Fifty-something businessman Shuhei Hirayama (Chishû Ryû) is in his office one day when his secretary enters and he wonders aloud to her if she will be leaving to get married soon, as she is of the right age. The reason this subject is on his mind is that the widower Hirayama has a daughter of his own, Michiko (Shima Imashita), who does her best to look after him as his eldest son has left home to get married and his youngest son is still at home but pretty useless at organising the place, relying, like Hirayama, on Michiko. Talking with one of his associates later on, it is suggested to him that perhaps his daughter might like to meet an eligible man of the associate's acquaintance, but although Hirayama is keen for Michiko to wed, where will it leave him if she goes?
An Autumn Afternoon, or Sanma No Aji as it was called in Japanese, was the last film of the idiosyncratic director Yasujirô Ozu, here writing once more with regular collaborator Kôgo Noda, and fittingly it summed up all his preoccupations thereby providing a neat end to his career. Filmed as ever with a static camera about three feet off the floor, and eschewing any movement, no zooms for example, it was as much an exercise in his strictly formal style as it was an emotional take on the relationship between parents and their grown up offspring. Ozu had never married and lived with his mother for all his life, up until her death when this work was being made, so you can see the resonances that the story had for him.
However, the fact that Michiko is considered over the hill as she reaches her twenty-fifth birthday may well be strange to twenty-first century audiences - twenty-four isn't exactly ancient. Nevertheless Ozu's familiar themes of the changes in Japanese society and families help to ease the viewer into understanding what could have seemed a fuss over very little, as the protagonist's fears are very real, knowing that whatever the outcome he will lose out, and his daughter may well be just as lonely living away from home. We see what he could become should Michiko stay in the character of his old teacher, known as "The Gourd", who Hirayama and his old schoolfriends have arranged a get together for.
The Gourd (Eijirô Tono), now an elderly man and working in a lowly noodle bar, has a middle aged daughter who never married, and now they are both miserable, with he drowning his sorrows in drink every night and she weeping in private moments over her duty to her father. In fact, the Gourd drinks so much that you consider that the way his former pupils ply him with alcohol might not be the best way to treat him: the man obviously has a problem and thank goodness they don't get him to drive. Yet, as we see at the end of the film, alcohol may be the only way to take away the pain of their situation, however temporarily, as Hirayama is heading that way himself. If the film feels sorry for itself, it's only because it can see no way the impending depression can be avoided, and the odd moment of light humour does nothing to dispel this atmosphere. Music by Kojun Saitô.
[This film can be found on Region 2 DVD accompanied by Late Afternoon as part of Tartan's Ozu Collection Volume 4 box set.]