Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 3 – Tokyo Story

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 1 – Late Spring

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 2 – Early Summer

 

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.

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 2 – Early Summer

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 1 – Late Spring

 

In this second installment of the series, “Early Summer” (1951) the Noriko character has several differences from her situation in the first movie.  Here she lives in a house with both her parents and also her older brother’s family.  The older brother is a doctor and has a wife and two young sons.  Noriko has a clerical position in a commercial firm.  She has reached the age where her parents are starting to worry that she has not yet married.  Her employer hears of this and suggests that a friend of his would make a very suitable husband.  The fact that he is about fifteen years older than Noriko and comes from a higher social stratum than Noriko doesn’t strike her family as a problem.  Noriko’s brother and parents apply continuous pressure to get her to agree to the arranged marriage.  Noriko talks to her married and single friends and confides that she has great reservations about this match.

One of her neighbors is a doctor, a friend of her brother’s named Kenkichi Yabe.  Kenkichi is moving to a remote rural area to assume a government medical position.  He is a widower with a child and Noriko has always felt close to him.  Kenkichi’s mother, Tami is also a good friend of Noriko’s.  While she is preparing for the move Tami mentions to Noriko that she had always hoped that her son would have married Noriko.  Impulsively Noriko agrees to marry the widower.  The mother is overjoyed and tells her son who also seems pleased with the idea of marrying Noriko and have her share his new life in the country.

But Noriko’s parents and other family are shocked and distressed.  They feel that Noriko is throwing away a privileged and desirable marriage to raise another woman’s child and live in a less affluent and less interesting environment.  They try to change her mind.  But she is adamant and they eventually become reconciled to her decision.  When she speaks to her family about her sudden choice, she reveals that the idea of marriage wasn’t the thing she was afraid of but rather she feared being in an environment without friendship.  When Tami unexpectedly mentions her wish for Noriko to be her daughter-in-law it provided Noriko with an avenue to combine marriage with a familiar and friendly environment.  She would start out with a mother-in-law who was already on her side.

The movie ends with the family preparing for the various changes that are occurring.  Noriko is preparing for her marriage and move to the country.  And her parents are moving in with an uncle who has a large house that they will stay in from then on.  In this way the son will have more room for his growing family.  All of these things are seen as the natural progression for the time in each of their lives.

“Early Summer” is not fraught with the tragedy of loneliness found in “Late Spring.”  But it plays up the anxieties that young women are prey to as their families barter their lives in the old practice of arranged marriages.  What Noriko wisely and luckily chooses is to combine her natural role as a bride and a mother with the opportunity of holding onto the familiar and proven relationship with the Yabes.  Her chances of living a happy, if less affluent, life are improved immensely.  This is seen as a consequence of a woman’s changing role in post-war Japan.

Early summer is a pleasant film with some engaging characters and much human interest.  I find “Late Spring” a more compelling movie but “Early Summer” makes an interesting variation on the theme of young women in post-war Japan.  I think it is well worth the time to view after the first installment has been watched.

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 1 – Late Spring

Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu has been rated one of the best film directors of all time by his peers.  Toward the end of his career, he produced three films (Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953)) that are variations on a theme.  The three stories have as their center a young woman named Noriko.  Actually, the three films are about three different Norikos.  But they are all played by the same actress, Setsuko Hara and all three of the women are each living through the contradictions and confusion of a young woman’s life in post-war Japan.

In “Late Spring” the Noriko character is in her late twenties, the only child of Professor Shukichi Somiya.  Her mother had died sometime earlier and Noriko has been keeping her father’s house.  But her father and her aunt are concerned that she won’t get married and will end up alone once her father dies.  But Noriko feels that she would be happiest caring for her father and rejects the idea of marriage.  But the Professor decides to take away her rationale by claiming he is remarrying.  Noriko is outraged by this development considering the idea almost obscene.  But once she adjusts to this situation she relents and meets the suitor her aunt has picked out for her.  And maybe unsurprisingly she finds herself interested in this man.  The aunt takes this interest as acceptance and sets up the wedding.

Now father and daughter travel for one last holiday together to the cultural center Kyoto.  While there Noriko begs her father to allow her to stay with him regardless of whether he remarries.  She declares that she believes she will be happiest remaining in his home.  But her father corrects her.  He explains that human life has its own structure that cannot be profitably ignored.  He indicates that her marriage is the next step in her life and that his part in her life must end for that to proceed.  And she accepts his argument and agrees to marriage.  But it is clear that she feels great sorrow at leaving him.  The marriage is celebrated and Professor Shukichi returns home and there we end the movie with him grief stricken by the loss of his dear daughter.

Americans will find many conventions in Japanese manners strange especially those of the women which seem quite affected.  And one scene that takes place in a Noh theater with the odd appearance of the actors and the weird chanting seemed absolutely bizarre to me.

But the deep affection of the father and daughter shine through the movie and make the double-sided heartbreak of their separation real for us.  For the Japanese women of that generation the disruptions of traditional life caused by the American Occupation, the economic hardships of their defeat in war and the introduction of western customs and practices like divorce and women in the workplace made their place in society confusing and frightening and losing the stability and familiarity of the family setting was disorienting.  Ozu showcases these new realities throughout the movie in the persons of the supporting cast but Noriko and her father are the center around which these aunts, cousins and friends revolve.

Although Tokyo Story is considered the strongest of the three movies in this series, I confess that I like “Late Spring” best.  I guess I’m a rank sentimentalist.  I find myself approving the old man’s wisdom in explaining to his daughter the necessities that time and biological life place especially on young women.  And at the same time, I can submerge myself in the awful grief that a father could feel at the loss of a daughter, a daughter that has become his only companion in old age.  This paradox is at the heart of what it means to be a mortal.  We each have only a short window to wear the various parts that we can play.  Son or daughter, brother or sister, grandson or granddaughter, husband or wife, father or mother, aunt or uncle, grandfather or grandmother.  And if we hesitate too long the chance is lost.  And even if we are willing to play our part fate can deny us our chance.

I don’t know if this is one of the “greatest films of all time” but I think it’s a thoughtful and moving portrayal of a father and a daughter.  If that might interest you and you are willing to read subtitles you might enjoy this film.  I recommend it.