Friday, October 10, 2008

An Autumn Afternoon by Yasujiro Ozu

Criterion has done a wonderful job representing the man who is one of Japan’s greatest directors – Yasujiro Ozu. To date, between their two Eclipse box sets of Ozu’s work and six individual releases (including the masterpieces Tokyo Story and Late Spring), they’ve done a lot to make his work as available in the West as his better-known contemporary Akira Kurosawa (who they’ve also represented copiously). Their latest offering is Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon.

Donald Richie, a renowned writer about Japanese cinema, once stated: “Yasujiro Ozu, the man whom his kinsmen consider the most Japanese for all film directors, had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution.” There’s certainly no debating the second part of the statement – there is not a film of his that I’ve seen in which the nuclear family being depicted is not reeling from internal conflicts, usually between generations. The first part is misleading though, because it implies that there needs to be a working knowledge or appreciation of Japanese culture to understand the films, and nothing could be further from the truth. I’d say it’s more difficult to access the stylized acting of the Noh theater that Kurosawa employs in some of his films than to understand a conflict between parents and children over when and who their daughter is going to marry, or over a couple separating over marital infidelity. While there may be cultural touchstones or attitudes in Ozu’s films that an understanding of Japanese culture would deepen a viewer’s understanding of, it’s certainly not a prerequisite to watching, understanding, and enjoying them.

An Autumn Afternoon proved to be his final film and it’s no exception to Ozu’s rules of familial conflict that held sway from his films in the 1920’s on to this 1962 release – it bends them maybe, but they’re still intact. Here he is working in color, which only came into play in his final six films, and it’s spectacular. Where his first film in color, Equinox Flower, used a perfect placement of color throughout the frame, it felt like it sacrificed some of his compositional genius to achieve the effects. Not so here, where both color and composition are as brilliant as anything I’ve seen in any of his other films – and that’s saying a lot in a director known throughout his career for dazzling compositions. And if the conflict here is less pointed than other films – in some ways moving toward a new understanding between the generations – it’s still there, as Ozu regular Chishu Ryu plays a widowed father living with his 24-year old single daughter, while his friends’ daughters are marrying off into lives of their own. But unlike earlier incarnations of the traditional father, Ryu’s Shuhei Hirayama character doesn’t seem too pushy about either getting his daughter married off or enforcing an arranged marriage that will not suit his thoroughly modern offspring. He’d rather maintain a comfortable relationship with her by not forcing her hand. It’s only when his friends begin to pressure him to marry off his daughter before it’s too late that he starts pushing her in that direction – and predictably meeting resistance.

Meanwhile, Hirayama’s married son Koichi (Keiji Sada) helps illustrate another of Ozu’s favorite themes – financial stresses and encroaching Westernization impacting on the family. Koichi has a good job, but not a great one, and he and his wife have to borrow money from his father to purchase goods (a new refrigerator) to keep up with the Joneses (as the phrase goes). But the husband also wants to increase his status at work by taking up golf, thus causing an argument over whether a little spare money – that they’re already borrowing – should go toward a good set of golf clubs. Needless to say, this creates friction within the couple.

Does any of this sound “too Japanese” to you? Parents and children fighting over the child’s right of who to choose for their relationships? Couples arguing over money and status? Not really. Again, some of the subtler details of Japanese culture would deepen and understanding of specific responses, but it’s not necessary to dive in here. And again, compositionally, this one’s an absolute masterpiece, with some of the most beautiful combinations of framing, color, and design that he ever put together. The usual shots of trains, power lines, hanging clothes and hallways that populate his other films are rendered here again, strung around the film like his continual circling around the same themes. It’s a great one, for sure, and in Hirayama’s non-insistence of the older generation’s point of view, it seemed almost to be breaking new ground toward attitudes in which the younger and older generations could actually share a point of view instead of conflicting over it – an attitude that can be seen in nascent form back in Equinox Flower. A shame that Ozu didn’t get to develop it further.

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