An Autumn Afternoon, 1962, Yasujiro Ozu

An Autumn Afternoon ended up being Ozu’s last film. While it is a shame we don’t have a few more Ozu films in color, this was a solid ending to a legendary and masterful career.

For those who have seen Ozu films, the style is completely familiar. It focuses on domestic issues, is shot from a low angle with a camera that never moves, has a somewhat slower pace, and speaks solemnly on the intricacies of life and relationships.

This transition shows an interior with signage in the exterior.

This transition shows an interior with signage in the exterior.

transition 2

transition 3

Ozu has plenty to say about the contrast between modernity, technology, commercialism, and a nostalgic fondness for the way things were. This is mostly established by his clever use of transition shots. The character scenes take place almost exclusively on interior sets. The transitions between these scenes show both a commercially vibrant Tokyo with elaborate signage, and also a worn down Tokyo by the seedier side of industry. These images are juxtaposed by characters that are concerned with baseball, refrigerators and golf clubs. Materialism is a vital part of their life, but is not portrayed as an entirely positive thing.

men in bar 1

men in bar 2

Ozu portrays men drinking together as pleasant experiences. This is where the men relax and enjoy each other’s company. Whether this happens as a large class reunion, or just two fellow Navy officers flippantly discussing the ramifications of the war, the mood is positive. This is punctuated by the score, which like most Ozu films, is always effective at setting a mood. Most trivialities are forgotten as men drink sake in the bar, reliving and enjoying the younger days while playfully tweaking each other. Age and virility are constant topics in these exchanges, and they talk often of marriage. Over time, these exchanges re-direct back to the family and the primary theme of the film. The tragic character of ‘The Gourd’ joins the classmates at their reunion and he is the picture of a fractured life, one that they do not want to repeat.

Notice the foreground red and white matching the background girls dressed in red and white.

Notice the foreground red and white matching the background girls dressed in red and white.

With Ozu there is always juxtaposition, and that is with family and married life. The family life is often portrayed as structured, formal and with a balance between commercial indulgences and domestic responsibilities. There is a subplot with Shuhei’s married son who wants an expensive set of golf clubs, which his wife stubbornly resists out of economic necessity. Even though marriage is discussed often in the film, this give-and-take exchange (which happens to be among my favorite sequences) shows a marriage in action. The golf clubs provide for a mild conflict between husband and wife, but also a way of expressing how aging men yearn for a leisurely outlet, which the wives must accommodate. This is juxtaposed with the Shuhei’s daughter taking care of her father, while being defiant when it comes to being the caretaker, knowing all along that her father and brother need a strong female in their lives.

This train scene divides the film.

This train scene divides the film.

It then reboots by repeating the industry shot from earlier.

It then reboots by repeating the industry shot from earlier.

Near the mid-point of the movie, after the marital dispute is resolved, the movie is basically rebooted. We see an image of a train, common in Ozu films, and then we see the same images and sets that began the film. We see the candy striped tanks of industry, followed by another exchange between Shuhei and his secretary. This is what started the film, and will propel it to the final act, which is that of Shuhei coming to terms with his aging and accepting the loneliness.

The ‘Gourd’ shows back up and is the catalyst for the remainder of the film. He is pitied, as he has degraded into a drunken restaurateur that caters to the lower classes. As he gets drunk, he laments on his life. “You gentlemen are so fortunate. I’m so lonely,” he says, and then later gives the fateful, tragic line of dialog that finally shakes up Shuhei: “In the end we spend our lives alone.” The former teacher has clung to his daughter, not letting her marry, yet he is still lonely. Shuhei has hitherto been in denial about his daughter’s readiness for marriage, which probably has to do with his reliance on her as a widower. He decides to let her go and let her marry.

The second half is heavier on plot, and as the pursuit of a suitable marriage candidate is explored, we lose sight of where Shuhei is headed. He is kind, thoughtful and considerate of his daughter, who we learn really does want to marry. She does not get her first choice, but she finds a satisfactory match. Her father just wants the her to be pleased with the best possible match.

Shuhei is left alone. After marrying off his daughter, he says: “Boy or girl, they all leave the aged behind.” His solace is working, drinking in bars and re-living the past with friends, whether they are his old classmates or war buddies. At the end he says that, “I’m all alone,” and subsequently sings the war song.

The ending is bittersweet. His family is happy and he is left forgotten. Even though he did the opposite of ‘The Gourd,’ both by finding a lucrative career and letting his daughter go, his fate is the same. Ultimately he has done the right thing, even if it leaves him with the inevitability of aging alone. At least he has solace in his war songs and the knowledge that, contrasted with ‘The Gourd,’ his family is his legacy and they have a bright future.

