Run Aground

The elderly parents at the center Tokyo Story return midway through the movie from an excursion to a seaside spa only to find that their daughter, Shige, who concocted the plan to send them there in the first place, is too busy to give them the time of day. Guilt-ridden by the burden they feel they’ve feels placed on their children, they decide to spend the night apart — the wife at her daughter-in-law's small apartment, the husband with an old friend named Hattori. "We're really homeless now," he says with a laugh.

Home indeed plays a starring role in Tokyo Story, director Yasujiro Ozu's placid compositions using rooms as frames, peopled by unruly family members so constantly mobile it seems they are afraid to find out what the world sounds like severed from chaos. The characters are bound by the homes, happy or not, that they've built, the camera dormant as they mill about, lingering after they’ve left — taking in the ineffable sorrow of the empty room, of routines followed and loved ones subtly, unknowingly, neglected.

The elderly couple, however, seems to have realized the value of taking a moment away from the clutter of everyday life. The charming, pudgy matriarch and rail-thin, sometimes-alcoholic patriarch are by no means perfect, but in their basic goodness and their love for each other we see something worthy of rapt attention. Even sitting on the edge of an inlet to the sea, watching the world change and deciding to return to the countryside, they are captivating. Here is some generative kindness, some luminosity: like a small gift placed gently in the palm of a hand, such a moment protects against the shoals beneath our family lives, the sharp edges that, never acknowledged, cut and sting and fade below the surface once more.

The final bit of the film takes place in the country town where the couple lives, in silent hills pursed by the patter of a riverboat — a breathtaking coda to the Tokyo portion of Tokyo Story. The mother has fallen ill and the children come to lavish her with attention. Too late, it turns out: the mother dies, and the children’s city lives return to view. Why not take the night express back to the city? Shige asks. Our hearts break — not because of her callousness but because she’s forgotten that some things, once lost, are irretrievable; not because she is eager to get back, but because she was too busy to realize that her mother’s trip to Tokyo was the last one she’d ever make.

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