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An Autumn Afternoon: Ozu's Last Masterpiece

I have written in these pages numerous times of my love for cinema, of the moments captured on celluloid, of those magical images that speak, not only to the intellect, but to my very soul. The wonder of cinema is that it can take the mundane, the ordinary, and make it enchanted; it can pour mystery into the simplest and most natural occurrences. It can reveal depths to the everyday humdrum. There has been only a chosen few directors who have been able to achieve this transcendence with regularity over a sustained period of time, and o f these few, is a director I am getting to know more and more and to love whole-heartedly: Yasujiro Ozu.

When putting on a Yasujiro Ozu film you know what you are going to get. It’s the reason to watch them, the familiarity of themes, of actors and, most of all, of style.

The Gourd, Hirayama's old school teacher
The Gourd, Hirayama's old school teacher

I am not sure if there has ever been a director with such a singular vision as the great Japanese filmmaker. He was a man who developed a way of looking at the world, of capturing it on film and transposing his obsessions from mind to image, rarely deviating from the well-used blueprint he created - a unique style that has been distinctly influential yet singularly his own.

It is this style, and for the themes that he was determined to explore over and over again, that repeatedly brings me back to his work. They are films which stay with me for days and weeks after I have seen them, films that I return to in my mind even when I am unable to watch them.

Ozu made 54 films in a career that spanned 35 years, starting in 1927 – the year that gave us the birth of sound in Hollywood - and ended in 1962, a year before he died on his sixtieth birthday. I have written about Ozu before and the most recent film of his that I had the privilege to see this week was his very last - An Autumn Afternoon.

It is a film which tells the same story as many of his others and maintains the same themes – the difference and the conflicts between the older and younger generations in a Japan that was going through some fundamental cultural changes. It tells the story of Shūhei Hirayama (played by the the great Chishu Ryu who appeared in 52 of Ozu's 54 films), a successful aging business man and widow with three children – two sons and one daughter. He lives with his youngest son, Kazuo (Shin'ichirō Mikami)and his daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita). In the absence of a wife and mother Hirayama and Kazuo rely heavily on Michiko. She works for a living then comes home and does the cooking and cleaning and generally looks after the men's needs. In many respects, she represents the traditional image of a woman, looking after her home and the men who live therein. Yet she is not a typical housewife. She is conflicted between her duties, especially to her father, and the desires and needs of a modern woman. Because of this she rarely smiles and often gripes at the men who take her for granted.

Yet Michiko is expected to get married one day and leave her family for her new one. Everyone sees this except Michiko and her father, yet Hirayama begins to come under pressure from his friends and then, while at a party in honour of an old school teacher, he witnesses the sad decline of the teacher who now works in a struggling noodle parlour with his daughter who has now grown too old to marry and is herself living a lonely depressing life.

In contrast, Hirayama's oldest son, Koichi, has left home and is married to Akiko. Their relationship is a modern one, one in which the husband and wife enjoy far more equality and both have similar expectations out of life. This in itself causes conflicts as neither Koichi nor Akiko make enough money to indulge in the conveniences of this modern post-war japan (they have to borrow money off Hirayama to buy a Fridge, while Koichi wants to buy some golf clubs and Akiko covets her neighbour's vacuum cleaner). Both husband and wife wear the aprons, and it is Akiko who seems to control the purse strings. Akiko is one of the highlights of An Autumn Afternoon and his played with an attractive feistiness by the wonderful Mariko Okada and it is a role that seems like a very natural progression from Okada's performance in Ozu's earlier film Late Autumn (1960).

Yet the film is not about Michiku, Koichi, or any of Hirayama's friends, family or acquaintances. It is a film about Hirayama himself, a man struggling to reconcile himself to the fact that one day he will be alone. It is the same struggle that Ryo also faced at the end of Tokyo Story and Setsuko Hara faced at the very end of Late Autumn. In both endings the characters slowly folds clothes, their eyes lost and vacant, almost forlorn, as they contemplate the future. Of course, Hirayama, being a man who likes to drink, greets this same future with alcohol. After Michiku is finally married, Hirayama goes to a bar, still dressed in his wedding suit. The barmaid (who is the reason he goes there as she reminds him of his wife) asks him if he has been to a funeral. 'Something like that,' he replies.

Hirayama contemplates life alone
Hirayama contemplates life alone

Ozu never married, he lived with his mother for most of his life (she died a year before he did) yet the inevitability of loneliness was something he explored time and time again. Maybe it was his way of confronting the inevitability of facing his mother's death one day and the prospect of living alone that consumed him, yet he never addressed it directly – focusing on the loss of a child to marriage rather than the loss of a parent. What he did explore with great conviction was the inevitability of change. Whilst he served during the war and was stationed in China, he didn't seem to hold any bitterness of defeat. In one scene, Hirayama – who had been a captain during the war – takes part in a mockery of the Naval salute with a worker who had once served under him. Later in conversation he states 'Maybe it was better that we lost the war.'

Michiko getting married
Michiko getting married

This seems to me as of unique importance to Ozu. His films do not run from the past or from the future. While accepting the difficulty modernism has on the older generation his films also accept and embrace youthful change. This conflict between the generations is important and can be amusing, but it is a change that must be accepted, even if it means leaving the older generation behind.

Few filmmakers could explore this generational dichotomy with the subtlety or beauty of Ozu. To watch his films is to be immersed in a quiet gentleness of expression which envelopes you entirely. His films are leisurely paced and often allow conversations to develop, for jokes to be repeated, for events to play out. They are not flashy or obviously stylised yet they are distinct. An Autumn Afternoon may not hit the heights of Tokyo Story or Late Autumn but this is not a criticism as it is a wonderful movie which had me captivated throughout. There is also a sadness that this was Ozu's final film and I can't help but think that, at the end as Hirayama drinks for a future without his daughter, Ryo was drinking for a future without his director.

An Autumn Afternoon 1962 Trailer

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