It was never, of course, Yasujiro Ozu’s intention that An Autumn Afternoon (1962) should be the final film of his thirty-five-year career as a writer-director. Indeed, before he died on his sixtieth birthday, in December 1963, he had made notes for another project, provisionally titled Radishes and Carrots (once again, as it happens, the story of a daughter about to marry and leave her father, though the parent in this instance was to have cancer, the affliction that would bring Ozu’s life to an end); and there is every reason to believe that, had he lived on, the Japanese master would have continued completing films at the steady rate of one a year. Sadly, however, that’s not how things turned out, and consequently An Autumn Afternoon has come to be regarded by many as Ozu’s “testament.”
An Autumn Afternoon is not the director’s best-known film, nor is it the title that most of those familiar with his work would cite as his greatest achievement; both those particular superlatives would probably be best applied to Tokyo Story (1953). And some might even argue that the earlier film’s generally more somber tone and final funereal scene—complete with unusually explicit philosophical commentary (“Isn’t life disappointing?” observes a young woman, to which her sister-in-law simply replies, “Yes, it is,” with a considerably less simple smile)—make it a more fitting swan song. Still, in its exquisite refinement of Ozu’s style and themes, and its general air of nostalgia and loss, An Autumn Afternoon does in fact feel like a summation of his career—and it is, after all, his final masterpiece.
As can be said of so many of Ozu’s works, the film is both typical and unique. It is typical in that, like all but his earliest films (which ranged from comedies about college life to gangster films, and which revealed a little more clearly his movie fan’s love of Hollywood fare), it is a gentle domestic drama about middle-class family life, a shomin-geki characteristic of his home studio, Shochiku. More specifically, it belongs to a particular subgroup of these films whose central story turns on the question of whether a young woman deemed of marrying age will wed or will remain at home to look after her widowed parent. In this case, even though her younger brother, Kazuo, has also yet to leave home, Michiko Hirayama (Shima Iwashita) seems to be in no hurry to wed; nor indeed has her father (Chishu Ryu) given the matter much thought. Still, his old college friends and drinking pals Professor Horie—recently remarried, to a woman little older than Michiko—and Mr. Kawai keep telling Hirayama he should find a husband for his daughter before she turns into a lonely, embittered old maid like the daughter of “the Gourd,” a former teacher they’ve recently reencountered. Eventually, after reflection, some discussion with Michiko, and one failed attempt, Hirayama succeeds in following their advice.
Even without seeing Ozu’s name in the credits, anyone who has ever sat through even one of his films would probably recognize An Autumn Afternoon as his work within a minute or so, so idiosyncratic, consistent, and bold is his signature style. Early in his career, the director sought to find and develop a way of seeing and showing the world that felt right to him; as it happened, it was also pretty much his own. The hallmark elements of the style are, famously, the use of relatively short shots, taken with a mostly stationary camera from an unusually low angle in relation to the characters in frame; simple cuts rather than fades, wipes, or dissolves; montage sequences of landscapes and buildings not only to begin films but also to provide punctuation and linkages between narrative scenes; the preference for ultranaturalistic, “everyday” dialogue, often of the most seemingly trivial kind; and a related preference for low-key, almost dedramatized stories evocative of the “ordinary” lives of the middle classes, who made up the major part both of Japan’s population and, presumably, of Ozu’s audience.
So constant are all these elements in Ozu’s work that some have complained of there being little to differentiate between many of the films; not only did his mature style remain consistent, especially from Late Spring (1949) onward, but the stories centered on a few fairly basic familial situations and dilemmas, while many of the actors turned up in film after film. It’s hard to imagine any charge of repetitiveness being made against, say, Monet or Miró, Shostakovich or Sibelius—nor, closer to home, against the likes of Hawks or Hitchcock, Almodóvar or Angelopoulos; there are immediately distinctive voices in all areas of creativity. But more to the point, such a complaint is inaccurate and derives from not looking closely enough at his films.
So while An Autumn Afternoon is in so many ways wholly typical of Ozu, it’s also a very distinct variation, following beautifully from its predecessors. In particular, it powerfully counterpoints its more comic aspects with repeated reminders not only of the loneliness that Hirayama might face in his final years but also of the fate that could await his daughter if he doesn’t find her a husband; the unhappiness of the Gourd’s daughter is all too evident in the unsettling scene where the teacher is returned home drunk after a night out with Hirayama. Whether or not Michiko marries, it is inevitable that either Hirayama or his daughter will end up losing something that is a source of comfort and happiness; we’re never allowed to forget that the dilemma faced by the pair involves a no-win situation. Moreover, Ozu devotes rather more of the narrative to the father and his likewise elderly friends than to Michiko, which ensures that there’s an undercurrent of nostalgic melancholy to what is in many other regards a wonderfully playful film—a nostalgia exemplified by Hirayama’s being reminded of his late wife by the hostess of a watering hole he frequents and by the hostess’s repeated playing of an old war march he knows from his army days.
