The plot centers on Shukishi and Tomi, an elderly couple, who traverse the country from their southern fishing village of Onomichi to visit their adult children, daughter Shige and son Koichi, in Tokyo. Leading their own busy lives, the children realize their obligation to entertain them and pack them off to Atami, a nearby resort targeted to weekend revelers. Returning to Tokyo unexpectedly, Tomi visits their kindly daughter-in-law, Noriko, the widow of second son Shoji, while Shukishi gets drunk with some old companions. The old couple realizes they have become a burden to their children and decide to return to Onomichi. They also have a younger daughter Kyoko, a schoolteacher who lives with them, and younger son Keizo works for the train company in Osaka. By now the children, except for Kyoko and the dutiful Noriko, have given up on their parents, even when Tomi takes ill in Osaka on the way back home. From this seemingly convoluted, trivial-sounding storyline, fraught with soap opera possibilities, Ozu has fashioned a heartfelt and ultimately ironic film that focuses on the details in people's lives rather than a single dramatic situation.
What fascinates me about Ozu's idiosyncratic style is how he relies on insinuation to carry his story forward. In fact, some of the more critical events happen off-camera because Ozu's simple, penetrating observations of these characters' lives remain powerfully insightful without being contrived. Ozu scholar David Desser, who provides insightful commentary on the alternate audio track, explains this concept as "narrative ellipses", Ozu's singularly effective means of providing emotional continuity to a story without providing all the predictable detail in between. Ozu also positions his camera low throughout his film to replicate the perspective of someone sitting on a tatami mat. It adds significantly to the humanity he evokes. There are no melodramatic confrontations among the characters, no masochistic showboating, and the dialogue is deceptively casual, as even the most off-hand remark bears weight into the story. The film condemns no one and its sense of inevitability carries with it only certain resigned sadness. What amazes me most is how the ending is so cathartic because the characters feel so real to me, not because there are manipulative plot developments, even death, which force me to feel for them.
I just love the performances, as they have a neo-realism that makes them all the more affecting. Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama are wonderfully authentic as Shukishi and Tomi, perfectly conveying the resignation they feel about their lives and their children without slipping into cheap sentimentality. Higashiyama effortlessly displays the sunny demeanor of a grandmother, so when sadness does take over in her life, it becomes all the more haunting. In particular, she has a beautiful scene where Tomi looks forlornly at her grandchild wondering what he will be when he grows up and whether she will live to see what happens. Even more heartbreaking is the scene where Shukishi and Tomi sit in Ueno Park realizing their children have no time for them and are resigned to the fact that they need to find a place to sleep for the night. The closest the film has to a villain is Shige, portrayed fearlessly by Haruko Sugimura, who is able to show respect, pettiness and conniving in a realistically mercurial fashion. Watch her as she complains about the expensive cakes her husband bought for her parents (as she selfishly eats them herself) or how she finagles Koichi to co-finance the trip to Atami or how she shows her frustration when her parents come home early from the spa. So Yamamura (familiar to later Western audiences as Admiral Yamamoto in "Tora! Tora! Tora!") displays the right amount of indifference as Koichi, and Kyoko Kagawa has a few sharp lines toward the end of the film as the disappointed Kyoko.
But the best performance comes from the legendary Setsuko Hara, a luminous actress whose beauty and sensitivity remind me of Olivia de Havilland during the same era. As Noriko, she is breathtaking in showing her character's modesty, her unforced generosity in spite of her downscale status and her constant smile as a mask for her pain. She has a number of deeply affecting moments, for instance, when Noriko explains to Shukishi and Tomi how she misses her husband, even though it is implied he was a brutalizing alcoholic; or the touching goodbye to Kyoko; or her pained embarrassment over the high esteem that Shukishi holds for her kindness. Don't expect fireworks or any shocking moments, just a powerfully emotional film in spite of its seemingly modest approach. The two-disc DVD set has the commentary from Desser on the first disc, as well as the trailer. On the second disc, there are two excellent documentaries. One is a comprehensive 1983, two-hour feature focused on Ozu's life and career, and the second is a 40-minute tribute from several international movie directors.