Monday, February 7, 2011

Those Rotten Kids

Films: Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story); Make Way for Tomorrow
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (Tokyo), DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player (Tomorrow).

Yasujiro Ozu hated moving his camera. By the time he got to Sanma no Aji, he had stopped moving the camera completely, but this was not a huge change from his earlier films. The camera isn’t completely static in Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, but it’s close.

This can be difficult to deal with for those who expect Japanese cinema to be more or less samurai stories filmed by Kurosawa or modern films about the Yakuza. Ozu directed character-driven, family-oriented dramas of painful choices, broken dreams, and heartache. While these stories do sometimes turn out with a wistful smile at the end, they often shine a painful spotlight on the kind of behavior that we deplore in others and hide in ourselves.

Tokyo Monogatari deals with Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama, respectively), the parents of a group of adult children. Missing their kids and desiring to see their grandchildren, they hop on a train and heads to Tokyo for a visit.

What they discover is both painful and unsurprising. Their children have their own lives, their own families, and their own concerns. While the kids are happy to see Mom and Dad, they are also put out by the sudden stress on their lives and regular routines. Rather than treat the visit as something special, the kids instead pass their parents off on each other, complain about the amount of money they are having to spend on them, and treat the parents like a great nuisance, confiding in each other that the only wish Mom and Dad would return to their small village in the middle of nowhere.

In fact, only one person is really happy to see them—the daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) who was widowed by World War II. Despite the fact that she really has no blood connection to the family and her husband is dead, she goes out of her way to show her in-laws as much of Tokyo as she can, feeds them as well as she can afford, and takes as much time off work as she is allowed.

Eventually, the kids pack the parents off to a resort, which is much more designed for the younger generation. Mom and Dad return to Tokyo, then split up for a few days. He rejoins some old friends, looking desperately for a place to spend the night away from his kids and out of their hair, while she spends more time with daughter-in-law Noriko, urging her to remarry and pull some happiness out of life. He gets drunk with his old friends, something he evidently did when the kids were young, and when he returns to his daughter’s home, he is shamed for his behavior.

Eventually, to everyone’s relief, it is time for them to go home. They hop a train back home, expecting to visit their youngest son on the way back during a stopover. However, not all goes to plan because Tomi becomes ill during the trip and requires immediate medical care, and the condition quickly becomes serious enough to warrant all of the children attending what is destined to become a deathwatch.

This is a poignant story, one with a great deal of pain and suffering for all involved, and while Ozu’s loyalties are clearly on the side of the parents, he doesn’t spare them or hold them completely innocent. Shukishi complains to his friends that he is ultimately disappointed in his children, that none of them turned out as he would have wished. None is as successful as he would like, and that all of them have grown embittered with age. He comments that all parents, essentially, are disappointed with their children, because the children never turn out exactly as the parents would like—a harsh statement, and possibly a true one.

The children, however, get the bulk of Ozu’s wrath, and except for the youngest child who still lives with the parents, each is shown in turn to be selfish, small-minded, and mean. Rather than honoring their parents in a culture that venerates the venerable, they are shown as petty and ungrateful. The elder two do not recognize this. The sister-in-law sees this, and reacts by treating the visit as something special. The youngest son recognizes his own failure regarding his parents and their expectations, but does nothing to change his ways.

It’s a beautifully realized story in no small part because it is such a human story, a story of everyday tragedy that plays itself out daily around the world. It is the pedestrian nature of the conflict here that strangely makes it so compelling; it is fascinating to watch if for no other reason than that it is so easily recognizable and so easy to place oneself in either the role of parent or child.

It’s no secret that a great deal of Ozu’s text for this film came from Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, a critically acclaimed commercial flop. McCarey’s contract with the studio was not renewed on account of this film, partly because the film tanked at the box office and partly because McCarey refused to change his original, downer ending for something more feel-good and Hollywood approved. This demand to stay real was a good choice, because it’s the tearjerker ending that makes the film worth the 90 minutes or so of its running time. A cheap happy ending would spoil what would otherwise be a masterful achievement. Because McCarey stayed true to the ending he wanted, this is a film that really demands to be watched.

If anything, Ozu softened McCarey’s story of Bark and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, respectively). The parents call a meeting of their offspring in the old family house; four out of the five show up, the fifth staying home because she lives all the way across the country. Bark tells the kids that the bank is foreclosing on the house. He’s been out of work for years and they simply haven’t been able to keep up on the payments. The deadline for them leaving is a few days, and the time has come to make a decision for what to do.

Put on the spot like this, the kids show their true colors. None of them are willing to take the parents in. One says she’ll try to convince her husband to agree to the folks moving in, but it will take her at least three months to get him to agree. In the meantime, Lucy moves in with son George (the always-reliable Thomas Mitchell) and Bark moves in with daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon).

Immediately, it becomes evident that these arrangements will not work out. Bark and Lucy attempt to make the best of things, but the children and the in-laws become so wrapped up in their own affairs and lives that the parents become nothing more than a problem to be dealt with. The most moving scene of this part comes when Bark calls Lucy during a bridge night at George’s apartment. She speaks to him on the phone, initially annoying the guests, but it soon becomes evident that her plight is serious enough—separated from her husband by hundreds of miles, unable to go anywhere else—that it quickly becomes a scene of painful voyeurism as the guests suspend their game and listen in on her half of the conversation. George and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter), who is teaching the bridge lesson are at first shamed by her, and then shamed by their own treatment of her.

