By Jeremy Carr.
An Autumn Afternoon was director Yasujirô Ozu’s final film. He passed away a year after its release, on his 60th birthday, Dec. 12, 1963. Knowing that the film is indeed his last, it’s easy to look at it in terms of being a sort of grand summation of his work, a concluding statement on themes and aesthetic tendencies he had steadily formulated and perfected since his first feature, Blade of Penitence, in 1927. But an overview like that doesn’t always work with Ozu. While his films may have matured in many respects, they also remained astonishingly consistent, some even to the point of being nearly the same movie, on the surface anyway (he did remake one of his own films—1934’s A Story of Floating Weeds into 1959’s Floating Weeds). Or, at the very least, they are easily confused with one another (similar seasonal titles don’t help). So why then is An Autumn Afternoon special, and where does it fit into the Ozu opus?
To begin with, one must acknowledge the dependability of Ozu’s stalwart collaborators, such as co-writer Kôgo Noda, cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta, and editor Yoshiyasu Hamamura, all of whom contribute to An Autumn Afternoon, and all of whom had worked with the director on numerous prior films, most certainly playing a part in the likeness of each movie’s style and respective narrative threads.In terms of this narrative, An Autumn Afternoon revisits familiar Ozu territory from the preceding decade or so. Starting with Late Spring (1949), Ozu would return time and again to a key thematic crux: struggles within a family and, more specifically, the marrying off of a daughter. In addition to Late Spring, The Munekata Sisters (1950), Early Summer (1951), Equinox Flower (1958), and Late Autumn (1960) are all concerned with diverse and divergent marital plans for one or more young women. As Geoff Andrew has pointed out, just before his passing Ozu had made notes for another project, Radishes and Carrots, and once again, it was to be the story of a daughter about to marry and leave her father.
An Autumn Afternoon begins as Shuhei Hirayama unashamedly questions his secretary about her being married, stressing its importance, even its necessity. Played by Chishû Ryû (speaking of stalwart collaborator: 52 films with Ozu), Hirayama is quick to change the subject when the question comes to his own 24-year-old daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita), and the possibility of her potential union. This he’s not so keen on, for as a widower, he has grown dependent on her domestic assistance. Nevertheless, this gets the narrative moving, and An Autumn Afternoon’s primary focus is on Michiko’s eventual matrimonial decision and how that, in turn, affects those around her, particularly her father. It also reveals a recurring plot point of everyone making decisions except for those most directly involved. When Hirayama eventually decides with great satisfaction that it’s probably best to let Michiko marry the man she prefers, rather than one imposed on her, his declaration is most ironic given all that had just transpired. After debate with others, matchmaking without her consent, and selfish contemplation on where it would leave him, it’s awfully big of him to decide that she knows what she’s doing.
While the emphasis on women and their somewhat demeaning domestic roles may be seen as an antiquated patriarchal organization, the same perceived responsibilities also point to the utter helplessness and immaturity of the men. Michiko has to constantly chide Hirayama for his drinking, greeting him almost every night with questions of how much he has had. Hirayama’s eldest son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), seemingly the most dependable child, judging solely by appearances and the fact that he has some sort of professional occupation, borrows money for a refrigerator but exaggerates the sum needed so he’ll have money left over to purchase second-hand golf clubs. He is seen as a “meek husband,” kowtowing to his wife, Akiko (Mariko Okada), but that’s only because it’s up to her to responsibly keep track of their expenses. And the younger son, Kazuo (Shin’ichirô Mikami), who also lives with Michiko and Hirayama, repeatedly barks orders at his older sister/maternal stand-in, demanding food as soon as he gets home. Though Kazuo hasn’t quite perhaps caught on to the precarious nature of the family dynamics affecting everyone else (he’s just a kid who can’t or doesn’t want to make his own meals), by the end of the film, he too has grown to realize the helplessness of others, even other males, assuring Hirayama that he will make him breakfast in the morning. Given that these men are so reliant on the women in their lives, it’s little wonder Hirayama grows concerned about Michiko moving out. It’s a sad and surprisingly cruel comment, though a telling one, when Hirayama returns from Michiko’s wedding and is asked if he just came from a funeral. “Something like that,” he responds. Hirayama’s paternal concern doesn’t stop with Michiko’s marriage. As soon as that much is settled, he quickly turns his attention to Koichi and starts to prod him about having children. This cycle of parent versus child needs and wants will never end, nor is it isolated to the Hirayama family (nor is it isolated to An Autumn Afternoon).
