In the third installment of the Noriko trilogy, Tokyo Story (1953), Setsuko Hara, once again, plays a young Japanese woman named Noriko. But in this story Noriko is less of a central player. In this tale the main action involves the visit of an elderly mother and father to visit their children living in Tokyo. Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama have two sons and daughters and they have a daughter-in-law, Noriko, from their son who was killed in the war. The youngest daughter lives at home with them in the country. Their eldest son, Kōichi is a pediatrician in Tokyo and has two sons. The eldest daughter Shige is married and runs a hairdressing salon there too. Neither Koichi or Shige is anxious for the parents to stay with them. After tossing them back and forth for several days they split the cost for the two elderly people to stay at a resort spa. But the wild nightlife disturbs the sleep of Shūkichi and Tomi so they are at last forced to accept Noriko’s hospitality. She is very gracious and generous with her time and her meager resources. Both Shūkichi and Tomi express how grateful they are for her generosity and her mother-in-law especially tells her that she is sad that Noriko has not remarried and restarted her life.
Shortly after Shūkichi and Tomi return home to the country Tomi becomes critically ill and the family assembles at her bedside. When she dies the children attend the funeral but all of them leave hurriedly for home except Noriko. She remains with Shūkichi for several days during the bereavement. The youngest daughter, Kyōko complains bitterly to Noriko about the selfishness of her brothers and sister. But Noriko defends them saying that grown children have their own lives and it is inevitable that they will drift apart from their parents.
On the day that Noriko must return to Tokyo for work Shūkichi speaks to her about his happiness at the treatment she showed to her parents-in-law whereas his own children showed such callous disregard for their parents. He gives Noriko a pocket watch that belonged to Tomi. Noriko humbly claims that she showed no such generosity but was actually very selfish. Then Shūkichi renews his entreaties for her to remarry. Finally, after repeated inquiries she admits that she has been very lonely and she weeps. Afterwards we see Noriko deep in thought on the train ride home.
Despite the very sympathetic portrayal of Noriko and the very unflattering picture that we have of Koichi, Shige and their families, we are forced to somewhat believe the opinion that it is inevitable that grown children become so absorbed by their own lives that they appear selfish to their parents. But admitting that much we are charmed by the respect, affection and generosity that Noriko lavishes on her mother- and father-in-law. Ozu must be making the point that the modern world was forcing the abandonment of the old culture that lavished respect on elders as a primary virtue and replacing it with the Western cult of commercial success.
It is a well-made film. The parents and Noriko are sensitively portrayed and even the slightly caricatured siblings are well acted. Many of the details of the story provide human interest. One example is the doctor’s sons displaying childish anger at their father reneging on a promised outing on account of a sick patient needing attention. Their peevishness in the face of an unavoidable disappointment rings true to anyone who has raised a family.
I’ll include a conclusion for the whole series here. Ozu has shown how the changing world the Japanese found themselves in impacted the roles and behavior of each family member but most especially the younger women whose lives were shunted away from the traditional template that girls typically followed on their way to becoming wives and mothers. The various versions of “Noriko” act as the barometer to indicate to her family that something very different is happening in their world.
These stories have appeal far beyond the Japanese public they were made for. The roles of women have radically shifted even again in our most recent times. And exploring the fallout from this change and noting the value that the traditional roles that women play in family life possess are worthwhile exercises. I recommend the Noriko trilogy for anyone who sees the value in the stories I have described in these reviews.