The same could be said for Ozu. He passed away the year after this was released, and western audiences did not discover him immediately, at least not like counterparts Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. He had a long and illustrious career, but one that was not compromised by intervention or commerciality. He did right by his films, and left a body of work that would stand the test of time.

Film Rating: 9/10


Commentary: I was pleased to see David Bordwell. He is among the most reputable and admired film scholars out there. I have read him many times in film studies classes, and one class used his work as a textbook. Among his many books is Ozu and the Politics of Cinema, which is available as a downloadable PDF. He is one of the foremost Ozu and academic film scholars.

This is one of the better commentaries I’ve heard on a Criterion disc. Bordwell provides a wealth of information, not just on the background of Ozu and the film, but also about the shot selections, filming style, and how they were to used to convey Ozu’s thematic messages. One example is during the golf sequence with the brothers and sister-in-law, which Bordwell demonstrates with precision all the different cuts and camera changes, and how these interact with the relationships.

I’ll share a handful of factoids that I found interesting:

  • Ozu establishes the premise early on during the office scene with his secretary. Women have two options in life. They can stay at home with their parents (father) or get married.
  • In this era, working class men often had a rhythm of going to work, spending the evening out drinking, and return home drunk.
  • It is a misnomer that American culture began penetrating Japan in the 50s. It actually started in the 20-30s. Ozu brought that into his earlier films. Kids in his 1930s films, for instance, want baseball gloves.
  • The reunion of characters is also a reunion of actors. Many of those at the reunion were regular Shochiku players.
  • Film was in decline during the final years of Ozu’s life. There had been a billion annual movie viewers in 1959, which declined to 500 million in 1963. That mirrored the decline of the prior decade in America. Part of the reason was TV, while foreign imports (especially American) also contributed to a decline in Japanese cinema.
  • Sometimes Ozu mismatched the music. He would show a somber scene with cheerful music. Ozu was quoted as wanting “good weather music always.”
  • Ozu filmed from a variety of different character ages, genders and perspectives. Most directors rely on autobiographical experience when portraying characters, but Ozu lived at home with his mother for most of his life, so it is impressive that he was able to relate to so many people different than himself.
  • Ozu’s camera is almost always lower and rarely moves, but it is not on the floor. It is just lower than the characters in the frame, so the viewer is barely looking up.
  • Ozu checked every shot through Viewfinder. Shohei Imamura was AD and got annoyed by him playing with continuity. Ozu uses it in this film with a soy sauce bottle, which Bordwell compares to a subtle Jacques Tati gag.
  • Ozu’s mother died during production of film. Bordwell reads his diary entry where writes a poem beginning with: “Under the sky spring is blossoming ….” His grief materializes in the movie, with the film about a father also possibly being a film about a son.
  • The Soy Sauce scene.

    The Soy Sauce scene.

    Yasujiro Ozy and the Taste of Sake: 1978 excerpts of French TV show.

    Ozu was “mysterious in his simplicity.” They talk about how he was a bachelor that lived with his mother for 60 years. He was usually later than his contemporaries when adopting technologies, including sound and color. He was unknown in the west until 15 years after his death.

    A number of French critics discuss the filmmaker and his films. Georges Perec says Ozu searches for reality and does not find it. Instead he questions reality.

    They show sequences of archery, Zen Buddhism, philosophy and even martial arts, which are prerequisites for Ozu’s work.

    This release is an example that quantity does not always equate to quality. Usually a movie with a commentary and a single supplement would not be considered a major release, but the quality of the commentary and the gorgeous 4k restoration make this a must for any Ozu fan.

    Criterion Rating: 9/10

Posted on May 2, 2015, in Criterions, Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Ozu? I just dropped everything to read this! Excellent review. I just watched this a couple Fridays ago – my log entry: 04.24.15 – An Autumn Afternoon (1962), Yasujiro Ozu 113 N (113 minutes, netflix dvd). iirc, I bumped it up my queue just for the fact that it had David Bordwell’s commentary. One of the best! I like recognizing actors from previous Ozu films (and Kurosawa’s!).

  2. Reblogged this on filmtreelog and commented:
    Ozu? I just dropped everything to read this! Excellent review. I just watched this a couple Fridays ago – my log entry: 04.24.15 – An Autumn Afternoon (1962), Yasujiro Ozu 113 N (113 minutes, netflix dvd). iirc, I bumped it up my queue just for the fact that it had David Bordwell’s commentary. One of the best! I like recognizing actors from previous Ozu films (and Kurosawa’s!).

  3. just reblogged it!