A subplot of An Autumn Afternoon concerns a reunion of Hirayama and some classmates as they gather to reminisce with an old teacher, Sakuma (Eijirô Tôno), also known as “The Gourd,” a nickname bestowed on the former middle school sensei. (Others instructors included “The Badger,” “The Emperor,” and “The Lion.”) During a drunken dinner, where Sakuma is especially inebriated, the men wonder what it’s like for his daughter to take care of him when he’s in such a state, as he too is a widower and she never married. In a mother’s absence, it’s another case where the maternal duties fall to the daughters/sisters, whereby they are assigned the responsibility of supervising their male relations. When they later walk the old man to his home, which also doubles as a run-down noodle shop, they find out exactly what it’s like for daughter Tomoko (Haruko Sugimura). She is filled with frustration, regret, and despair, for having never married, she is therefore left to routinely tend to her drunken father. Hirayama is shocked to discover the condition of the teacher, a man who once held a position of respectability. Could this be him one day? Could Tomoko be Michiko if he doesn’t let her wed and lead her own life?
About an hour after the film’s beginning, Ozu repeats the same shot pattern that started the film as we again enter Hirayama’s office and again the subject of his daughter marrying comes up. Only this time, he has reconsidered his position, especially in light of The Gourd’s situation. “Be careful you don’t end up like that,” friend and former classmate Shuzo Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura) warned him. Now he is indeed heeding that disclaimer. As much as he has ever done before, in An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu explores the fluctuating roles in a family: who is in charge, who is subservient, who is the breadwinner, who is the dependent, and what is the proper, or the best, familial arrangement?
Another former classmate, Shin Horie (Ryûji Kita), challenges these conventions with his own living arrangement and his relationship with a much younger woman, just three years older than his daughter. Hirayama and Kawai jokingly question whether or not he needs pills to maintain this romantic situation, but at the same time, they’re quick to call him a “lucky bastard.” The joking between these three men is just one instance of levity in An Autumn Afternoon. Despite several comedies to his credit, one doesn’t tend to associate Ozu with laughs, perhaps because his humor is so natural, so genuine, and oftentimes so subtle (aside from the defecation jokes in Good Morning ). Here there are several examples of quiet, understated comedy, as when Hirayama and a wartime comrade salute and drunkenly bob up and down to a military march while a hostess demurely joins in, grinning like an idiot, albeit a charming one. In their picking on one another, Hirayama and his friends also retain aspects of their youth, continuing their jocular pranks and taunts. In an Ozu movie, where death is an ever present concern or cause of dramatic pressure, there’s even no hesitation to joke about dying: “Don’t go dying on me,” Kazuo tells Hirayama near the end, seeing how intoxicated his father is. Everyone maintains a good humor about the inevitable, even when it might not be that far off.
At the same time, An Autumn Afternoon contains moments of somber reflection relating to World War II, the subject arising here more than in most of Ozu’s work. “How come we lost the war?” Hirayama is asked. “Good question,” is all he can answer. Further allusions to the fighting and its effects include everything from the devastating (bombed out houses and evacuations), to the social (a coldness between people that developed in the immediate post-war years), to the more trivial repercussions of Western pop culture seeping into Japanese life (kids shaking their rumps to American records). Just as these and other narrative and thematic features from An Autumn Afternoon are similar to, or distinguished from, prior Ozu work, the film is also representative of the director’s visual approach, much of which had been in place for years.
