A review requested by James Cronan, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

It's entirely possible that Tokyo Story isn't the best movie ever made. But I suspect that it might be the most perfect. Its construction is unthinkably good - not one single shot is wasted, and every cut serves a very clear and deliberate purpose. It is the film out of all films that I would want to show anybody who was curious how cinema works - how duration, framing, editing, and acting all combine to create a particular mood, and to communicate specific meaning about the characters. Meanwhile, the story it tells and the emotions it explores mark it as one of the wisest human dramas filmed: immensely specific in its characters and setting, but able to depict dynamics and tensions that are as universal as it. So it has wonderful form, extraordinarily rich narrative content, and those two things inform each other in the most satisfying, invisible way. So, perfect. It is not, in fairness, the only perfect film made by director Ozu Yasujiro: there are no quantitative ways to measure the difference between it and Late Spring, and I wouldn't bat an eye at the suggestion that his final two films (both in color), The End of Summer and An Autumn Afternoon, are more accomplished than either. But I nonetheless plant my flag in this soil: Tokyo Story is the crowning achievement of the most consistently great director in cinema history. It is as perfect in its craft as any of his other masterworks, and more robust in its emotional landscape. I'm glad we've gotten that sorted.

Though the film never lags, it's not on account of its thin wisp of a plot, as devised by Ozu and Noda Kogo: sometime long enough after World War II that the scars of battle are almost completely invisible in Japan, the elderly Hirayamas - husband Shukichi (Ryu Chishu) and wife Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) - travel from the town of Onomichi, where they live with their youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko), to the big city of Tokyo, to visit their eldest children, son Koichi (Yamamura So) and daughter Shige (Sugimura Haruko), and Noriko (Hara Setsuko), the young widow of their third child, who died in the war. Upon their arrival, Koichi and his wife Fumiko (Miyake Kuniko), and Shige and her husband Kurazo (Nakamura Nobuo) receive them with a chilly formality that makes it clear that they - to say nothing of Koichi's utterly disinterested, impolite children - don't really know what to do with the old folks and would prefer it very much if they didn't have to think about it. After a few stilted days, Shukichi and Tomi return home; she grows sick on the trip, and their children all rush to Onomichi to be with her as she passes away; fourth child Keizo (Osaka Shiro) arrives just too late. And then they all return home, leaving their father and Kyoko alone.

That's the entirety of what happens within the 136 minutes of Tokyo Story, as far as dramatic incident. No, that's not true. I elided the night in Tokyo where Shukichi gets drunk with his old friends and they all complain about their children. Even so, if it sounds like that's not very much content to fill the time, that's because it isn't. And it's what makes Tokyo Story so powerful. The film is not fueled by incident or melodrama - the clearest break it makes from its avowed inspiration, Leo McCarey's heart-rending Make Way for Tomorrow of 1937 - but by character interactions: the film simply places us in the middle of a family situation and allows us to be thrilled and enthralled by the greatest cinematic spectacle of them all, the feelings of human beings.

And by "in the middle", I do mean "in the actual, literal middle": Tokyo Story is the most successful expression of one of Ozu's most characteristic stylistic tricks (and while it's easy to use the director as a shorthand, one should fairly point out that the Ozu style was developed by the director alongside editor Hamamura Yoshiyasu and cinematographer Atsuta Yuharu, who were both as important recurring members of the director's troupe as his regular actors), in which the camera is perched in the exact middle of two characters in the middle of a dialogue, cutting from one center-framed shot of an actor staring right down the lens to another, a rhythmic back-and-forth that offers the dizzying sense that they're talking right to us. This single gesture, which shows up everywhere in mature Ozu (that is, at least everything he made from 1949's Late Spring to his 1962 retirement; I profess total ignorance of anything he made between the end of Japan's silent era and '49), is the most basic no-no in the Hollywood continuity rulebook, which by the '50s had become the dominant mode of narrative filmmaking in most of the world - Ozu's legendary countryman Kurosawa Akira used a version of it, though Mizoguchi Kenji didn't, and that uses up my knowledge of 1950s Japanese filmmaking. It is a way of staging and cutting that totally ignores the all-holy 180Β° line, which is meant to ease confusion on the viewer's part when the action cuts between largely opposite perspectives.

