Isn’t Life Disappointing?

Tokyo Story (1953)

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.”

-William Faulkner

I don’t know when it happened, but I’ve recently become the kind of person who cries at commercials. “Crying” is actually an inaccurate term for it—it’s something more akin to “A swelling of emotion that amounts to my eyes becoming wet but no tears actually falling.” Perhaps in another era we called it “getting misty.”

So lately I’ve been getting misty at commercials.

There’s this one commercial, maybe you’ve seen it? If I just say, “I’ve seen this one commercial and it’s making me misty,” you probably know the one I’m talking about: the Google Chrome ad where the father and daughter communicate via all these great modern technological wonders. The father is a widower and his daughter is off to college and we see snippets of their conversations. They have video chat dates, she introduces her boyfriend to him. The daughter is homesick, the father misses his daughter, misses his wife. They stay connected via the warm glow of the Internet.

“That is so. BEAUTIFUL,” I say, mistily. Then the commercial changes and my eyes are dry again.

Who knows what has ruptured within me to allow me to feel these brief emotions so deeply. I never used to be the kind of person who would cry during films, let alone commercials. The only movie that made me cry before the last year or so was the grainy footage of the shootings in Bowling for Columbine, and that was only because I, too, had gone to high school in late ’90s suburbia. Watching that felt real. I felt like I could have been there with the victims, cowering underneath the tables in the library. Yet this year I’ve found myself tearing up at films as diverse as The First Wives Club, The Dark Knight Rises, andFrankenweenie. I would blame hormones (lady problems!) if it weren’t so consistent. I suppose it’s part of growing older. Instead of becoming hardened, I am becoming more aware—and penitent.

Yet with Tokyo Story, I didn’t cry—I didn’t even get misty. Instead I laid awake that night, eyes wide, deep in thought.

Yasujirō Ozu made Tokyo Story 60 years ago. This is fairly obvious when you watch the film: it’s in black and white, people use telegrams, and there are many references to “the war,” as in World War II. When I think of 1953, I know that my own parents were infants, that Eisenhower was in office, and that 68% of all televisions in the country were tuned in to watch Lucy give birth to Little Ricky (I have a lot of I Love Lucy trivia bouncing around my brain).

It was, as they say, a different time.

Yet when I watched Tokyo Story, I understood that it was a movie that could have been made today, with much of the same significance. It’s a haunting, realistic portrayal of the circle of life and all the little disappointments and heartaches that become who we are.

The plot is this: An elderly man and woman take a trip into the big city to visit their grown-up children. Some are married, some are not, some have children of their own, some don’t. The one thing that ties them all together is that each is too busy to accommodate the aging parents. In fact, the only one who makes time for them at all is the angelic wife of their dead son. She no longer has any real ties to them, only a sense of dutiful obligation (her husband was killed over seven years ago in the war). Yet she makes time for them, opening her heart and her home.

Throughout their time in Tokyo, the mother and father are handed off between their offspring like burdens. There is never enough time, there is never enough space, there is never enough money. Their daughter is especially callous, criticizing her husband for spending too much money on the cakes he bought them as a gift. As far as she’s concerned, they can make do with scraps. Ozu makes a point of showing how those outside the family revere the elderly couple, but their own children are too hardened to see them as real people. The daughter remembers her father as an absent alcoholic. He hurt her as a child and she will never forgive him for that.

The mother falls gravely ill almost immediately after returning to the village where they raised their family. All the children but one go immediately to her side and are crushed when she eventually passes. But just as quickly, over her funeral dinner, they begin to discuss how they will distribute her possessions. The grown children are not evil, simply calloused. Children hold on to disappointments in childhood and pay them back to their parents as adults, never seeming to realize that they won’t ever be able to pay back the debt of life. It’s too big a gift to comprehend.

This could all be some morality ploy if it weren’t for the way Ozu takes us through these moments. His greatest tool is time. He shoots the film from a low vantage point, keeping us in the capacity of voyeur, as if we are seeing it through the eyes of someone sitting on the tatami mat in the room, unseen and unheard. Shots of traintracks and harbors fill the screen to denote the passage of time. Sometimes there are trains and boats, and sometimes there is nothing. There is an arbitrariness to these choices, as if to say, “Life continues, unabated.”

In a way, this film reminds me of historical wormholes. Instances where we get drawn into the past via whatever means, where you feel close to someone from a distant time or place and come to an understanding of how everything is connected, how we are not so far removed from far-off events after all. The same kind of feeling I got during Bowling For Columbine, except expanded out to encompass the entirety of space and time. It’s like that clip of I’ve Got A Secret, featuring Samuel J. Seymour, the last surviving witness to the Lincoln assassination. Here is an old man in the 1950s who was once in the same room as Abraham Lincoln as he died, who watched as John Wilkes Booth leapt onto the balcony and broke his leg. Seeing a man who witnessed such a major historical event—not only being broadcast on television but being put on the Internet—feels miraculous, somehow.

Art, good art, is another way of accomplishing this same feat. Growing up in the dawn of the 21st century in America, one feels it would be impossible to know what it must have felt like to be growing up in Japan during the 1950s. But watching Ozu’s work, it feels as if there is really no difference at all. Children cannot understand or value their parents. Parents feel somewhat disappointed by their children. This will go on forever, until the end of time, because that’s the way it is and that’s the way it always will be. The young will forever be impressionable and demanding and the old will always be worn and dismayed. It is in the nature of each.

As the Faulkner quotation above implies, true art must stand the test of time. Tokyo Story has only grown in esteem since its relatively unheralded release, revealing itself in time as not only a beautiful film but also an emotionally unrelenting and endlessly resonating one. Sometimes we need things to devastate us. It is remarkable that a film like this, encapsulated as it is by its time and place, has the power to punch us in the gut over and over and over again, generation over generation, and show us the truth of our own experience.

At the end of the film, the patriarch of the family, played by Chishu Ryu, is all alone for the first time in decades. His neighbor comes to visit him and express her sympathy. He says, “Living alone like this, the days will get very long.”

It’s enough to keep you up at night and wonder if you are doing everything you can.