Yu Aoi brings old-world charm to Tokyo Family

This time I’m writing about a film that was nominated for, but didn’t win the Best Film award of the Japanese Academy – Yoji Yamada’s Tokyo Family (Tokyo kazoku), a contemporized but faithful remake of the Yasujiro Ozu classic, Tokyo Story (1953). The film regularly features on critics and audience lists of ‘best Japanese movies of all time’, so you can imagine what a daunting task it is to remake such a film. The original tells the story of an aged couple who come to visit their grown up children in Tokyo but discover that the children are caught up in their own fast-paced city lives and after a couple of days, actually find their presence a botheration. If this was a relevant topic in the late 50s, you can imagine how much more relevant it is today.

Of course, I am a big fan of Yamada’s Samurai trilogy and I plan one day to watch at least one or two of his long-running ‘Tora-san’ movies (48 movies from 1969 to 1995). But I confess, after reading the less than flattering reviews of Tokyo Family (all comparing it unfavorably to the original classic film, Tokyo Story), I wondered why I was bothering to watch it at all. After the first 15 minutes, I thought that I should just stop watching and go do something else; I couldn’t get used to the time-displacement of the story, nor the new faces in familiar roles. I then fast-forwarded the film at x1.5 for the next half hour or so.

By this time, I got used to the ‘new’ actors occupying the spaces of my beloved characters; particularly Isao Hashizume in the role of the father (played by the legendary Chishu Ryu in the original) and Tomoko Nakajima as his sharp-tongued daughter who runs a hair-dressing parlor (played perfectly in 1953 by stage and film actress Haruko Sugimura in one of her signature roles). So I switched the video back to regular speed, stopped comparing and started enjoying.

Half-way through the 2 ½ hour film, we come to the point where the key supporting character Noriko enters the story. In the original movie, she was played by Setsuko Hara. Her role in the 1953 film was considered a continuation of the father-daughter pairings that she and Chishu Ryu had become famous for in two earlier films by Ozu (Late Spring and Early Summer).

In this version, Noriko is the girlfriend of the youngest son; in the original, she was the widow of the son killed in the war, who still maintains a close relationship with the family and actually shows greater filial piety than the couple’s own children. Noriko in 2013 is played by Yu Aoi, who won Best Supporting Actress for Hula Girls in 2007. She was nominated again for this portrayal of the sweet-natured ‘girl-next-door’ who wins over the affections of the aged parents, particularly the hard-to-please father. And I have to say, she really fills those shoes very well with an entirely believable and earnest performance; this made all the difference for me in the end.

The last act of the movie is as emotional as the original. The entire family is seen together under tragic circumstances and the low-key sentimental melodrama that Japanese cinema so excels in (especially funeral and wake scenes) is in full flow. The parting scene between the father and the girl who is to become his daughter-in-law is particularly intense and touching.

So, ultimately, I will give a thumbs-up to the remake and of course, as most reviewers have recommended, I will set aside time to watch the original classic once again.

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