An Autumn Afternoon: Ozu’s Diaries

After Ozu died on his sixtieth birthday, December 12, 1963, some thirty-two diaries were discovered. They were from 1933 to 1963, and though a few years were missing, they offer a commentary on the life of the director and reveal something of his personality.

Perhaps disappointingly, he rarely wrote about the directing or editing of his films. It was only the creation of the script that interested his diary, and Ozu kept a day-by-day account of the progress, noting when certain scenes were written.

He writes more fully about the films of other directors. On August 31, 1934, he and fellow director Mikio Naruse enjoyed Scarface and then talked about it while having pork cutlets. A year later, he goes alone to see Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, which he calls “a really successful comedy.”

Ozu does not like everything he sees, however. January 24, 1951: “Read the scenario that [Eijiro] Hisaita wrote for Kurosawa’s The Idiot. Incomprehensible!” Later he saw A Japanese Tragedy, directed by one of his former assistants, Keisuke Kinoshita, and found it to be “an ambitious film but badly made and without any real interest.” On the other hand, in 1955, he finds Naruse’s Floating Clouds “a real masterpiece.”

What Ozu does not describe about his own films is recorded in another set of diaries (some fifty-five volumes) that were kept by Yuharu Atsuta, Ozu’s longtime cameraman, and published in 1989. He writes about location hunting, photographing, editing, and gives dates and times. “August 16, 1953, Onomichi. Tokyo Story location. Chishu Ryu, shooting starts at 5:30 a.m. Also view and shot of train.” In addition, this actor was keeping his own diaries, Ofuna Journals, published after his death in 1993, which contain many details of the filming of Ozu’s works.

Ozu’s diaries, published only in 1993, thirty years after his death, are a kind of aide-mémoire, and in them he pays as much attention to what he eats as to the film at hand. Thus we find that pork cutlets is a favorite, as is trout, and that the places to go to are spots then fashionable on the Ginza—the pastry shop Candy, the Shiseido coffee parlor, and a bar named L’Espoir.

Here, in these pages, one meets mainly film people, those with whom he is working, but he is also often with the finest writers of the period. On September 27, 1951, there was a private showing of Early Summer with Naoya Shiga, Ton Satomi, and Kazuo Hirotsu in attendance. Afterward, drinks in a fashionable bar, perhaps at L’Espoir, and doubtless much talk, though none of this is recorded.

More about the movies is to be found in a recently discovered series of diaries written during 1918–21, when Ozu was in middle school. On May 14, 1919, the sixteen-year-old student writes: “I had a really nice dream last night. I was sitting drinking coffee at a marble table with Mildred Harris. I was truly thrilled. Mildred Harris is a lovely woman.”

In addition to Ms. Harris, the young Ozu wrote to many other Hollywood actresses. April 18, 1920: “That signed picture from Ruth Roland that I have been waiting so long for has finally arrived.” He also seems to have taken every opportunity to go to the movies, often cutting class to do so. He had his first drink when he was seventeen. “I drank while eating sushi and later threw it all up.”

In the mature diaries much is left out. There was a scandal with a geisha in the 1930s that Ozu went to some lengths to refute. Not only was the information wrong but Ozu was not even interested in the geisha. She was not his type. His type, it was often said, was Kuniko Miyake, an actress who appeared in many of his pictures, including his last one, An Autumn Afternoon, and to whom it is said he once proposed.

Nor do any of the diaries mention an occurrence that much troubled Ozu. He was expelled from high school for allegedly sending a mash note to a younger student. There is no evidence that he did so and some evidence that it was someone else who did, but Ozu was already on the disciplinary list: he drank, he smoked, he cut classes to go to the movies, and he had received several zeros for conduct. Also, the principal was new and perhaps felt that some show of authority was necessary.

In any event, Ozu remembered this incident all of his life. In the script of his last film, there is a reference to it. The older men are talking, and one of them says, “They kicked you out? But what for?” “Over a love letter that the teacher found.”

“So how is he now?” “Oh, he passed away. Such a nice fellow too.”

Whatever the impact of the accusation and the resulting punishment, Ozu had no known romantic affairs and all his life lived with his mother. When she died in February 1962, he was visibly much affected. Later, in the director’s diary, his coscenarist Kogo Noda found a poem written by Ozu after his mother’s funeral:

Down in the valley it is already spring
Clouds of cherry blossoms;
But here, the sluggish eye, the taste of mackerel—
The blossoms are melancholy
And the flavor of sake becomes bitter.

The “taste of mackerel” is sanma no aji, the Japanese title of the final film, An Autumn Afternoon.

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