The story, such as it is, revolves around an elderly couple who travel to Tokyo to catch up with some of their family. They had 5 children, their daughter Kyoko still lives with them in Onomichi; their other daughter, Shige, has married and lives in Tokyo; Koichi, now a doctor, is also in Tokyo with his wife and 2 children; Keiso lives in closer-to-home Osaka; and lastly Shoji died during the war leaving his widow, Noriko, alone.
Once in Tokyo they are confronted with their children's disinterest - only Noriko goes out of her way to make their time in Tokyo special. Having been shunted off to the highly unsuitable Atami, they decide to return home. On the way the mother is taken ill, so then stop with their son in Osaka before continuing back a day or two later. Shortly after the mother dies, but even then she is treated with a degree of indifference.It's fairly clear that the film is not particular intended to evoke stories from the Bible. The fact that is does so for some viewers is merely a coincidence based on the universality of this story and those we find in scripture. Such is the nature of good art: the perspective the viewer brings to it is significant, and it enables him/her to reflect on that perspective and what has formed it. It can shed new light on an issue, and in this case, not expecting such a dialogue can catch a viewer unaware helping them view a story from an unexpected angle.
I found myself constantly mulling over two stories from the Bible as Tokyo Story meandered towards its climax, both of which relate to the way that Noriko the daughter-in-law plays the role of a true daughter in contrast to her husband's siblings.
The first of which is the story of Ruth. Whilst Noriko's father-in-law is still alive, her husband has been killed, and both her and her in-laws clearly have a great love for each other. There is particular devotion between the two women which is touchingly portrayed. The Bible is very upfront about the devotion Naomi and Ruth show for each other, but, as a result, it leaves little room for the subtler nuances we find here.The other story that came to mind was that of the Good Samaritan. The parable is so well known to most churchgoers that it requires serious reworking to restore its original punch. The recent Oscar winner Crash did this very well. Here the comparisons are much less low key, but the same emphasis is present - those who treat you well are not necessarily those you might expect. Noriko acts an example for us all.
I loved the subtlety and humility with which this film explored it subject. In honesty I struggled to stay awake, and briefly nodded off at least once, but, as I'm getting older I find that the quality of a film rarely correlates to my ability to keep my eyes open. Indeed, often the fact that a film doesn't rely on fuelling my adrenaline, but offers me a more honest and realistic exploration of life is a mark of its quality itself.
Roger Ebert's review is, as always worth checking out, and there are a couple of other reviews of it at The Guardian as well.