Tokyo Family (Tokyo kazuko)

Japan (2013) Dir. Yoji Yamada

Retired elderly couple Shukichi (Isao Hashizume) and Tomiko Hirayama (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) visit their three children living in Tokyo – doctor Koichi (Masahiko Nishimura), hairdresser Tomoko (Shigeko Kanai) and stage set craftsman Shoji (Tsumabuki Satoshi) – staying with each of the families in turn. However they are all very busy with their modern lives something that clashes with the lazy lifestyle of the parents.

The plot should sound familiar to you if you are a serious Asian film buff as it is based on one of the most celebrated films in Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 classic Tokyo Story. This modern reworking is less a remake and more a homage from veteran Yoji Yamada who wanted to pay tribute to the late master and his most famous film.

To that end, many touches usually exclusive to and developed by Ozu are recreated here – the meandering pace, low level camera shots, cramped homes shot wide, stilted conversations between the cast of a quotidian nature and so on – yet Yamada isn’t beholden to them, employing them sparingly (the filming techniques at least) in loving tribute a supposed to a blatant rip off, recreating the spirit and essence of Ozu for the modern generation.

The basic story of Tokyo Family mildly deviates from Ozu’s original. The elderly parents coming up from a small island town find the modernity of the big city a bit of a wake up call, as well as the busy lives of their children. Koichi and his wife Fumiko (Yui Natsukawa) decide that it would be best if all the offspring shared the hosting duties but with Koichi busy with his patients and Fumiko a full time housewife, Tomoko and her salon and Shoji’s unpredictable hours, the parents are alone more than they are with their family.

While Tomiko makes a go at adapting to the busy schedules and city life, Shukichi moans and groans, eventually finding solace in a bar where he drinks the night away.

But what of Noriko you may be asking? In a nice twist, she is Shoji’s secret girlfriend (played by the inherently fragile Yu Aoi) while Shuji effectively takes the Noriko role in this outing. The too-sweet-to-be-true Noriko instantly connects with Tomoko when they meet at Shuji’s tiny apartment on the night Shukichi was hitting the bottle.

Shuji has not told anyone about Noriko, least of all his parents, fearing his father would disapprove since Shuji is already the joke of the family for not having a “proper career”. However Tomoko says she’ll go to bat for her son and, with typical maternal instincts, trusts Noriko enough to hold onto some money for Shuji since he is so reckless with it.

Patience is required when watching this film as, at just under two and a half hours in length, the gentle pace and dialogue longueurs make it something of a chore, even for hardened cinephiles and those who have experienced Ozu’s equally moderate paced original. The first moment of any real drama comes around ninety five minutes in when Tomiko collapses and even then the fall out is quiet and measured.

This might make a refreshing change for some to see a dignified reaction supplanting the bells and whistles symphonic hysteria of a manipulative melodrama but with the commitment of the running time already a hefty one, there is a chance some audiences might find this dull.

Of course Ozu is not alone in his understated and low key approach to drama – Yamada has learned well from the master and his own works are noted for such restrained handling of otherwise typically excitable situations. Who else in the modern era could get away with a passive samurai tale such as The Twilight Samurai than Yamada?

What he has created here is a film that is a throwback to the past within a modern setting that highlights the generation gap between parents and their children in – dare I say it? – a more incisive manner than Ozu’s original.

Before I am pilloried and accused of heresy, in 1953, the gap between parents and their young was not that vast; today it is almost a gaping chasm. Yamada had more significant era changes to work with than Ozu, but to his credit he doesn’t over indulge in portraying the elderly parents as Luddite aliens in a modern world. Then again, a cute early scene sees Tomoko given directions to a taxi driver from her notebook, silencing her by pointing to his GPS!

It is with these subtleties that Yamada – borrowing liberally from Ozu – creates an endearing and relatable cast, in which there is no real antagonist or indeed protagonist, other than the circumstances of life itself. Yes, the grandchildren (Ryuichiro Shibata and Ayumu Maruyama) are typically bratty, Tomoko acts a little too grand for someone who owns of a pokey little hairdressing salon and Shukichi can be a bit gruff but they are all real people and their daily problems are undeniably resonant to audiences on a global scale.

Yamada has chosen well for his actors, each one inhabiting the skin of their characters with the complete conviction of their performances evident on screen for all to see.

The eternal question that has no doubt been asked and will continue to be asked is “Is there a need for a Tokyo Story remake?” Obviously not but an updating is a different beast, and Yamada – arguably the best director qualified to handle such a task – shows that one can successfully give a classic a fresh coat of paint without harming the integrity and standing of the original not feeling unnecessary.

Tokyo Family is a film that can stand on its own merits for newcomers while remaining acceptable to fans of its inspiration. It might be a bit old fashioned and too long for some but hopefully genuine film buffs will find plenty of reward in Yamada’s touching homage to a true master of his art.