Monday, June 19, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #168 - An Autumn Afternoon (1962, dir. Yasujirō Ozu)

A film by Yasujirō Ozu is not like a film by any other filmmaker. He has one of the most unique and easily identifiable stylistic signatures of any international director, noted for his unmoving camera, low angle shots simulating the view from a Japanese tatami mat, actors facing directly into the camera in dialogue, ellipses of plot leaving out seemingly important details, and visually intricate compositions. He’s been referred to as “the most Japanese director” of all, but in his specificity the universal can be found. He worked subtle variations on a handful of themes that interested him for his entire career (and in that is not unlike any major director spinning variations on their ideas in film after film): familial conflicts (usually between generations), the institution of arranged marriages, encroaching Westernization of Japan in his post-war films, financial woes of the middle class families that populate most of his films, and more. His films usually have many comic moments, but there’s almost always an undercurrent of melancholy to them as well.

Everything said above could apply to a few dozen of Ozu’s films, but they all apply in full force for what proved to be the final film of his life, An Autumn Afternoon. It’s a seemingly simple story of a widower, Shūhei Hirayama (played by Ozu regular Chishū Ryū), who lives with his son Kazuo and daughter Michiko, with his older son moved out and married, frequently squabbling with his wife about borrowing money to try to lend him the appearance of prosperity at work. Hirayama is chided repeatedly by his friends about arranging a marriage for his daughter before she becomes a spinster. Neither Hirayama nor his daughter have given much thought to the matter, perfectly content to live as they have been doing, but once he and his drinking buddies run into an old teacher of theirs, Sakuma (nicknamed “The Gourd”), and arrange an evening’s tribute to him, he begins to think more about it. There are many comic scenes of Hirayama and his friends drinking; old men reminiscing about war, women, school, old friends and so forth, but things begin to be tinged with a sadder tone when their tribute to The Gourd ends with the teacher too drunk and needing to be taken home where they see what’s become of his life.

The Gourd’s daughter has remained unmarried in circumstances very similar to what Hirayama has experienced, he’s now running a low-rent noodle shop, and his daughter complains that “he’s always doing this” when they bring him home drunk. Over the course of several episodes in the film, The Gourd blames his own selfishness for ruining her chances at a successful marriage, having kept her close to home because he doesn’t want to suffer the loss of another family member. The Gourd’s plight resonates with Hirayama, and he resolves to start pushing Michiko toward marriage. And though Hirayama is the central focus of the film, Michiko’s resistance to an arranged marriage and her own ideas about how her life should be lived of course come into play.

As is typical in his films, Ozu and his longtime screenwriting partner Kôgo Noda come to the conflict with a perfectly tuned ear for dialogue and an empathy and understanding for both sides – not only will the father be left lonely if his vibrant and loving daughter should move out of the house, but in arranging her marriage he’s also potentially taking away her happiness should he not choose a good partner for her, and if she remains unmarried, she runs the risk of becoming an embittered spinster. He wants to do what’s right for her even under increasing societal pressure and his concerns of ending up a sad, lonely drunk like The Gourd, spouting lines like “In the end we spend our lives alone.” It’s a similar scenario to Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece Late Spring, in which Ryu was again the widowed father living with his daughter (played by the exquisite and ebullient Setsuko Hara), but here the focus falls more on the father’s plight than on the daughter’s. Where Late Spring hinged on a single moment when Hara’s famous smile fell as she acquiesced to her father’s requests, this one hinges on Hirayama’s trip to take his teacher home, seeing a potential future where both father and daughter have ended up sad and lonely.

The film is not just a continuation of Ozu’s ideas, but another collaboration with many of his longtime partners – writer Kôgo Noda is credited alongside Ozu on his very first film, from 1927, while Chishū Ryū and cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta are both featured on his second film from the next year. With a regular cast and crew familiar with his working methods and style, it’s no wonder that the film is one of his subtlest and most beautiful triumphs. Atsuta’s cinematography, his fourth of Ozu’s six films in color, is spectacular, with both director and cinematographer having found a way to perfectly integrate color into the stunning framing and composition that Ozu is best known for. He’s one of the most masterful artists in cinema history, and any frame of one of his films is rich with details you can get lost in, with An Autumn Afternoon one of his very best creations, both in the plotted segments and the famous “pillow shots” of random areas and items (laundry hanging out to dry, factory smokestacks, and trains passing are some faves of his) that break up the narrative sections. It’s also a great entry point into one of the most stellar careers in cinema.

-         Patrick Brown

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