Fatalism in the Face of Melodrama: Tokyo Story

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Madame De… a melodrama that, by its treatment became almost a black comedy and much more watchable than one would expect from the subject matter.

Now it’s the turn of Tokyo Story which proves that melodrama can be made palatable in different ways, too. This one may be even more brilliant.

What the French film does by being humorous and worldly, the Japanese film does with a fatalism that flies in the teeth of the topic and even–to a certain degree–of the characters themselves. And like the French film, which gives a glimpse into the sardonic national character, this one also lifts one of the cultural veils and shows westerners the power of acceptance.

Briefly, the film is about an older couple who visit their children living in Tokyo and find them to be both too busy and too modern and cynical to spare time for their parents. This is a trip they’ve been waiting a lifetime to take, but it is clear that it’s special only to them and the one loyal character in the movie: their widowed daughter-in-law (seen in the pic above).

Then the mother dies.

But it avoids becoming overly emotional and unwatchable (think of a random 1970s melodrama where someone dies of cancer) because of the fatalistic acceptance that things are as they are and that one should be thankful for the little things that are good instead of hurting because of things that aren’t.

The couple’s genuine acceptance of life if a message that not only gets them through disappointment and tragedy but also stands as a strong rebuke to the wonderful film Ikiru in which precisely such acceptance is pointed to as the source of many national ills. The sympathetically-portrayed daughter-in-law in Tokyo Story is proof that the director was aware of this, even if the focus was elsewhere.

As always, when two diametrically opposed points of view collide, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But that doesn’t take away from the fact Tokyo Story shows a side of the Japanese character in a way that makes it possible for a Western audience to understand. And that is a wonderful thing.

And, as always, a shout-out to Kyōko Kagawa, who is still with us. If you’re reading, thank you for being part of this wonderful film!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose fascination with the human psyche follows him across genres. While his more commercial work has well-drawn characters, it is in his literary fiction where he explores this facet most deeply. Love and Death shows how real people act in those moments that define their lives. You can check it out here.

2 comments

  1. Another one of my favorite movies, Gustavo! If you’re seeing a trend emerging here about my aesthetic sensibilities. 🙂 I think my favorite Ozu flick is An Autumn Afternoon as his unique brand of formalism got very interesting when he introduced color to the mix, but Tokyo Story is probably tied with it at the top. His movies capture the rhythms of daily life in a way that I find almost Joycean, and while he has a reputation for all the gazillion movies he did being sort of similar (he compared himself to a tofu maker), Tokyo Story is the only one of his so far that had me weeping like a baby. Have you seen Tokyo Ga? It is a documentary about him by Wim Wenders shot I think 20 years after his death and it is incredible. They interview his cameraman and the guy remained loyal to Ozu’s memory and never made another movie after Ozu died. I think what I love about his vision as a whole is that there is, on one hand, the conventional cinematic grammar — how movies are used to tell stories. And then you have this guy who’s like no, I’m going to do my movies this other way. The camera goes near the floor and doesn’t move, the music bleeds from scene to scene, etc. Beautifully idiosyncratic and sort of mystical conception of what a film is supposed to be. Anyway great review again! Always look forward to seeing what’s next on your to-watch list.
    -M.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words! The funniest part is that you’re obviously much more savvy about cinema than I am. I watch them and either like or dislike what I’m seeing… only afterward do I even try to analyze why that is, and my reviews are very much about what I felt. I’ve picked up a certain amount of knowledge in watching these, but I am very much not an expert in the traditional sense.

      And I’ll definitely see if I can find Tokyo Ga. That sounds like a must-watch – thank you for the tip!

      Like

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