Go beyond the apparent simplicity of Ozu’s films and you will discover immense sophistication at play in their construction and meaning. Take, for example, the subtle treatment of the interrelated themes of aging, loneliness, loss, nostalgia, and familial responsibility in An Autumn Afternoon. Though the film’s real focus is on what will happen between Michiko and her father (and even that aspect is quite complex enough in itself, given that both have a habit of concealing their real feelings about the question of her marriage), their relationship is endlessly reflected in and refracted through the experiences of the other characters in the film: not just Hirayama’s other children but his friends and their families, his secretaries and colleagues, his former teacher, and a man met in a bar who served under him in the war. These characters’ experiences and words of advice serve a number of functions: they flesh out and enrich the story; they provide the hesitant Hirayama with an array of options to consider; they show that his problems are common and far from extraordinary; and they ensure that we don’t identify or sympathize too simplistically with either Hirayama or his daughter. Ozu makes us feel deeply about his characters, but he does so by being honest rather than manipulating us. Hence his famous restraint: like the stories themselves, the performances avoid histrionics and melodrama. If we are enormously moved at the end of his films, it is not because anyone has pushed the right buttons but because we have seen something that strikes us as truthful.
There are, I’d suggest, various reasons for this impression of veracity. First, there is the subtle way in which Ozu contextualizes his stories and characters within the wider world. An Autumn Afternoon comments obliquely on the legacy of the war: in one of the many bars Hirayama visits, different attitudes are expressed to Japan’s defeat, while the preoccupations of Hirayama’s eldest son, Koichi, and his daughter-in-law, Akiko—buying a fridge, playing golf—indicate the increasing consumerism and Americanization of Japanese society. (The characters in Ozu’s later films tend to be rather more affluent than those in his earlier ones, reflecting the country’s changing fortunes.) Second, there is Ozu’s abiding penchant for understatement, most immediately evident in the performances (Ryu’s Hirayama is especially magnificent in this respect) but also in the determination to avoid melodramatic excess in the narrative. It’s strange that we never actually see Michiko’s wedding, or even the man she marries—strange until one realizes that the film is not in fact about whether she will be happily married, but about the dilemmas faced by parents who want happiness for their offspring but feel aggrieved when they leave home.
The understatement is pervasive. Even when Michiko learns she cannot marry Koichi’s friend, as she’d secretly hoped, her response is not much more openly expressive of disappointment than her father’s resigned “I feel bad for her.” Indeed, though its narrative content might be suggestive of a weepie, for the most part An Autumn Afternoon is anything but. Ozu’s films are usually laced with comedy, and here there’s much innuendo at the expense of Horie about his potency in the arms of his much younger wife. Moreover, Ozu characteristically displays great visual wit, teasing and confounding our expectations in his imaginative use of offscreen space, and constantly surprising us with the way he positions a dazzling array of bright red objects—lights, signs, sweaters, mats, buckets, barrels, books, blankets, posters, fire extinguishers, etc., etc.—within the predominantly muted pastels of his meticulous compositions.
Those reds are at their most exquisite when Ozu finally allows us to see Michiko in her wedding gown; as the scarlet hem sweeps across the floor, announcing her departure both from the film and from the family home, the comedy starts to subside. Tipsy after the wedding, reluctant to return to a house now bereft of his daughter, Hirayama takes solace in a bar, where the barmaid, noticing his black suit and, perhaps, his likewise dark mood, asks if he’s been to a funeral. “Something like that.” What’s so resonant about this response is that we are made to realize that his words are both self-indulgent and true at one and the same time. There’s no sentimentality, only profound compassion.
Geoff Andrew is head of film programming at London’s BFI Southbank and contributing editor to Time Out London. He has written, contributed to, and edited numerous books on film, including studies of the films of Nicholas Ray, Abbas Kiarostami’s 10, Krzysztof Kies ́lowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy, and U.S. indie cinema of the eighties and nineties, and in 2006 delivered a lecture at the National Gallery titled “Velázquez and the Cinema.”