The story tells of an elderly couple from a countryside town who make a rare journey into the capital to visit their children, all seemingly successful in the big city, but in fact a rung or two below the glamour that may have been hoped for. Another reality is that their children are too busy (or rather, use that as an excuse) to give their parents much attention, resulting in them, at one point, being packed off to a health spa for a few days. The only one who shows the couple any real amity is Noriko, the young widow of their son, killed in the war (beautifully played by Setsuko Hara).
The pace of the film is wonderfully slow and steady, giving you time to eat up the details of residential post-war Tokyo (almost all low-shot interiors), as well as to reflect on the scenes as you're watching them. Another technique that pulls you into the lives of the characters is the unusual view of people talking directly to you, as if you were the other person in the conversation. This is an Ozu trademark and can, at first, be a little jarring with the dialogue sounding somewhat staccato (because of the cuts), but you quickly become used to it and I find it engaging.
One of the things I love about Japanese cinema from this era is the restrained emotion under dramatic circumstances. I find it also in many classic black and white-era British films, and masterfully done in some of the later silent-era pictures, A Woman of Paris being an excellent example. There is so much over-acting these days and, to me, most television acting is rendered almost unwatchable as yet another character sighs heavily, stutters their words or rolls their eyes in order to hammer their emotions into the viewer. In films such as Tokyo Story, when real emotion does eventually spill over the barrier, it has veritable impact. The same goes for the camera, it just observes, it doesn't need to fly around all over the place, but when it does deviate, it has greater effect (a philosophy I adhere to in my own comic storytelling).
The NFT are currently showing a season of Ozu's films which runs until 27 February 2010.