Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Yasujiro Ozu's masterpiece has a lot to do with distance, both geographical and emotional. The year is 1953 -- eight years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events which not only resulted in massive carnage but also scattered and disconnected the lives of survivors -- and an aging couple, the Hirayamas, take a long journey to Tokyo, a place they've never been, to visit their adult children.
First they stay with their son, Koichi, who is a doctor, and his wife, both of whom are respectful but remote; there's no hugging and kissing when they arrive. The grandkids, whom they are seeing for the first time, are a pair of rude, spoiled brats who make no pretense of wanting to be around these old strangers who have invaded their home. The son and his wife aren't that crazy about the old folks either, as the family has its own life to lead and this visit just gets in their way. When the couple visit their daughter, Shige, and her husband, it's the same story: the daughter acts pleasant, but doesn't want to spend anymore money or time on than she absolutely must. She pawns them off on Noriko, their widowed daughter-in-law whose husband died in the war; unlike the others, she not only enjoys their company but does everything she can for them, as they are her last link to her married past.
At the insistence of Shige and Koichi, the Hirayamas then spend a few days at a spa, which turns out to be populated entirely by young people and in which they feel entirely out of their element. After a sleepless night, they return early, unintentionally spoiling Shige's plans for the coming week.
The trip, which they hoped to be a joyful reunion, turns out to be little more than one long somber letdown, which they endure with a stoic sense of denial, continually making up excuses for children who clearly see them as nothing but a bother. They lie to each other about how happy they are for their children, and how successful they all are, if only because the truth is too painful to bear. One night, the old man goes out for a night on the town with an old friend and gets drunk and says that he is sorry to realize that Koichi not only doesn't live in thriving Tokyo but is merely a doctor in an outlying suburb.
Ozu is not the first name you think of when you think of epic or grand-scale, yet to me that's exactly what they are: big, big films about crucial episodes in human life, in this case the disappointment that simply comes with living and aging, with realizing that certain dreams not only won't be met but will often be cruelly rebuffed, that the more you try to remind yourself how good life is, the more life will mock you. This goes not just for the Hirayamas but for their children, who clearly have some issues with their parents they have buried. A younger daughter, Kyoko, lives with them at home, and she apparently feels nothing but love for them, but we also learn that the father gave up drinking when she was born. There is also another son, Noriko's late husband, who apparently inherited his father's taste for sake and made life hard for his wife. And there is also another son, whom he don't meet until the end, and who makes no effort to see them at all until it's too late.
"Isn't life disappointing?" Kyoko says late in the film, after a final tragedy that brings the family together for a last time. To many, it's the key line in all of Ozu's work, yet the film never feels any more dour or grim than it has to be. He doesn't dramatize or exaggerate grief so much as he observes it, sympathetically, gracefully, and with extraordinary humanity. This is a great, sad film about human life, which is also great and also, inevitably, sad.