At the end of An Autumn Afternoon (1962) Chishu Ryu, as Mr. Hirayama, delivers probably one of the greatest performances on screen in the history of world cinema. It’s not very long, mere seconds, and I will not give details here, because you have to watch it to appreciate the true definition of subtlety in film performance.
The exquisite, detailed portrayal of an intimate world in these two features, Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon by Yasujiro Ozu, displays a visual poetry and alluring quality that can be compared to a Vermeer painting of a Dutch interior. Each framing of each shot is completely static and composed in such a way as to offer harmony or discord in the meaning of the most mundane and everyday of settings. The phases of domestic and social life are mapped out in painstaking formality and the entanglements of the characters are mirrored in the most discrete of images and placing of objects.
Each film focuses upon transition into marriage and ageing. The plots are very simple and straightforward. The basis of the drama, or the melodrama to be exact, is established on how much the characters yearn for change, but cannot forsake familial duties, or find themselves reminiscing about the phases of their lives and feeling that time is passing too quickly. The melodrama of silent cinema is Ozu’s background, shown in the extra features such as the inclusion of the rare and incomplete A Mother Should be Loved (1934) on the disc with Late Autumn.
Music plays an important part in these films, as well as the tension exhibited in a character’s physicality and use of props. Locked into the rituals of certain domestic and social protocols the characters actually play things out with a frankness of expression and dialogue that is akin to the most naturalistic of 20th century performance on film or stage. In fact, there is more of life’s nature and intimacy in this form of film-making than in many realist and naturalistic dramas.
Because characters must always remove their shoes as they enter a house, must follow a certain routine to sup their bowl of noodles or pour the tea, or simply to greet each other, there is time for thought and space for consideration before speech. Then, once they begin to speak, lines such as: ‘Have you considered remarrying?’ or ‘Do you want to die old and alone?’ or ‘I made a fool of myself last night’, come with a frankness and naturalness that is entirely apt and sometimes quite shocking.
I was a novice when it came to the cinema of Ozu, but found these films riveting. Much is said about the serenity and contemplativeness of Japanese cinema; but I actually found these anything but, despite the sedate pacing. There was a tension in almost every scene, with some interesting character composition and scene dynamics that show gossip and blundering on the part of middle-aged and elderly men – unusually. They seem to stumble through life, demonstrating their power and confidence one minute, and then becoming nervous and awkward in the presence of a beautiful young woman the next. They fret about their sexual prowess, tease one another mercilessly and drink heavily. All this covered with the poise and restraint of, as I mentioned, a Dutch interior painting.
The scenes and tableaux are exquisite. I was caught up in studying the interior set design of the most modest of noodle houses and bars, as well as the meticulous clarity of furnishings framing the shot and drawing the eye in. It reminded me of what are often considered the more bold and experimental of Hitchcock’s films, The Rope and Rear Window in the limitations the film-maker has imposed on himself and how the drama and arrangement of scenes is all the stronger for it. Like a haiku with a rigid structure or a kimono-clad mother, these films are restrained and beautiful.
The BFI has embellished and contextualised these releases once again with a high standard of extras and academic criticism, including a short essay by the composer Ed Hughes who has added a new soundtrack to the silent feature, A Mother Should Be Loved. These films deserve to be objects of desire, stylistically and dramatically and ought to be savoured by a wider audience. You feel satisfied and intellectually refreshed after viewing them, even though very little has actually happened on screen.
Late Autumn (1960)