A director for the Shochiku studio since 1961, Yoji Yamada is best known for the Tora-san series about a wandering peddler, played by Kiyoshi Atsumi, who is forever falling in love but never gets the girl. In speaking about the 48 installments of this popular series, which started in 1969 and ended with Atsumi’s death in 1996, Yamada often compared himself with a cook trying to make a good bowl of noodle soup every time — a motivation that kept him from tiring of his repetitive labors.
This was similar to the way another Shochiku stalwart, Yasujiro Ozu, often described himself as a tofu maker who only knows how to make one thing well — in his case family dramas, one of which, 1953’s “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story),” was named the all-time best film in “Sight & Sound” magazine’s 2012 directors’ poll.
In March 2011, Yamada was about to begin production of “Tokyo Kazoku (Tokyo Family),” a film inspired by “Tokyo Story,” when the triple disaster struck. Rather than soldier on, Yamada decided to rewrite his script to better reflect the realities of post-3/11 Japan.
The film he finally made, however, is less a 3/11 film — it is still set mostly in Tokyo, with much the same story as the original — than an Ozu tribute, if one that reflects Yamada’s own distinctive style and concerns, as well as contemporary social issues.
It also illustrates why Ozu, who died on his birthday at age 60 in 1963, has had no direct successors, though later directors, such as Jun Ichikawa, Masayuki Suo and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, have made films that imitate or reference his unique style. The Ozu-esque touches in “Tokyo Family,” such as head-and-shoulder shots of characters looking and speaking directly at the camera, or low-angle shots of two characters sitting side by side and facing the same direction, are as immediately recognizable as a Picasso portrait with both eyes on the same side of the head. They are also, unfortunately, vivid reminders of Ozu’s superior film that distract from the real merits of Yamada’s.
Similar to “Tokyo Story,” the story revolves around the visit of an elderly couple, Shukichi (Isao Hashizume) and Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) Hirayama, to their grown children in Tokyo from their idyllic home on a small island in the Inland Sea.
And as in Ozu’s film, the children are too busy to spare much time for Mom and Dad; Eldest son Koichi (Masahiko Nishimura) is a GP who runs a clinic from his home, while his sister Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima) manages a busy beauty parlor and younger brother Shuji (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a freelance stagehand.
Here the parallels start to break down: Ozu’s film is set against a backdrop of a country still recovering from a disastrous war, but looking to the future with hope. Yamada’s, on the other hand, reflects the uneasy mood of a society that has been stuck in economic neutral for nearly two decades and under-employs millions. Shigeko’s middle-aged hubby serves as a factotum at her shop, while Shuji drives an ancient beater and has little prospect of anything but his current hand-to-mouth existence.
But Yamada being Yamada, a populist who never says never in his films, this gloomy social backdrop is offset by beams of light, specifically Shuji’s fiancee Noriko (Yu Aoi), whom he met while volunteering in Tohoku after 3/11. Everyone who encounters this unaffectedly considerate and kind young woman, including the irascible Shukichi, proclaims her a good person. On the saintliness scale, however, she ranks second to Setsuko Hara’s character of the same name in “Tokyo Story,” who selflessly cares for the parents of her husband years after his death in the war.
Given such unfavorable comparisons, it might seem that the entire project was misguided — a moustache painted on the “Mona Lisa.” But when “Tokyo Family” departs from Ozu and becomes more recognizably Yamada’s, it hits stronger, more authentic notes, as when the mother falls ill and, instead of eliding much of what follows, Ozu-style, Yamada presents it with a tender forthrightness familiar from his other acclaimed family dramas, including 2008’s “Kabe (Kabei: Our Mother)” and 2010’s “Ototo (About Her Brother).”
The standard critical compliment for a good remake (and yes, they do exist) is that it makes the audience want to revisit the original. “Tokyo Family” will have served its purpose if it encourages viewers to check out not only “Tokyo Story,” but Yamada’s other, better films as well.