Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story is an exercise in simplicity. With static shots placed a bit below eye level (though not tilted), he tells an economical story: Two elders visit their grown children, who neglect them because of their busy city lives. The parents return home, the wife falls ill and die, and the children must make a trip to her funeral.
It doesn't get much more complicated than that, yet Ozu, without once insisting upon himself, molds one of the finest movies ever made to examine the generational gap. It's a movie completely geared towards postwar Japan, yet its simplicity grants the film a universality. The elders speak with guarded emotions, while the children are losing tradition to Western influence, while the grandchildren, who know only a postwar upbringing, are petulant and spoiled.
Ozu moves the film forward at a snail's pace, yet he knows that it's just the right speed. His camera, which moves within a shot a grand total of one time, lingers on scenes, both before and after any action occurs. These shots flatten the sets, which in most cases would be a bad thing, yet here they add texture to the In between, he inserts what Roger Ebert termed "pillow shots," filler images of the city around them. These shots are totally unnecessary and unrelated, yet they somehow enhance the mood of the story. Most directors track action, but Ozu seems to track emotion.
Watching the film unfold is a slow ride to devastation. The elders, Shukichi and Tomi, speak with carefully chosen words and communicate their real feelings behind polite nods and agreements, yet you can tell they are disappointed with their children and especially their grandkids. Shukichi and Tomi meet their grandchildren for the first time, yet these kids barely pause to say hello before running back to their rooms. In one scene, the grandparents reflect upon how their children turned out, agreeing at last that they're "better than average."
During their stay, the children make plans to spend time with their parents, only to complain that they can't get away from work. Ironically, the only person who treats the elders well is their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko, a fact which Shukichi remarks upon near the end. Eventually, the children, feeling guilty (perhaps more so because Noriko has taken time out to spend with people who aren't even blood relatives), send their parents to a spa. The surrounding area is so noisy that the two cannot sleep. In the morning, Shukichi, in his guarded, polite way, says, "Let's go back home."
On the way home, the two stop by to see their youngest son. Tomi spends some more time with Noriko, while Shukichi goes out drinking with an old friend. These two scenes show the two at their most emotional; under the influence of alcohol, Shukichi finally loosens up and criticizes his children and their changing lifestyle, while Tomi expresses her emotions in a far subtler way. Tomi, like her husband, communicates in politeness, but her thanks to Noriko are more than perfunctory. She encourages Noriko, who has not remarried in the 8 years since her husband's death, to move on, that she cannot bear to see her daughter-in-law spend the rest of her days alone out of grief for her own son. It's the only connection the elders make with anyone other than each other in the whole film.
And then, on the journey back, Tomi dies. The family travels to the funeral, and at last there is genuine emotion from the children and grandchildren. Just watch the compartmentalized grief in Chishu Ryu's face as he conveys all the hidden agony of a man who lost his lifelong soulmate. The very last exchange of the film is heartbreaking; Shukichi's neighbor offers her condolences, to which he responds, in his typically polite way "Oh, she was a headstrong woman ... but if I knew things would come to this, I'd have been kinder to her," then, "Living alone like this, the days will get very long."
What makes Ozu's film so transcendent is that it's not a scathing attack on younger generations. The children genuinely mean well and do feel bad, but they maintain they can't get off work. Maybe they can't; it's wrong to assume that a system of vacations and sick days is the same in Japan as it is in the US. They are caught in the middle between fading Traditionalism and the growing influence of American occupation and don't know quite what to make of it. Ozu doesn't judge them; he only illustrates the fundamental disconnect between generations. Critics cite Ozu as the most Japanese of directors, but that belies the universal appeal of this character study. A softly crushing film, Tokyo Story earns it place near the top of the list of the greatest movies ever made.