(NOTE: A version of this article was published here.)
In the English-speaking world, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story has normally been characterized as a family drama. Shortly after the film was first distributed in America in the ’70s, for instance, the critic Charles Michener described it as “a shattering, universal drama of family tensions.” Decades later, the general consensus remains that the film is primarily about “our families, our natures, our flaws and our clumsy search for love and meaning.” (To quote the late Roger Ebert.)
It’d be absurd to suggest that this view of Tokyo Story is wrong. The film’s central conflict, after all, revolves around how two Tokyo-based siblings – Koichi, a doctor; and Shige, a hairdresser – ignore and belittle their visiting parents, an elderly couple named Shukichi and Tomi. In an interview he gave about the film, moreover, Ozu himself noted that “through the growth of both parents and children, I described [in Tokyo Story] how the Japanese family system has begun to come apart.”
In emphasizing Tokyo Story’s family-related themes, however, critics have often neglected the film’s political dimension.