Yoji Yamada’s “Tokyo Family” – 2013 HKIFF Review

In a tribute to Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” director Yoji Yamada fast-forwards his version 60 years, exploring family dynamics in the context of present-day Japan.  “Tokyo Family” (東京家族) examines an elderly couple whose three grown children have all relocated to the capital from their faraway rural hometown.  Exploring the intersecting dynamics of parent-child relationships, aging and seeking success in a sprawling metropolis that offers no handouts, the film follows the lives of Koichi (a doctor), Shigeko (a hair salon owner) and Shoji (a freelance stage set designer).  Their parents, played by Isao Hashizume and Kazuko Yoshiyuki, quickly learn that as their extended family expands, so do the typical problems its members face.  These issues slowly bubble to the surface, particularly after one evening when the parents separate and come away with starkly contrasting personal experiences.

Strong acting – particularly from Satoshi Tsumabuki as the youngest son Shoji – unfortunately does not entirely overcome the weaknesses of this film.  Even though at one point the story does become a genuine tearjerker, “Tokyo Family” suffers in terms of character development and plot despite the film’s duration of 146 minutes.  One issue is the absence of major conflict, as the family that Yamada presents is not quite dysfunctional enough for his commentary on modern-day Japan to resonate.  While the plot thread involving Shoji weaves through some compelling moments, most characters exhibit only basic personality traits and reveal general background information, but not much more.  In addition, the characters portrayed as good people – in particular the mother and Yu Aoi as Noriko, playing yet another supporting role as the girl next door – are too faultless and too perfect.

Another weakness of “Tokyo Family” is its subtle approach.  As a result, the references to current trends in Japan – a “brain drain” pilgrimage of the younger generation to the capital, the country’s aging population in rural communities left behind, and so on – are lost.  Although in one scene the father drunkenly expresses his displeasure with family and the state of his country to a friend in the pub, he never really addresses any of these problems head-on with his relatives themselves.  More glaringly, several references to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami appear out of place, comprising a forced attempt to paint a picture of Japan in a post-Mar. 11 world.