ReFramed No. 13: Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘An Autumn Afternoon’ (1962)


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.

Like any number of Ozu films, An Autumn Afternoon reads on paper like a simplistic portrayal of everyday people dealing with life’s inevitabilities, but as he did through dozens of his best films, Ozu imbues such sentiments with an achingly emotional, humanist dimension that renders these trials as epic tragedy. We spoke of a similar tendency in the work Aki Kaurismaki — one of Ozu’s most accomplished aesthetic descendants — a couple of weeks ago, but as the years go by I find myself continually drawn to the subtle, contemplative tone of Ozu’s work, which seems to exist just outside of reality as it does nothing so much as document day-to-day life. I have little doubt that you can find the whole of the world in the work of Ozu — no mean feat for a filmmaker many naysayers accuse of lacking range and ambition. One grows and matures alongside Ozu’s films, which leads me to suggest the distinct possibility that An Autumn Afternoon may be the man’s supreme artistic achievement.

Calum Marsh: I think I’d agree — it’s really something special. We should probably be quick to point out, though, that despite our emerging predilection for the neglected final films of canonical directors, An Autumn Afternoon isn’t exactly what you’d fairly call “underrated”. While Ozu was largely unknown to Western critics for the entirety of his career (as the studio for which he consistently worked speculated that he’d be too esoteric for any international market), he’s been celebrated widely since his eventual “discovery” in the 1970s, and An Autumn Afternoon is one of his most beloved pictures.

But you’re certainly right about the widespread over-emphasis on his mid-career opus Tokyo Story: it’s been championed as the definitive Ozu for so long that it’s hard to remember to pay attention to anything else. And you’re right, too, that Ozu’s conspicuous stylistic consistency lends itself to easy and unfortunate pigeon-holing, a real shame considering the emotional range of his filmography as a hole. I wouldn’t necessarily object if the old guard unanimously declared Tokyo Story Ozu’s unqualified masterpiece, but to champion it at the expense of championing anything else the man made — to act like it can somehow stand in for any other Ozu film — is just plain reductive.

Oh, and about your quick comparison to Kaurismaki — I think that’s an overlooked comparison, but a very interesting one. The formal similarities are somewhat easy to pick up on, of course; both favour exaggerated compositions, symmetrical framing, static cameras, and, when Ozu was shooting in colour (which he did less than a half-dozen times across his career, but which he does marvellously here), a bold and spectacular palette. But what might be a little less obvious are the tonal and thematic similarities: as we discussed in detail last week, Kaurismaki is a master of sardonic melancholy, a kind of dry, black humour that’s shot through with sadness. I think Ozu had a similar feel for the comic undertones of tragedy (and vice versa), but that’s a quality of his work which is rarely discussed. I mean, I agree with you that An Autumn Afternoon is “achingly emotional” — it nearly brought me to tears, in fact — but at the same time I find it very amusing. Am I totally misreading this thing, or do you get what I mean there?

Cronk: Oh, I completely get it. I just re-watched the film in preparation for this discussion and the humor really stood out to me. The three elder male characters — each concerned in one way or another with the marriage of their daughter or each other’s daughters — have multiple discussions that are very funny. There are bits about pills for sexual performance, jokes about death at the expense of a waitress at a restaurant they frequent, and many alcohol-related psychical gags that are humorous. Like Drifting Clouds, An Autumn Afternoon seems to strike the perfect balance between humor and pathos. Ozu would touch on both extremes more directly — I’m thinking of Good Morning on the humorous side and, say, Late Spring on the emotional — but there seems to be just the right amount of both on display here.

And you’re right to point out that this and many of Ozu’s films are currently and consistently held in high regard. But more than most — and this goes back to his stylistic singularity — Ozu seems to be painted as a one-note artist, leading to Tokyo Story’s stand-in status as the de-facto Ozu. He has so many films we could have chosen for this column, all which seem to exist just off of the pinnacle that many decided long ago that he had reached by the early ’50s. Which is a perfectly logical and perhaps accurate assumption; it just worries me that many of Ozu’s outlying works don’t often get treated as the stand alone statements that they are obviously meant to be.

Marsh: That’s yet another problem with pre-established, uncontested film canons: sometimes you wind up neglecting more than you highlight. We talk a lot about this idea of late or final films which somehow summarize or encapsulate the career-long tendencies of a given filmmaker, and although we risk being reductive ourselves in speaking in those terms, it’s an attractive idea when dealing with a filmmakers as distinctive (and distinctively well-regarded) as Ozu. And An Autumn Afternoon does indeed feel totalizing in its own way, bringing together many of the themes and styles which recurred through Ozu’s filmography in a way which feels mature and deeply considered. Which isn’t to say that An Autumn Afternoon is any kind of epic — it’s far too lithe and vibrant to fit that description. It’s just that if you’re looking at Ozu’s filmography as a whole, this is the film which most wholly encompasses his strongest qualities as a filmmaker, and such it’s sort of the perfect way to end his career. It’s dynamic and hilarious, as we’ve already mentioned, but it’s also deeply moving and, one can sense, intensely personal.

