This black and white movie centers on an elderly couple in post-World War II Japan. The two gingerly travel to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo to see their children. While one child still lives at home with them, two are in Tokyo and another in a nearby city. During the course of the movie, they manage to visit all three offspring.
The visiting parents are tolerated—just barely it seems. Occasionally a spouse offers to take them somewhere, to a play perhaps, but the outing never materializes or is shot down because of the cost. Why spend the money, the effort, the time on the visiting parents, an ungrateful adult child asks? The offspring are too busy to visit with their parents, but instead pool their money to send their parents to visit a nearby hot springs. The hot springs and hotel turn out to be utterly inappropriate, a spot for the young to congregate and party far into the night.
The parents are real troopers, but in private conversation they discuss how they prefer their children to their grandchildren, and how in actuality their children are quite different than they were growing up. Their adult children are not meeting expectations, but the parents accept them for who they are. For example, one son is a neighborhood doctor rather than a famous doctor as expected.
The real treat to their trip to Tokyo was Noriko, the wife of a deceased son. Their daughter-in-law is overjoyed to see them and to spend time with them. She takes them out on a tour to view the sites of Tokyo. She invites them into her humble house and shares sake and good food with them. This is in stark contrast to their blood children whom see buying expensive cakes for them rather than cheap crackers as a waste of money.
The parents end up individually urging Noriko to let go of the memory of their dead son and get on with her life. Her marrying and being happy would bring them great joy. Noriko cannot seem to accept this but lives tied to the past, to her dead husband…gone for the last eight years (since the end of the war).
In the end, after the parents return home, one falls sick and dies. One by one the children dutifully return to their hometown. All but one made it in time before death. Just as quickly they leave—all except Noriko, who stays a bit longer. She is the dutifully child that they didn’t have.
Tokyo Story is a tale of grown children with their elderly parents and how blood doesn’t always ensure honor or deep relationship. Sometimes the latter comes from unlikely places, such as in the form of the woman who married to your now long-dead son.