There is, as per the norm, little to no camera movement, as well as a commonly adopted vantage point from a lower angle, stressing visual stability and compositional balance. An Autumn Afternoon also makes the most of Ozu’s penchant for frontal exchanges between characters, where those speaking are shot straight on, as if addressing the viewer, a paradoxically disorienting and absorbing position. Ozu also establishes scenes unlike any other filmmaker, with close-ups of inanimate objects gradually shown from a further distance and another angle, and only on the third or fourth cut extending to a wider shot of the area (and even then often followed by closer shots moving back in on the specific location within the general setting). It’s a fascinating spatial arrangement that pinpoints details within any one given sequence, broadening the scope, subsequently giving us a full sense of space, then again putting the focus on smaller features to set the scene to come.
Ozu also frequently denies us moments of action and drama, favoring instead passages of triviality. He will keep the camera outside a baseball stadium, only showing the game on television, or skip over the courtship (such as it probably was) between Michiko and her new husband, but he will stay on after scenes have essentially ended, holding on characters as they quietly sit alone or inconsequently shuffle through some papers. One also sees in An Autumn Afternoon that people have a presence in an Ozu film even when they’re not in the frame. Doors open and close without the active person immediately appearing, or we will hear their entrance, either through dialogue or through other noise, long before we actually see them enter. Similarly, Ozu emphasizes items like slippers placed outside a room, discarded beer bottles lined up, empty stools awaiting customers: he is as much interested in people as he is where they are, where they’ve been, where they may go, and what they leave behind.
Having first worked in color on Equinox Flower, Ozu’s palette here is generally populated with primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. The color is not decorative, though it certainly gives these films an aesthetic appeal that his black and white films obviously do not possess, but in most cases, the color is used to locate a certain setting or to tie scenes together. When Hirayama and Kawai are shown walking the drunken Sakuma down an alleyway, we know where they’re heading (his home/noodle shop) because we had previously seen the surrounding yellow barrels that, against the otherwise blacked backdrop, stand out and signal our sense of location. The same holds for Hirayama’s office, in the beginning and, as mentioned, at about the halfway point. The red of the exterior smokestacks transition to the red of a hallway fire hose door, then to a red object near Hirayama’s desk. Even before we enter an interior proper, the setting is cued to be familiar due to its identical, repeated, and associative color arrangements.
According to Andrew, An Autumn Afternoon, like so many other Ozu films, “is both typical and unique.” It is, for example, another “gentle domestic drama about middle-class family life, a shomin-geki characteristic of his home studio, Shochiku.” Yet, at the same time, it is also “a very distinct variation, following beautifully from its predecessors.” Ultimately, An Autumn Afternoon is exemplary and exceptional as a film that overflows with perhaps Ozu’s most predominant and affecting concentration: the quiet resignation of life, the good and the bad. “That’s fate for you,” says Horie. He’s bragging about his newfound love life, but the observation applies to all. Ozu’s characters play the cards they’re dealt, making the most of what they have and have to face with an admirable acceptance. In this, Ozu’s films are the ultimate in slice of life banality, everyday dramas both big and small, none of which are ever boring because they are so true. In the end, Hirayama faces the consequences of his actions. He was quick to marry Michiko off, but now the dread of the loneliness sets in. There is no winning with Ozu. This is just how life is, and this is how it will continue. It’s a worldview best summarized in an exchange from his most famous film, Tokyo Story (1953)—Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?” Noriko (smiling): “Yes, it is.”
The final shot of An Autumn Afternoon—the final Ozu image—has Hirayama with his back to the camera, seen from a distance. He is drunk, feels he’s alone, and is stricken with equal parts melancholy and nostalgia. It is a melancholy and nostalgia that mirrors the way one who loves Ozu’s cinema feels when realizing that this is the last the Japanese master had to offer. It is sad, yes, but one accepts it and appreciates all he left behind.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Bright Lights Film Journal, CineAction, Sound on Sight, and Moving Pictures Magazine.
An Autumn Afternoon was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection. It will also be featured at the Cal State University Northridge Cinematheque as part of their Ozu Retrospective on May 7th, 2015.