Equinox Flower (Japan 1958)

Setsuko – Hirayama's daughter

Setsuko – Hirayama’s daughter

Returning to Ozu again is like tasting the first glass of wine of an evening – the promise of a warm embrace and something soothing and reliable, but also something with body as well as subtle flavours. The schedule of my Ozu watching is fairly random and determined to some extent by what turns up in my rental deliveries from Sofa Cinema/LoveFilm. I do sometimes wonder what it must be like to be able, like David Bordwell, to know all the films so well that you can make references to several other titles and simple comparisons.

Bordwell’s book, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (bfi 1988), is available on free download from the website of the Centre for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan (along with a new introduction to the electronic edition). It’s a whopping 400+mbs of pdf and I haven’t managed to read it yet (it’s difficult to read long documents on screen, but I don’t want to waste paper printing it out). I’ve also got the original articles on Ozu by Bordwell and Thompson and Edward Brannigan, published in Screen back in 1976. Brannigan writes specifically about Ozu’s use of space in Equinox Flower and all three are engaged in a mode of analysis that is concerned primarily with contrasting the narrative structure and compositional and editing strategies adopted by Ozu with those of classical Hollywood. Part of their aim is to demonstrate the seemingly contradictory proposition that Ozu was a ‘modernist’ director. I confess my admiration for these guys and I’m sure that if I could find the time to read all of the material carefully it would be very rewarding.

However, my own approach to viewing Ozu is slightly different. I am certainly interested in his style and in the way that he can grab audiences without any of the usual ‘attractions’. But I’m slightly wary of the ways in which generalisations about Ozu’s work are freely circulated. Certainly the films have similar settings, similar characters and themes, but they aren’t all the same – there are interesting variations. My random viewing means that Equinox Flower follows The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice and the two films are worth comparing.

Both films feature the social issue of arranged marriages and the concerns of young women to break free of tradition. In Equinox Flower, the narrative offers three young women, all of whom are ‘rebelling’ and all who find themselves dealing with a patriarchal figure played by Saburi Shin, the same male lead as in Flavour (who Bordwell refers to as the “James Stewart of Japanese Cinema during the war years”). The difference here is that Saburi (Hirayama) is a more solidly middle-class character and rules his household more forcefully. Instead of the scheming and rather silly wife of Flavour, he finds himself married to a woman who is quiet and unassuming. She is however, played by the magnificent Tanaka Kinuyo and it is no surprise that she wins all the battles with little sign of effort (but plenty of steely determination under the polite smile).

The key to the film is, I think, that Hirayama is actually a rather easy-going man who finds himself trapped by a sense of needing to maintain his own position within the family. This feeling is intensified by the ‘male bonding’ that the film emphasises. In fact, this film seems to be a counterweight to Flavour in which there are several scenes of wives together. Here the husbands meet as a group of high school friends, now all at the time in life when they have marriageable daughters. There is banter about marriage and a sense that men must remain in charge. At home, Hirayama treats his wife much as a servant, but is quite charming and friendly towards the daughters of his friends – only his own daughter suffers. Ozu himself has described the film as a comedy (see the website below) and there are several very funny scenes. But it’s really a comedy-melodrama in which Ozu appears to have it both ways, seemingly on the side of the daughter and of the father (with mother quietly winning all the battles). Overall it’s a delightful film.

In terms of style, this is Ozu’s first film in colour and he seems to have been quite playful in using reds and patterns of block colour and sometimes grids or patterns of lines at right angles. The ‘pillow shots’ are beautifully composed and make use of colour in terms of forests and landscapes/waterscapes as well as buildings (and a washing line as in Ohayo!). The big difference, which may be a consequence of camera mobility and lighting, is that there are none of the moving camera shots of Flavour and the locations are less crowded and full of life – the office, a nightclub, the home, a spa etc. Equinox Flower is a more ‘internal’ film. The title refers to an autumn flower, a red amyryllis, higanbana, that springs up all over Japan – plenty of images on flickr etc..

Here is a key scene in which Hirayama returns home having been tricked into giving his blessing for his daughter’s marriage. His wife is delighted by his change of heart, but he is bemused and resentful.

There is another clip and a selection of stills on the marvellous (but still partly under construction) website at http://www.a2pcinema.com/ozu-san/films/equinoxflower.htm

A good essay on the film is on Senses of Cinema.

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