Goddamn, Yasujirô Ozu’s great. Thus my first thought whilst taking in the last few moments of the Japanese film master’s last completed film, 1962’s An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma No Aji- which, according to online sources, translates as The Taste Of Mackerel- a feeling Ozu reputedly wanted to evoke with this film). Yes, many critics have pointed out that it shares many concerns with earlier Ozu films, and films that are considered greater films, but there is no doubt that this film is a great film, and arguably one of Ozu’s finest. It is in color, and clocks in at 112 minutes in length. Ostensibly, it follows the path of other Ozu films, in that it deals with a widowed father trying to marry off his daughter, and the fact that this act will likely leave him lonely. Yet, An Autumn Afternoon differs from the earlier takes on this subject in that its main focus is not on the emotions of the daughter, dealing with the guilt over leaving her father (as in 1949’s Late Spring or 1951’s Early Summer), but instead focuses on the father’s coming to terms with having to let his daughter go, for her good, if not his own.
Naturally, the father of this film, Shuhei Hirayama, a typical Japanese salaryman of the era, is played by the same actor who portrayed fathers in other Ozu classics, Chishû Ryû. Ryû has often been faulted as an actor- even Ozu saying that he’s no great shakes, but merely serves Ozu’s purposes, yet this is really short selling all the fine performances Ryû has given in Ozu’s stock company of players. He is, in fact, the most durable and recognizable actor that Ozu ever worked with, even more so than the great Setsuko Hara, who does not appear in An Autumn Afternoon. He is also a damned good actor, as he can subtly portray shifts in mood with the raising of an eyebrow, the inflection of a grunt, or the slight difference of a drunken stagger.
Hirayama is at first indifferent to his daughter’s plight, until work colleagues, especially his old school friend, Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura), urge him to make the marrying off of his 24 year old daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashima), a top priority. In fact, a friend of his already has plans to get the ball rolling, yet Hirayama is not enthused. Partly, this is selfishness, as, since her mother’s death, Michiko has taken care of household chores, and provided for her father and younger brother Kazuo (Shinichirô Mikami). She seems to disdain the very idea of marriage. Meanwhile Hirayama’s oldest son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), and his wife Akiko (Mariko Okada), still leech off the old man to buy them household items- like a refrigerator, as well as luxuries, like a set of used golf clubs or expensive leather purses. That Koichi is weak-willed and gives in to his wife, who finally relents and allows Koichi to buy the clubs on installments, creates many a humorous moment. It also allows for the natural insertion of Miura (Teruo Yoshida)- a work colleague of Koichi’s, whom Michiko has feelings for, and becomes a possible rival for the man Hirayama’s pal wants to set her up with.
But, the bulk of the tale follows Hirayama meeting characters from his past. He has a reunion of middle school classmates with their old teacher, a man called Sakuma (Eijiro Tono), known as The Gourd to them. He has fallen on hard times- from a respected teacher to the cook and owner of a greasy spoon noodle shop. He has his own old maid daughter, Tomoko (Haruko Sugimura- in a sympathetic role in an Ozu film), who lives with him, and rue’s her father’s lowly station and the drunken state he returns home from with Hirayama and his former students. At The Gourd’s noodle shop, Hirayama, on a mission to impart charity funds from his classmates for his old teacher, encounters a man who was his underling aboard a destroyer in the Pacific theater of World War Two. The two ex-sailors go drinking at a more upscale eatery, and the sailor tells The Gourd, whom he calls Pops, that they need to eat somewhere better. The Gourd laughs it off, then slumps in a neon haze of tiredness, despair, and frustration. It is a touching scene made all the more powerful because it comes after an earlier scene of his daughter breaking down over her father’s drunkenness and personal failure, and because it is followed by a funny sequence where Hirayama and his former underling drink and wonder of Japan’s fate had it won the war. After trying to visualize the Japanization of America, both agree that Japan’s loss was best for all parties, even as the old sailor dances to a war march, and salutes to Hirayama and the bar owner- a woman (Kyoko Kishida) Hirayama claims looks like his dead wife- one of many recurring themes throughout Ozu films (the use of the same first and surnames is another).
The Gourd reappears in the film, again being taken out to eat by Hirayama and Kawai, and confesses his guilt for the plight of his daughter. He provides one of the many possible fates for Hirayama- the sailor being another, and a third being painted by his and Kawai’s pal Horie (Ryuji Kita), a widower who has remarried a woman barely older than Hirayama’s daughter. But, while these may all seem, on the surface, heavyhanded or predictable uses of symbolism, they are not. First, all of the moments leaven their pathos with humor, and vice-versa. Secondly, much of the film’s action (as it does in many Ozu films) occurs offstage. As example, we hear of Michiko’s plaints to her sister-in-law Akiko from Akiko, speaking of Michiko’s earlier visit, but we never see the visit. Later, after Michiko is disappointed to find out that Miura, whom she has feelings for (and who had feelings for her, but was earlier snubbed as a suitor by Koichi), is engaged to another woman, we also never see her reaction to the disappointment. We are only told of it secondhand, by Kazuo. Then, we get a sense of Ozu’s naturalistic humor, when, after learning of his daughter’s spurning by Miura, he turns to Kawai and his potential suitor, only to learn that Horie has set up Kawai’s man with his own assistant at work. Hirayama feels depressed, until his friends let him know it was a joke, revenge for a joke Hirayama and Kawai played on Horie, insisting he was dead to a restaurant server.