I hesitate to speculate too much about the connections between the film’s lonely, aging protagonist and Ozu himself, who never came close to marrying and who lived with his mother for more than 60 years, but it’s difficult to ignore the parallels: most of Ozu’s films deal with the responsibilities of family life in one way or another, and many more deal with the social pressures surrounding marriage in Japanese life. An Autumn Afternoon feels like the final chapter on the subject: in it, Hirayama (played beautifully by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu), a middle-aged widower and father of three, slowly reconciles himself to the idea that he must encourage his sole daughter, Michiko, to marry before it’s too late, even though she practically runs his life for him and he would be lost, both emotionally and functionally, without her.

As is the case with most Ozu films, An Autumn Afternoon tells a relatively simple story, but the emotional depth is tremendous. Ozu knows that the relationship between Hirayama and his daughter is far more complex than it initially appears, and though neither are provided with an opportunity to explicate their feelings on either their initial dependency or their eventual separation, what they don’t say still says volumes — every minor look or exchange between the two, however slight or seemingly insignificant, is loaded with meaning. I know we have something of an obsession with memorable final shots in this column, Jordan, but I hope you’ll agree when I say that An Autumn Afternoon’s high point comes a little earlier, as Hirayama visits Michiko in her room as she’s preparing to wed — little more than a glance passes between them, but the moment is devastating.

Cronk: And what’s interesting and what perhaps lends that moment so much weight is what Ozu elides in the narrative. Michiko’s eventual husband is mentioned frequently as a potential suitor but what Ozu consistently frames is solely father and daughter. This film concerns itself with these two people, and though the extended family have sub-plots and are contrasted in fascinating ways with that of its main characters, An Autumn Afternoon is a study of a paternal bond that neither essentially wants to break but which the father knows is best for all involved.

Another very emotional moment comes just before the scene you mentioned, and it in-turn is juxtaposed with a similar scene earlier on that Ozu plays for comic effect. At one point Hirayama goes to a local bar with an old cadet that he trained during the war years, and together they re-live the glory days as the bartender plays a military march on the hi-fi. It’s a goofy, fun scene that is re-imagined later on when Hirayama again visits the bar, this time solo. But as the music begins to take hold of Hirayama this time out, those halcyon days begin to fade and a deep sense of regret and longing take form in its place. This time Hirayama sits there stoic, eyes swelling over the decision he has just made concerning his daughter while coming to the realization that his life is about to take its final turn into the twilight years. The last 20 minutes of the film, in fact, are just one sustained, deeply devastating succession of thoughts, glances, statements, and feelings after another.

And, of course, the final shot is just gutting, lent retrospective gravitas in a manner similar to that of another film we’ve discussed in these pages, John Cassavetes’ Love Streams. That this would turn out to be Ozu’s final work is, as you suggest, appropriate for a film so concerned with offspring taking care of a parent, something Ozu spent a lifetime doing alongside his professional role as a filmmaker. Nothing about this suggests a film that is too “Japanese,” which is what held Ozu back from early worldwide distribution. If anything, the feelings conjured by his work are so universal that he could be said to be the cinema’s great humanist.

Marsh: Yes, absolutely. I think I understand where his distributors were coming from with the charges of cultural specificity, at least abstractly, but I don’t think its origins would impede anybody’s ability to relate to this or any other Ozu film. What’s fascinating about An Autumn Afternoon, in fact, is that while so much of its narrative is shaped by a very specifically Japanese social structure, none of the emotions elicited by the film are defined by that structure. Once Ozu has established that his protagonist feels it’s his duty to marry off his daughter despite his reliance on her around the house, we’re emotionally invested in the premise — whether that’s literally a foreign concept to us socially is irrelevant, because the emotional circumstances are never in the least bit remote.

We can accept the motivations of the characters because they make perfect emotional sense, even if the specific mores by which they’re guided seem antiquated by contemporary (and, I imagine, distinctly American) standards. That lack of friction, typically imposed by cultural or historical distance, is precisely what allows us to feel so emotionally invested in the film. That’s quite an accomplishment, and I think it’s a testament to the warmth and generosity of the film; Ozu makes it about these characters and their feelings, and even if the events belong resolutely to their time and place, Ozu’s empathy for people will always be universal.