The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is an Ozu gem that is rarely seen in the United States today. I don’t think it has ever received a video release here (though I didn’t look into it too closely so I could be wrong about that). But this poignant and thoughtful movie about duty to family at a time when duty is being subsumed by notions like personal happiness and fulfillment deserves renewed attention. This is a theme Ozu would return to in 1953 with his classic Tokyo Story. While Tokyo Story has a universal feel to it (often being compared to Leo McCarey’s 1937 U.S. film Make Way for Tomorrow), Brothers and Sisters has a more uniquely Japanese flavor.
The Toda family is a well-off clan made up of two adult sons and three adult daughters. One son and two daughters are married and have their own families, while another son and daughter remain unmarried. Early on we understand that the family is actively searching for a good match for their younger daughter Setsuko. The unmarried son, Shojiro, is something of an embarrassment for the family: unemployed, few prospects, little ambition, lots of drinking. Setsuko and Shojiro still live with their mother and father, a comfortable, unchallenging existence.
Life for everyone is thrown into tumult when the Toda patriarch, Shintaro, dies after a family celebration for his birthday. Subsequent examination of his finances shows that he was nearly bankrupt and if the family is to honor his debts, they will have to sell off the family home and most of their possessions.
Suddenly there is no money for their mother’s and Setsuko’s living expenses. Worse yet, there isn’t even money enough for Setsuko’s dowry and all the decent marriage offers evaporate over night. The married siblings and their spouses worry about how their obligations for their mother’s and sister’s upkeep will crimp their lifestyles. Their mother and Setsuko are ignominiously shuffled from one house to another, each sibling eager to pawn off the pesky family members on the nest sibling. Meanwhile, Shojiro, unable to do much, leaves for a job in Japanese-occupied China.
In each household Mother Toda and Setsuko are constantly reminded they are burdens and in the way. When Setsuko tries to get a job, to help with expenses, her sister is outraged, arguing that it would be beneath social standing and degrading for her to work. This, she argues, will make it even harder for her to find a suitable husband. Little conflicts like these bubble up in each house, forcing Setsuko and her mother, who want to avoid putting anyone out, into one uncomfortable position after another.
The movie is at times frustrating and heartbreaking, until an unexpected figure sets the family straight. Today the put-out family members might receive a bit more sympathy, but if we consider traditional concepts of filial duty in Japan, we can begin to understand how moving this movie must have been to audiences that may have experienced similar situations. It’s a movie that challenges our presumptions about responsibility and is still relevant in today’s world of dispersed families and privileged personal space. It certainly deserves an audience in Japan and around the world.