I live in New York. There are a lot of terrible things about living here. The prices, the summer humidity, Yankees fans, the inevitable night of bad theater, and in my case being 3000 miles away from my family. There are, of course, good things about living in New York: Prospect Park, Mets fans, the architecture, the inevitable night of wonderful theater, and in my case being a subway ride away from a bunch of folks I want to make great art with.
Another great thing about New York is that any given night you can go to a movie theater and watch some new print or re-release of a great movie. Just the other night I was about to go see the newest Harry Potter movie and get all weepy at the death of a certain freedom-loving creature, when on a whim I went to the Independent Film Channel Center and walked into a movie I’d never heard of before, and this week’s classic movie: 1953’s Tokyo Story.
I’d been casting about for the right Christmas movie to bring up in this column, but Tokyo Story turned out to be an unexpectedly great movie for Christmas exactly because it has everything to do with family. The fact that Tokyo Story is a Japanese movie about a Japanese family only makes clearer that family is family, at least in the modern world.
Most Christmas movies follow the “home for the holidays” formula of children returning to their parents. Legendary Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu takes a different approach, telling the tale of two elderly parents living in a rural town in Japan who travel to Tokyo in order to visit their children.
What follows manages to illustrate that uncomfortable distance that often exists between children who have grown up and their parents – but from the parent’s perspective. The emotional intensity of the scenes is buried under a politeness and formality that builds to a quietly overwhelming climax.
The parents are played with all due restraint and humility by Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama. Higashiuama in particular as Tomi, the mother, is particularly endearing. In one scene she is visiting the widow of her late son, who died in World War II. As the two of them prepare for bed, Tomi remarks to her daughter in law what a joy it is to sleep in her dead son’s bead. Tomi says this while wearing the same immutable smile she wears throughout the film, a smile that manages to both endear us to her and wonder what goes on beneath the mask.
At another point the father is getting drunk with some friends from his town who have relocated to Tokyo. Talking about the son who died in the war, the father tells his friends that it is difficult to see your son die. But, another points out, it is also difficult to live with your children.
It is this relentless lack of sentimentality with regards to how parents feel as they watch their children grow up and grow away, living up to expectations or falling into mediocrity. Christmas movies generally tell us that we love each other all the time no matter what, but Tokyo Story, with a brave kind of beauty, reminds us that it is never so simple.
Christmas is about family, everybody knows that. But what is family about? Watch Tokyo Story and ask yourself that question. Then remember that just because you’re family doesn’t mean your friends. If they’re still around, call your mom. Call your dad. They’re still wondering how you’re doing, and they miss you, and if you’re very, very lucky they want very much to be friends.