Guaranteed to vex Ozu devotees and bore mainstream auds, “Tokyo Family” is a bland and indigestible 146-minute “homage” to “Tokyo Story.” Slavishly adhering to the 1953’s original except for two ill-advised changes, Yoji Yamada’s contempo update offers no new insight into “Story’s” theme of strained human relationships amid a whirlwind of social change. Re-creations of the Japanese master’s famous compositions serve as little more than visual crutches, and Yamada’s characteristic sentimentality and the actors’ uncharacteristically nuance-free performances run counter to Ozu’s aesthetic of elegant understatement. Market prospects may be confined to Japan and Taiwan.
It’s understandable that Shochiku would remake Ozu’s best-known work in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the master’s death, and that Yamada (of the “Twilight Samurai” and “Tora-san” series), who was Ozu’s directorial assistant, would be tapped to helm. Sadly, Yamada, completing his 81st film at 82, already demonstrated he’s more an artisan than an artist in “About Her Brother” (2010), his soppy adaptation of Kon Ichikawa’s poetic “Her Brother” (1960), and “Tokyo Family” reveals a similarly deficient grasp of filmmaking technique and the basic elements of mainstream storytelling.
It doesn’t help that production was stalled for a year in the wake of the 3/11 disaster, or that originally cast leads Bunta Sugawara (“Battles Without Honor and Humanity”) and Etsuko Ichihara had to be replaced; Sugawara’s formidable presence, and the cinematic history he embodies, would have added some much-needed gravitas.
Retired teacher Shukichi Hirayama (Isao Hashizume) and his wife, Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), who live on the small island of Ozaki-kamishimacho near Hiroshima, go to Tokyo to spend a few days with their adult children: elder son Koiichi (Masahiko Nishimura), a doctor; daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima), who runs a hair salon; and younger son Shoji (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who barely scrapes by as a set designer. As those familiar with “Tokyo Story” will know, the parents are shuttled from one household to another by their busy children, until, tired by the hectic pace of city life, Tomiko has a stroke.
While “Tokyo Story” handled this development in a way that thematically reinforced the family’s distance, Yamada transposes the scenario to a Tokyo hospital, wallowing in soapy outbursts before shifting the stage to Okazaki-kamishimacho for another half-hour of equally plodding drama.
Other significant changes include expanding the role of Shoji and replacing the crucial character of Noriko, the young widow of the parents’ other son, with Shoji’s g.f., also named Noriko (Yu Aoi). Even this relationship is nothing fresh, representing a variation on Yamada’s “My Sons” (1991), a less-by-the-book emulation of Ozu.
By portraying Shoji as a layabout with a good heart, the film paves the way for reconciliation. Heartthrob Tsumabuki makes the most of his perennial nice-guy image, but doesn’t express enough strength of character to be convincingly sympathetic. Aoi plays Noriko as well-meaning without being sickly sweet, and holds her own nicely in scenes in which Tomiko and Shukichi individually open up to her; her subtle emotional modulation results in the film’s sole naturally moving moment.
Adopting a Hiroshima accent with an irritatingly slow drawl, Hashizume and Yoshiyuki, though competent thesps, don’t carry themselves with the Old World courtesy and dignity required for their plight to symbolize the dissolution of traditional values. Other perfs are similarly undistinguished.
The Ozu references here range from oblique (a fleeting take of a kabuki performance of “Kagamishishi,” the subject of Ozu’s only documentary) to overt (nostalgic title fonts popular in 1950s Japanese cinema). All are executed in mechanical fashion, further dulled by the film’s flat color tones and lack of variation in narrative rhythm. Joe Hisaishi’s lilting score only makes the production feel more emotionally overwrought.