Family Ties, Unbound, in Tokyo Story

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Tokyo Story
Directed by Yasujir Ozu
Janus Films
November 26 through December 9
IFC Center

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The fact that Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) is one of the great achievements in cinematic history might be motivation enough to catch it at the IFC Center this weekend. But such talk risks pinning behind glass a work of art that still has the power to astonish, disrupt, and shatter hearts. An aging patriarch (Chishû Ryû) and matriarch (Chieko Higashiyama) finally visit the big city, only to find themselves handled like hot potatoes by their adult progeny and simply expendable in Tokyo’s postwar scramble for economic survival. Though traditional values still dictate the family’s manners and speech, time and money have become too short to waste on sightseeing, caretaking, or basic sensitivity. We’re granted access to the children’s points of view—they’re selfish yet understandably so, not villains but calloused—but Ozu is most interested in microscoping beneath the polite smiles of their elders, confronting a lifetime of gathered disappointment, facing children they frankly can’t stand to be around. At the root of Ozu’s tragedy is abject futility. Even those who feel the intergenerational debt, such as angelic daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), are powerless to pay it. Ozu’s long shots, knee-high camera placement, and collapsed perspective—as gorgeous and unsettling as a Cézanne—gather power over the duration, but time itself is the master’s most potent weapon. Protracted sequences make you impatient for forward motion, but then, in an instant, you’re left to mourn beauties hastened away.

 
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