    • Appreciate the reblog and the comment! Yes, Ozu is amazing. I had actually put this one off, not because I didn’t want to see it, but I wanted the proper time to really dig in. I wish Bordwell would do more commentaries, and I know this one was from the DVD release. Still one of the best filmmakers and historians!

      • He (with Kristin Thompson) does a video interview on the Eclipse of The Only Son (1936), which I just saw, and also There Was a Father (1942), which I just watched also!

  4. Richard Finch

    Very nicely written, Aaron. In your discussion of this film you really get to the essence of Ozu’s works, with their deceptively simple, still surfaces but deep and often troubled. undercurrents. I thought your illustrations were exceptionally well chosen to give visual context to your analysis. David Thomson calls Ozu’s last three films “late masterpieces” and I’d have to agree with him. While not exactly a trilogy, they do have a certain continuity of theme and attitude. The consensus probably slightly favors this film as the best of the three. Interestingly, as I recall, you said your favorite of the three is “The End of Summer.” Mine is “Late Autumn,” his semi-remake of “Late Spring,” which you recently wrote on. I like its use of Setsuko Hara playing the opposite role from the one she played in the original and also its contrast between her traditional life and that of her devoted daughter, who dresses in Western clothing and works as a secretary.

  5. I had this film in my stack when you posted this, so I held off on reading the review until after watching it. A very nice review, informative and comprehensive. My own depth of experience with Ozu’s work is embarrassingly shallow, which is something I’m currently working to correct!

    Given that the vast majority of Ozu’s films featured black and white photography, and how late he adopted colour, he is not principally a director of colour films. But then why are the colours in this film so intoxicating? Never has a red skirt or apron or the rings of a smokestack (or the red chair in one of the shots above) felt so punctuative. And where but in an Ozu film are everyday objects like beer bottles, signs, driving range targets, and the smoke stacks so ornamental? Ozu’s ability to reveal an object or setting’s aesthetic potential is not only unmatched, but virtually limitless.

    I find Ozu’s perspective in this film to be very optimistic. Though we often get scenes of Shuhei eating and drinking with lifelong friends, including the middle-school reunion, these men are comfortably rooted in the present. Horie especially has embraced the contemporary, as reflected in his marriage to a much younger woman. We also, at one point, have Shuhei state that he feels the Japanese having lost the war is for the best, a statement which seems to stifle his younger companion. And I agree with what you said about the subplot regarding Shuhei’s eldest son and his wife featuring several of the movie’s most vibrant scenes.

    And though the film is centered on the family, An Autumn Afternoon offers a tremendous number of distinct–yet interconnected–social units: relationships formed based on shared spaces such as school, work, bars, apartments, as well as military service, marriage, and paternity. The social breath of this film is unique among the Ozu films that I’ve seen, and fully embraces–and reflects–contemporary society in the 1960s.

    Of the Ozu films I’ve seen thus far, including classics like Tokyo Story and Late Spring, I think that An Autumn Afternoon may very well be my favourite. I didn’t take the opportunity to dig into the supplements on this occasion, but this has moved to the top of my blu-ray wish list. Thanks a lot for the “preview” of the Bordwell commentary, I was also very excited to have found out that he recorded one for the film.

    P.S. I saw an early post in which you mentioned Like Someone in Love and Certified Copy among a number of new acquisitions. Any plan to get around a Kiarostami film? I’d like to read your thoughts on one of them.

    • Terrific comment!

      First let me answer your question about Kiarostomi. I’ve seen both Certified Copy and Like Someone In Love. I was intrigued by both, although I think I have to give them another look someday. The latter left me cold and might not be for me. The former requires more than one viewing, which will happen someday. Probably the next Kiarostomi I’ll tackle for the site will be Close-Up, which I haven’t seen yet. Or possibly the Koker Trilogy if it gets released this year.

      This is also the only color Ozu I’ve seen, so I was just as impressed as you by how masterful it was. I’m hopeful to see Floating Weeds, which is rumored to be undergoing a restoration. I’ve seen the silent version of the same story and loved it, so my expectations are pretty high.

      Agreed that this one is a lively picture, at times humorous and upbeat. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say this is optimistic. I got the impression that the elder marriage to the younger lady was yet another means of consumerism — wanting what one wants without thinking of the future — just like the golf clubs. And even though the protagonist did the right thing, he was sacrificing his own well being for the sake of his family. The Tokyo that Ozu portrayed was, at least to me, pessimistic for the future. The golf clubs were a product of the industry that destroyed its surroundings, but there was at least joyful solace among friends.

      I agree that he explored a lot of different spaces, and I thought he processed the war issue with a lot more maturity than most other directors. That was a fantastic scene.

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