Tokyo Family (Tokyo Kazoku): Berlin Review

Tokyo Family Still - H 2013

Tokyo Family Still - H 2013

All the dangers of remaking a revered classic befall a painfully faithful copy that lacks emotion.

Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story gets a modern remake by his former A.D. Yoji Yamada.

Remaking Yasujiro Ozu’s revered Tokyo Story, which has consistently found its way to top ten best films of all time lists since its release in 1953, is much akin to giving Citizen Kane or The Searchers a modern-day brush-up: a very bad idea from the start. One has to wonder how veteran director Yoji Yamada, who was an A.D. on the earlier film, got attached to this sad misfire, a distressingly faithful imitation which copies everything but the delicate poignancy and essential melancholy of Ozu. Hopefully its domestic release will stimulate Japanese audiences to race out and buy the brilliant original. Both films are Shochiku productions, both are long and slow-moving, but only this one is dull.

Never mind that Tokyo Story was itself based on Leo McCarey’s 1937 Depression-era Make Way For Tomorrow, which was inspired by a play made from a novel. To make sense at all, Tokyo Family would have had to be a superb evocation of contemporary Japan, but in Yoji Yamada and Emiko Hiramatsu’s slavish screenplay, which lifts some dialog verbatim from its predecessor, there is more a feeling of imitation than re-imagining. The story is identical: an aging couple from a distant city take the train to Tokyo to visit their grown children, only to find them too busy and indifferent to host them. Finally, a tragic death reunites them in the quiet country town of their origin for a last coming-to-terms with how they have drifted apart out of selfishness.

PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes of THR's Berlin 2013 Directors Roundtable

Yamada aims to render homage to his master while updating the story to take into account the modern expansion of metropolitan Tokyo and today’s generally more confused world. But the two goals turn out to be incompatible in the way they are handled. The mother is still a sweet, generous old lady (Kazuko Yoshiyuki steps gently into the role) and the father (Isao Hashizume) a grouch who feels disappointed with whatever his kids do. The older son Koichi (Masahiko Nishimura) is a duty-bound small-time pediatrician; their daughter Shigeko (a humorously whining Tomoko Nakajima) is still a catty, grasping hair-dresser who runs a neighborhood beauty parlor. Reducing the offspring to a more probable three, Yamada eliminates the son who has died in the war and turns the widowed daughter-in-law Noriko, a key character, into the younger son’s girlfriend (played by cute, agitated Yu Aoi in the role made unforgettable by Setsuko Hara’s calm grace).

Yes, current day events are reflected. There is mention of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, as well as cell phones, bullet trains and the like. A joke about a taxi driver tossing out the old folks’ map and navigating them through the suburbs by GPS works well, but these are hardly integral to the plot. As the good-hearted younger son Shoji, the likeable Satoshi Tsimabuki is excellent at conveying a modern boy with an uncertain job future. Beyond these rather obvious updates, however, the film prefers to linger on what hasn’t changed in the last 60 years, like children too busy with their families and jobs to entertain visiting parents.

PHOTOS: Ten Titles to Track at the 2013 European Film Market in Berlin

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, Yamada spares no effort to bow down to his teacher. It’s striking and a bit alarming how so many of the first film’s sets and even camera set-ups are duplicated, with the inevitable result that the whole film has a dated, old-fashioned look.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 12, 2012.
Production companies: Tokyo Family Film Partners, Shochiku
Cast: Isao Hashizume, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yu Aoi, Masahiko Nishimura, Tomoko Nakajima
Director: Yoji Yamada
Screenwriters: Yoji Yamada, Emiko Hiramatsu
Producers: Hiroshi Fukasawa, Takashi Yajima
Director of photography: Masashi Chikamori
Production designer: Mitsuo Degawa
Editor: Iwao Ishii
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Sales Agent: Shochiku
146 minutes