Nobody ever put the lie to that rule better than Ozu, and he never did it better than here: the smooth transition between perfectly-matched images in shot-reverse shot conversations isn't confusing in the least, and it provides even the most banal conversations in Tokyo Story with a thrilling charge of intimacy. Indeed, that charge comes about because the conversations are so banal; one of the things we learn very quickly is that the gulf between the parents and their adult children is unspeakably vast, and can only be roughly bridged with simple, dull statements of fact, and the limpest kind of small talk. Presenting these conversations in a movie at all is utterly presumptuous, and staging them in such a direct, forceful aesthetic of direct address doubly so; but we are thus involved in the conversations in a way that enthusiastically welcomes us to study the speakers, their body language, their tone of voice, and begin to dig at what they're holding back in talking. Tokyo Story is a drama about not saying things - not telling your parents that they're making it impossible for you to go on with your business, not telling your children that they're rude boors - and in plunging us directly into those forced, shallow conversations, the filmmakers invite us to feel the full weight and impact of how it feels to be part of them.

This goes at least part of the way towards explaining why Tokyo Story is so uniquely able, out of all the films ever made about interpersonal dynamics, to depict with such probing depth and uncomfortable accuracy what those dynamics look like in real time. Even out of Ozu's many films so successfully working on that topic, for if there is one measurable difference between Tokyo Story and his other works in the same vein, it might be that here, the director anchors his images on characters relatively more often, and a bit less on the rooms containing them - though there are, undoubtedly, many shots and even full scenes that play out with the camera crouched at the famous height of an individual sitting on a tatami mat, backed into a corner like an unobtrusive object of furniture as characters go about their miniature plays in a series of fully lived-in shadowboxes. The settings in the film are unquestionably important, and our sense of how the characters fit into space matter. Befitting its place in history, and its story of an old generation that can't understand and can't be understood by the next generation, Tokyo Story is made up primarily of traditional rooms in which individual props and some costumes creep in suggesting the shiny new Westernised Japan that was just starting to coalesce outside. And the quiet imposition of, say, an electric fan in an otherwise totally classical, austere space is monstrously important in dramatising that generational shift without stating it outright.

The rest of the film's limitless humanity comes in large part from its gifted cast. Ryu and Hara, the indispensable Ozu regulars and stars of Late Spring, can't help but stand out to any viewer familiar with that movie, but they're only the leaders of a stellar ensemble; as good as both of them unquestionably are, Sugimura actually gives my personal favorite performance, prickly impatience that keeps spilling out when she forgets to keep it in check, that then triggers silent but palpable waves of guilt. Right up to a brutal final sequence in which she's peremptory and bullying without being aware of it. But let's not go singling anyone out. The very concept of Tokyo Story demands that each and every performance has the necessary subtlety and conviction that we believe in the tiny gestures, facial expressions, and cut-off words as though they were being thought and felt in the moment by actual humans. One raw performance, and the film stalls out. And this never happens.

To give all of the delicate staging and acting room to make an impact, the film is silent and slow-moving, composed entirely of still images, with only one camera movement in the whole feature: and it is a powerful, jarring moment, perfectly timed and devastating (there's also a bit of a cheat: one scene involves a still camera looking out the windows of a moving bus, but the visible window frame helps to keep the shot feeling static). There are some tremendously dramatic wide shots, establishing exterior space as a series of open skies and graphic, angular lines, and these somewhat temper the potential monotony of all the largely similar interiors, but for the most part, Tokyo Story allows itself to breathe steadily and smoothly through its repetitive interior set-ups, preferring not to excite us through style but through the accumulated effect of its character drama. It does this magnificently - no film has ever been so flawlessly attuned to the way family works and sometimes doesn't work, no film has ever made domestic space so enthralling cinematic. And no film has ever been more natural and honest in its depiction of what normal human behavior looks like and feels like.