Eventually, it is determined that Bark would be better in California because of his health, and George and especially Anita attempt to maneuver Lucy to a home for old women. Lucy, defiant and determined to make her own choices, tells her son she’d prefer to move to the home, but that he can never tell Bark about it. Bark, despite his age, will look for work in California, and send for her when he finds it, but it’s evident that with his age and the Depression happening, he’ll never find work again, and the two will likely be apart forever.

As a last dash hope, the two spend a final day together in New York, reliving the times of their honeymoon, and depending (successfully) on the kindness of strangers, who treat the sweet old couple with far more kindness than their own children do. And that’s sort of the point of the movie, after all.

To make this point, Make Way for Tomorrow goes to some extremes. George and Anita have a lavish apartment and a servant, but can’t spare enough to help Bark and Lucy stay together, and none of the other kids is willing to throw in, either. Splitting them up is probably the cruelest fate either one can suffer, and it happens here without a second thought. It’s easy to overlook in the moment, such is the power of the story and McCarey’s direction, but in retrospect, it’s pretty heavy-handed and more than a little maudlin at times.

It also features some of the worst rear projection shots ever made in Hollywood history. I realize that there was a Depression going on, but certainly they could have sprung for putting our characters in a real park for a 30 second walk instead of plopping them in front of an out of focus and faded New York street scene and then had them walk in place. It’s ludicrously bad, and wouldn’t fool anyone. Fortunately, this is a short scene, and the couple quickly moves to a lavish hotel, which is more than just a backdrop.

This is a sad film, and the relationship between Bark and Lucy is tender and sweet. It’s easy to feel bad for them because they are so sympathetic, and because their children are so reprehensible. It works, at times in spite of itself, if only for the guilt or potential guilt it induces.

Why to watch Tokyo Monogatari: A poignant story of endearing oldsters and their selfish children.
Why not to watch: It’s slow getting there.

Why to watch Make Way for Tomorrow: Another poignant story of endearing oldsters and their selfish children.
Why not to watch: Even more maudlin than you might expect at times.


  1. I have a friend whose favorite movie is Tokyo Story and insisted I watch it. It can be slow ride to get there, true-but after watching several other Ozu films-I've come around to being a fan. I also recommend Late Spring, which is not in the 1001 book.

  2. I'm inclined to agree. I went into this knowing nothing about Ozu, but I'm learning to appreciate his slow paced but beautiful domestic dramas. He's someone I'll look into more once this is all done. It's difficult to dislike slow when the scenery is so impeccable.

  3. I'm beginning to think there is a trend here...and that any movie about old people has to be slow...

    While i liked Make Way for Tomorrow, one of my favourite slow moving pictures (about folks getting old) is Kurosawa's Madadayo (1993), especially if you are also fond of cats.

  4. I was very fond on Make way for to tomorrow and I am looking forward to make my post on it. This is the most real of the movies so far, so much that I actually missed your point of it being unnecessarily cruel. Because it is not overacted, but played with a quietness and empathy I believe the story.

  5. I don't know that it's unnecessary, but it is cruel. But it's supposed to be--the whole point of the film is to make us mourn for the loss these poor people are enduring.

  6. You are so right to combine these two films. They essentially tell the same story. Tokyo Story is so close to being perfect, but lack that final heartbreak of Make Way For Tomorrow. I think it insist on explaining too much and so stretch what should have been the climatic resolution.

    1. I think I see how you get there, but I'm pretty satisfied with its resolution.

  7. I put off watching Make Way for Tomorrow for a year, but it was on TCM this week and I thought a 1930s Hollywood classic would be a welcome contrast to the documentaries and foreign films I've been watching. Even if that 1930s classic looked like it had the potential to be quite a downer.

    I needn't have worried. I had no trouble watching Make Way for Tomorrow. Great movie. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi are great, joined by a great cast, notably Thomas Mitchell. And there's Louise Beavers!

    It's been close to ten years since I saw Tokyo Story but I remember it very well and I also remember how it made me a huge fan of Ozu. It seems weird to me that I've been a film buff since I was a kid - the 1970s - and yet I didn't see my first Ozu film until I was in my 40s! Stupid!

    1. Make Way for Tomorrow is actually quite sweet. Really, my only issue with it is the terrible rear projection. It's perhaps a bit too much in hammering home its theme, but it's hard not to like the couple.

    2. Man, I love terrible rear-screen projection. I honestly don't notice it unless it's really really bad, but sometimes I'll be watching an old movie and I'll suddenly notice that the rear screen projection is ridiculous and that (just to pick some old-time stars at random because I can't come up with a specific example from my faulty brain) it looks like Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin are driving through town in a car that's about forty feet high. Or George Sanders and Joan Woodbury look like they're skateboarding.

      I'm also not bothered by bad dubbing. It has to be pretty bad before I even notice it. And if it's that bad, then it's usually pretty funny. I watched Oldboy (the original) with really awful dubbing. I almost turned it off because there was no option for sub-titles. But I stuck with it and I got used to it within a few minutes. I couldn't give up so easiy. I have a huge screen crush on Hye-jeong Kang.

    3. It bothers me on a deep level. The rear projection in Make Way for Tomorrow is about as bad as the rear projection in The Lady from Shanghai, which puts our characters in front of mutatedly large sea creatures.