in the paces of rural and city lifestyles, but in what typical individuals from these communities value. The children wish to do something nice for their parents, but have little free time in which to do it. As such, they send them away for a spa retreat and give them tickets for shows. But, these attempts on the part of the children to placate their progenitors fail hopelessly, for these parent’s desire is merely to spend time with their family.

Later in the film, the mother, Tomi, falls ill. Her children chastise her for walking about the city too long (the contiguous cause of the sickness), rather than displaying anything of sentiment for her. when she passes, they bicker and plan among themselves about how they intend to divide up her belongings.

Ozu’s film displays then-contemporary malaise over modern culture. The fear, dating back to Weber’s “iron cage of social relations,” that all relationships would become instrumental. Means to gaining an end, rather than ends of themselves. It is also a close look at inter-generational relationship dynamics in a rapidly changing world. Without ever forcing a specific argument through the narrative apparatus of film, Ozu invites reflection. His pathos, his affection for his characters (engendered primarily through repeated use of the same actors and actresses in film after film), calls us to reevaluate our own ways of being in regard to others, and in particular, to those others whose actions created us as we are today.

Ozu’s fatherly, experienced, and objective stance yields artistic productions, the experience of which only mystic sublimity can compare. It is this character of Ozu that inspired within German filmmaker Wim Wenders an impulse to create a narrative of angels watching over us from the Brandenburg Gate.

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