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There are few films as revered and respected as Ozu Yasujiro’s 1953 “Tokyo Story”, regularly selected by critics the world over as one of the very best, a masterful and quietly searching examination of post-war Japanese family values and anxieties. Remaking such a classic isn’t something to have been taken lightly, and “Tokyo Family” is itself somewhat of a special occasion, having been made to mark the 50th anniversary of Ozu’s death, and the 60th anniversary of the film’s release, as well as the 50th anniversary of acclaimed director Yamada Yoji (“The Twilight Samurai”), who here takes up the reins of what has been described as an homage or update.
The film stays close to the structure and basic narrative of the original, though with a few alterations, beginning with retired teacher Shukichi (Hashizume Isao, “I Wish”) and his wife Tomiko (Yoshiyuki Kazuko, “Departures”) arriving in Tokyo from their peaceful island home to visit their children. Things go wrong from the start, the youngest son Shoji (Tsumabuki Satoshi, “For Love’s Sake”) turning up at the wrong station to meet them, and the situation gradually gets worse, the eldest son Koiichi (Nishimura Masahiko, “Space Brothers”) and daughter Shigeko (Nakajima Tomoko, “A Taste of Tea”) passing the elderly couple around, no-one wanting to take the time to look after them. Only Shoji’s kind-hearted girlfriend Noriko (Aoi Yu, “Rurouni Kenshin”) seems to care, and does her best to make them comfortable. Sadly, Shukichi and Tomiko start to get worn down by being moved around so much, and the family are brought together when tragedy strikes.
Whether calling it a remake, homage or update, a new version of something so close to cinematic perfection was no doubt a daunting task, though Yamada Yoji was certainly a fitting choice, being himself a master director and having been influenced by Ozu throughout his own career. Though the necessity of a remake of “Tokyo Story” is obviously debatable, there’s no question that “Tokyo Family” was a personal project for Yamada rather than a cheap cash-in, and that genuine thought and craftsmanship went into its making. Comparisons with the original are inevitable, and are interesting to analyse.
Yamada’s style does recall Ozu, showing the same subtle stillness, visual composition and eye for detail, with plenty of scenes of trains and transport being thrown included. The film moves at a similarly patient pace, and though at nearly two and a half hours is slightly longer than the original, it has very much the same feel. Yamada’s approach does differ somewhat, chiefly in that the film has far fewer directly positioned shots of the cast talking towards the camera, though this never really detracts from the overall air of intimacy, and the story quietly pulls the viewer in without fuss or manipulation.
There are changes also to the characters, most notably the character of Noriko, who in the original was a widowed daughter-in-law, here having somewhat less of a connection to the family as Shoji’s girlfriend. Shoji himself is another addition, and it’s through their characters that Yamada makes the film feel somewhat more optimistic than Ozu’s. Shoji is initially seen as being unreliable and uncaring like his siblings, though as things go on, Shukichi, and indeed the viewer, come to realise that this might not be the case. While Yamada sticks largely to the same beats and scenes, this does invite different interpretations, suitable enough, given the film’s contemporary setting and generations. The acting is solid across the board, the cast all managing to do justice to their roles, the older and younger stars impressing with naturalistic turns. Thankfully, as with his other works, Yamada again shows artful restraint when it comes to melodrama, and the film is moving and involving throughout as a result.
Of course, none of this is enough to make “Tokyo Family” the equal of “Tokyo Story”, though as an homage it’s a very creditable effort, and an enjoyable and well-made film in its own right. Yamada Yoji does as good a job as possible, and successfully updates the themes of the original to the present day, offering a fascinating picture of changing Japanese families and society in the process.
Yôji Yamada (director) / Yôji Yamada (screenplay)
CAST: Isao Hashizume … Shukichi Hirayama
Kazuko Yoshiyuki … Tomiko Hirayama
Satoshi Tsumabuki … Masatsugu
Yû Aoi … Noriko Mamiya