Yasujiro Ozu will never be a “cool” director. No matter how many years pass between his death and some future present, Ozu will never be reclaimed by some artsy collective. There will never be Ozu tote bags next to the Godard collection at Hot Topic. I will never be able to win the affections of a lovely young lady with the size of my Ozu anthology and, for the life of me, I cannot think of a single Ozu quote that would nicely compliment the mash-up of Emerson and Alkaline Trio in the social networking profiles of most young adults.
Ozu is damned to an eternity of being judged on the quality of his works rather than the trendiness of his name drop due to one simple fact: Ozu’s films are among the least far-reaching pieces of cinema ever to hit the can. It is not that they are easy or lazy films, it’s just that Ozu largely fixates on the quotidian affairs of very ordinary people. Even the Italian Neo-Realists, who claimed such a goal, cannot avoid marshalling certain grandeur with the ordinary character of their film worlds. Whereas De Sica and Rossellini give us epic mediocrity and the overwhelming despair of an absolutely unmarked existence, Ozu traffics in much more subtly. His banal is never epitomic.
Furthermore, the delicate beauty of an Ozu film is that, despite all of its stylization, the hand of the director is never intently felt. Ozu employs a still-life aesthetic with long takes of environments, a full 180-degree shot reverse shot, and a camera which only reluctantly, if ever, moves. This creates a placid world in which the spectators feel abandoned, encroached upon by their indifferent surroundings.
An Autumn Afternoon is, in many ways, the capstone of this style. His last film before his death, An Autumn Afternoon tells the story of aging businessman and widower Shuhei Hirayama. His eldest son is newly married, his daughter takes care of the family, and his younger son is little more than set-dressing as a workman. The film charts Hirayama’s coming to grips with the choice he has to make between letting his daughter go and marry or declining into old age with the guilt of his daughter being an old maid. The stories of similar aging businessman interweave and the film becomes a meditation on the twilight of life.
If the film’s plot seems flimsy it is because the narrative appears as almost a side-thought. Continuing with the non-discursivity of his style, Ozu’s stories lack impetus. This is not to say that An Autumn Afternoon drags; it merely delights in presentation rather than enunciation. In fact the whole piece feels a bit like a dream: elegiac, deliberate, and wandering. The viewer is continually put in the perspective of the graying cast as they are forced watch the world revolve without any of the control that a traditional narrative affords the viewer. We simply must bide our time.
If the movie does not sound particularly entertaining—if your ideal viewing experience doesn’t involve sublime inertia—that’s because Ozu isn’t particularly entertaining. Beautiful, yes; fun, no. Even the most dull French New Wave film contains a germ of fun in knowing that you are part of a cultural sea change. Ozu is at once alien and ordinary, without allowing his atypical An Autumn Afternoon to be assimilated into some pop culture fashion. I challenge any viewer to have a good time watching his films.
As is common in the Criterion catalogue, An Autumn Afternoon is a worthy collection piece and a brilliant display of artistry. As is equally common the Criterion catalogue, this film should appeal to few beyond the ranks of film aficionados. Perhaps, though, this is a blessing. At least I will never have to see collegiates who try too hard wearing Ozu tote bags.