A retired Japanese couple travel to stay with their now grown-up children, but they are so busy with their own lives that they do not have time to show them around. Instead it is left to their daughter-in-law who offers to inconvenience herself so she can show her in-laws around.
Yasujiro Ozu, who died in 1963, was one of the undisputed masters of world cinema, a quietly deceptive talent who insisted on a rigorously formal style and perfect compositions. Throughout his prolific career he frequently tackled universal human themes through his unforced examinations of Japanese middle-class family life here making a study of the Japanese preoccupation with filial duty so deeply affecting that it's impossible to see the film without getting a deep urge to call your mother.
A retired schoolmaster (Ryu) and his loving wife (Higashiyama) travel from their seaside home of Onomichi to Tokyo, where they visit two of their four remaining children. While there are no arguments, it transpires that their doctor son and hairdresser daughter are too preoccupied to show them much of a good time. The paragon of virtue is their daughter-in-law (Hara), who remains true to the memory of a husband who disappeared in the war. While the blood children shuffle their parents around Hara is dutiful and loving, even at the expense of her own life.
A lengthy, leisurely film, sometimes delicately amusing but more often heartfelt and moving, this spotlights marvellous lifelike performances and a lack of overt emotion that is positively British in tone. In the last act, Ryu's children learn the truth of the old Japanese saying that you should serve your parents while they're alive because you can't do anything for them beyond the grave, though it's hard not to feel that the director's real feelings Ozu never married and lived dutifully with his mother all her life are with the dignified, tentatively proud parents. Your life can only be richer for seeing this.
Ozu's Tokyo Story is often called a masterpiece with very good reason. The cast do an excellent job, managing to make you feel all the more emotional by saying nothing at all. The director also uses the back drop of Japan to wonderful effect, both exaggerating the coldness the parents feel from their children as well as the warmth from their daughter-in-law.