Criterion film a day, day 15: Tokyo Story and the pain of generational conflict

There is no relationship so happily connected to loss as the relationship to parent and child. The good parent always dreams that the child will grow with a strong moral compass, independent mind and, usually, talents greater than the parents. Of course, when the kid becomes an independent thinker, and their abilities take them out into the world, the parent feels a loss that the entirely dependent two-year-old, or even the moody teenager is not at home with them.

On the child’s part, they either don’t notice, choose to ignore, or struggle mightily with the feeling of debt to their parent: How do you pay back or ever fully acknowledge your gratitude to the people who gave up their lives and devoted it to one person. The child, too, can’t help feeling a loss as the parents get older and the tide of dependence slowly reverses until the child is more parent than the parent. The most grateful kids will relish this role.

Add to this careers, grandchildren and changing ideologies and perspectives (changing always faster, these days), and you’ve got an incredibly complex, difficult and often painful relationship to understand.

Trying to put all of this into a film isn’t easy, but Yashujiro Oju’s Tokyo Story takes a deceptively simple story and makes it into a powerful essay on the parent-child relationship.

The story follows elderly parents Shukichi and Tomi, as they travel from their small town to visit their children in Tokyo. They leave their youngest (though adult) daughter at home, and plan on staying with their son–a pediatrician. Upon arriving, they quickly learn that their son and their hairdresser daughter are happy to see them, but are busy with their careers. The daughter even goes so far as to send them off to a spa–lying to herself that what they want is a vacation, not time with their children–and then is disappointed when they return early because she needs the space for a meeting.

The only relative that takes an interest in them is their widowed daughter-in-law, who takes time to tour them around.

Running through this film is the shadows of all the sons lost in the war–and Oju makes a wise point. There is loss, and then there is loss. At no point do the two parents subject themselves to self-pity–they’re sad to not spend time with their children, sure, but happy that they are busy (if also disappointed that they don’t have the greatest careers).

The final act of the film deals with the conflicts that arise when the mother falls dangerously ill–who returns to support their father? Who actually takes the time to be at home while he deals with his wife’s illness?

The film meditatively unfurls the tricky map of parent-child relationships, and doesn’t take the easy way out to demonize one character over another–it is profound in that it is just the way that life often is, comforting in that we can understand that and see it contained in a two-hour film: It helps us understand our own lives in a way that we can’t see because we’re too close to them.


About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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