Then we get a great ellipsis. An unspecified amount of time has passed, and Michiko has been married off to Kawai’s suitor (we never see him nor the wedding to Michiko). Hirayama goes drinking with Kawai and Horie, at Kawai’s home, then leaves them for a bar, where he pities himself. He goes home. His daughter is gone, and only Kazuo remains. His youngest child scolds him for drinking, and goes to sleep, and the film ends with Hirayama alone in his kitchen, slumping in a chair. Whether he is recharging or accepting a slow fade into being like The Gourd, is unknown, for we see him only in a mostly rear shot, and this makes what he really is thinking all the more mysterious, and effective. Also, it allows for more emotional imbuement and empathy to end the film.
What separates Ozu from many lesser filmmakers (in Japan and elsewhere) is that his gendai-geki films (films about the diurnal do of life, or the infraordinary) show just how unique and interesting the real world is. To fully appreciate his work is to realize that the top of Mount Everest or the South Pole, or the heart of the Amazon, while more exotic than your apartment or garage, is no more real, and that if one stops and fully takes in all that has gone to get one to the particular point one stops, the reality of the ordinary takes on a beauty that is often overlooked. Ozu demonstrates this from the film’s opening shots of red and white smokestacks at the industrial complex where Hirayama works, and also in the insertion of a televised baseball game in the film. And this recognition of the overlooked is one of the primary functions of great art, to ennoble (or at least enliven) ones perceptions of the real. Part of this is achieved through his famed static ‘tatami mat’-level shots, but it is also done through editing (as much the length of particular shots as it is what is kept and what is discarded), as well as the precision with which Ozu’s actor’s work through their scenes. Yet, despite his technical excellence, Ozu’s films are not offputting to wider audiences, for more so than Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi, his films are laced with humor, often of the lowest brow- but not Lowest Common Denominator.
The success of this blend of the high and the low owes almost all to the marvelous screenplays Ozu scripted with his co-writer, Kogo Noda. The cinematography by Yuharu Atsuta is unobtrusive as ever, in the ozu style. And equally backgrounded are the musical interludes of Kojun Saito. The DVD is soon to be released by The Criterion Collection, and while it is comparatively light on extra features- vis-à-vis other Criterion releases, as well as others of Ozu by Criterion, there is a good deal of quality in the extras. There is the requisite theatrical trailer, and booklet essays by film critic Geoff Andrew and ubiquitous Japanese film scholar Donald Ritchie. I would have expected Ritchie to provide the audio film commentary track, but, instead, that task is assigned to another Japanese film scholar, David Bordwell. Bordwell has always been hit and miss as a film critic, and his few audio commentaries reflect that fact. But, this time he’s pretty good, albeit not as natural as Ritchie- a veteran DVD commenter- is. Bordwell is solid, not too didactic, specific to scenes, but a little stiff. He never conveys that he’s stuck to his script, but he never really loosens up and gives the percipient the sense that he really is into the total film experience, either. As stated, good, but not great. Perhaps the best point he makes- and it is one I echo, is that Ozu is not a director concerned with character motivations. He is, in essence, the Method Actor’s nightmare. Instead, Ozu is a maven of Behaviorist Cinema. What his characters do is more important than what they think or voice. This is why we often get deliberate shots of his characters (In this and other films) from behind. Ozu wants the viewer to imagine what they are feeling, from the situation presented, not from how many tears they shed, nor how wide their smile. Finally, there are selections from Yasujirô Ozu And The Taste of Sake, a 1978 French television show looking examining Ozu’s career, and featuring French film critics Michel Ciment and Georges Perec. On the negative side is the fact that Criterions bland, white subtitles are often lost onscreen, in brighter scenes- a problem that is not as bad as in black and white films, but when will Criterion get a clue- colored subtitles, and ones with borders, are a must; especially sans an English language dubbed track. The film is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
An Autumn Afternoon is a great film, but it is not a great film that is garish in its depth and breadth. It does not tackle grand themes, nor does it blow the viewer away with magnificent vistas. Instead, it is a small, perfect gem of a film that distills the human essence into less than two hours of experience that moves one to laugh and inhale deeply. And if one does not think that such a feat as that is something, and something great, then one simply does not understand art.