Tokyo Family: Remaking a Timeless Classic

© “Tokyo Family” Film Partners
Director Yoji Yamada (center) © “Tokyo Family” Film Partners
Actress Yu Aoi (right), actor Satoshi Tsumabuki (left) © “Tokyo Family” Film Partners
Actor Shozo Hayashiya (left), director Yoji Yamada (center), actress Tomoko Nakajima (right) © “Tokyo Family” Film Partners
From left to right. Director Yoji Yamada, DP Masashi Chikamori, actor Isao Hashizume, actor Satoshi Tsumabuki © “Tokyo Family” Film Partners

Sixty years ago, director Yoji Yamada was assistant director on Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a moving family portrait set just after World War Two. Yamada has just completed a remake of this timeless classic updating the story of the ageing couple to present-day Japan.

In his novel Anna Karenina about 19th century Russian society, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” This sentiment could well be taken as the theme of both the original Tokyo Story and its updated remake Tokyo Family. An ageing couple, Shukichi and Tomiko decide to leave their quiet lives in the country to pay a visit to their children and grandchildren in Tokyo. Once there, they discover that neither their oldest son, a doctor named Koichi, nor their eldest daughter, Shigeko who runs a beauty parlor, has time for them. Both are too busy attending to their everyday concerns. Even the youngest son goes his own way. The old couple feel lonely and bewildered in the fast-paced metropolis.

Director Yamada has said. “When I was young, I thought Tokyo Story’s story line was so old fashioned. But as I’ve made numbers of films over the years, I have come to realize how great it is.” In fact, family is a recurring theme throughout director Yamada’s work and it could be claimed that Tokyo Family represents both an homage to Tokyo Story and a compilation of Yamada’s work capturing the modern Japanese family.

Initially the production was scheduled to start in April 2011 but the earthquake and subsequent tsunami of that year delayed it for almost 12 months and production re-started in March 2012 with shooting completed at the end of May. Although the disaster is not mentioned directly in the film, the raw scars that still inform everyday life permeate it.

One of the difficulties of a remake is that locations change over time. In the original Tokyo Story, the old couple lived in the city of Onomichi but now the bullet train stops here and people can get there very quickly. In order to create a sense of distance the old couple’s house had to be set on an island where a small ferry was the only form of transportation. After considerable scouting, DP Masashi Chikamori, JSC discovered some old Japanese-style houses on the island of Osaki-Kamijima He says that “there are several villages on the island slopes and the view of the bay looking towards the shipyard provided some really beautiful shots.” Producer Takashi Yajima agrees. He says that “for one of the very last shots of the film we photographed the Seto Inland Sea from the top of a hill on Osaki-Kamijima. We were very lucky to get those shots during the fine weather as it was almost entering the rainy season.”

Tokyo Family was shot using an ARRI 535B camera equipped with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses and two KODAK film stocks, KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 and 500T 5219. DP Chikamori explains his visual approach, “The original film Tokyo Story was shot on black and white film stocks and was quite high contrast. You can’t use the same approach to today’s modern story using color film. Black and white cinematography requires a different lighting balance; for example the key light for face tones requires 1.5 times that of incident light. The beauty of black and white and color cinematography are two different things. Tokyo Story’s high contrast look was not suitable for Tokyo Family’s story telling. I’ve always liked low camera positions and other original viewpoints and I used several of these in the movie but no panning shots.

“One particularly memorable scene for me,” he continues “took place in a hospital when the lead actor is told his wife is dying. Instead of taking the scene from a distance, I did the opposite and went in close up. When I know an actor will deliver a great performance, I think it’s good to shoot close up instead of being modest. There are times when you must make decisions and challenge and that shot was one of those moments.”

Both cinematographer Chikamori and producer Yajima are enthusiastic about KODAK film stocks. Chikamori says, “Film has great mobility. It’s light and you can start shooting anywhere very quickly. The electric viewfinder on a digital system has got switches here and there and too many settings to deal with. If you set something incorrectly, you can become disorientated and lose track of your shooting criteria. With an optical finder, I know with some certainty what kind of image is forming.”

Yajima says, “To me what’s good about film is that it exists physically. Digital files and devices always hold potential risk of crushed or lost files. When an image is recorded on film, it’s solid and when it’s stored under the proper conditions, it takes care of the archival problem too. I think film is still the most superior media in terms of archiving.”

Tokyo Family was shown to considerable acclaim in the Special Gala section of the Berlin Film Festival in February this year.