I recently watched Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) for the first time. It’s an interesting and quite slow paced portrayal of life in post-war Japan, telling the story of an elderly couple visiting their grown children in Tokyo. Although there’s little in the way of plot, the film masterfully contrasts the hurried indifference of a new generation with that of the old Japan – through the experience of a single family, Ozu captures a moment of transition for all of Japanese society.
While watching the film, I found myself drawing comparison to a much more recent picture; Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). Filmed intermittently over a 12-year period, Boyhood chronicles over a decade in the life of a single boy, from elementary school to university. While the backdrop of these two films would struggle to be more different, both Boyhood and Tokyo Story attempt to capture and portray life as it truly happens, without a strictly structured plot or the usual embellishments of cinema – they simply provide a snapshot of the human experience. The two films were also critically acclaimed; Tokyo Story was rated as the greatest film of all time in the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors’ poll, while Boyhood has the rare honour of a perfect 100 score on metacritic.
Despite the acclaim, Boyhood is a film I have never been able to get behind – on both of my viewings I’ve found myself achingly bored. I’ll accept that my opinion resides within the minority, but Boyhood is an interminably dull tale of very normal things happening to a slim selection of non-characters. What’s more, every shot is framed in a flat, televisual style which, as far as I can see, is devoid of any real craft or cinematic value. As a result, it’s difficult to engage with the film on either a technical or an emotional level, and I find myself longing for an injection of melodrama. Indeed, my criticisms of Boyhood were only accentuated by the achievements of Tokyo Story.
The essential success of Tokyo Story is that Ozu is able to take life and make it worth watching. Although the film is heavy on dialogue, it’s always staged in a visually interesting manner, disposing of the typical shot-reverse-shot approach and confidently breaking the 180-degree rule to bring the audience closer. Moreover, it consistently feels like the events on screen, no matter how mundane, have a point to them; the characters and their separate stories all contribute to an understanding of Japanese society as a whole, giving you something palpable to take away from the experience. The existence of this over-arching narrative means that Ozu’s social-realist approach is anchored to a story that is worth telling.
Boyhood, on the other hand, fails to be anything more than a series of events occurring, and the result is a film that’s crushingly dull. It may have taken twelve years to make (and the advertising wouldn’t let you forget it), but I fail to see how this contributes anything when the aging characters are such uninteresting husks. Admittedly, Linklater’s long production time is a technical triumph, allowing the audience to experience the passage of time in a way that feels tangible, but it’s impact is hollow against a script that is devoid of genuine drama or effective character development.
In recording reality, Linklater appears to have forgotten the essential truth that most people go to cinema to escape the depressing reality of life, not watch it unfold over an excruciating two-hour-forty-minute period. Of course, a realist approach can be a powerful storytelling tool, ably illustrated by Tokyo Story, but Boyhood has none of the artistic weight or social commentary that makes Ozu’s film so valuable. Much like the visual effects of today’s comic-book sequels, the realism of Boyhood is undeniably impressive, presenting life itself with a plainness rarely seen. Underneath, however, there simply isn’t enough substance to justify the feverish praise with which the film was lavished.
At least that’s what I think.