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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 commercialism, criterion, david bordwell, film, japan culture, materialism, post-war, the criterion collection, westernization, Yasujiro Ozu. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.