Jordan Cronk: Critics often speak of the “big three” of the Japanese film industry: Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu. A problem presents itself, however, when ensconcing these very different filmmakers into a single stratum of excellence: a canon of titles begins to take shape before eventually becoming identified with each director’s collected filmography. In the case of Ozu this is a particularly easy bit of critical shorthand to fall prey to. Across a 50-plus film career, Ozu managed a singularity of vision that is unmatched in the history of the medium. His thematic inclination—the plight of the middle class Japanese family unit—coupled with perhaps the most effortlessly formalist visual aesthetic ever conceived—static, low-angle camera setups; sharp cutting; “pillow” shot inserts; and very little else—not to mention the closely related, seasonal stamps given many of his films, marks his catalogue as one of a unified, personal vision. Thus his most widely-seen films tend to represent the whole of a career that in fact spun variations on a theme as fruitfully and as diversely as any other, more genre-restless filmmaker you could name.
So we have Tokyo Story, then, the film which introduced Ozu to the West, and just as Seven Samurai is to Kurosawa and Ugetsu is to Mizoguchi, it’s become widely representative of the man’s achievements, often times at the expense of equally rich and rewarding efforts made throughout his almost forty-year career. And that’s no mark against the quality of Tokyo Story, by any standards one of the greatest films ever made, but more of an indictment of critical group-think that frequently propagates convenient notions of narrative and longevity with unfair disregard to budding bouts genius or refined displays of maturation. The latter’s perhaps the easiest to ignore, which makes the sublime tranquility of Ozu’s final film, 1963’s An Autumn Afternoon, that much easier to overlook. As a crowning work it’s arguably one of the most perfect encapsulations of one filmmaker’s myriad tendencies and inarguably a capstone to a career which in many ways thrived on understatement.