(This post is based on my notes for an introduction to a ‘classic matinee’ screening of the restored print at Cornerhouse, Manchester in Summer 2014.)
An Autumn Afternoon was the last film to be completed by the Japanese master Ozu Yasujiro who died on his 60th birthday in December 1963. Not well-known in the West at that point he was revered in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia as the consummate director of films known as ‘home dramas’ or ‘tales of ordinary people’ (shomingeki). Since his death, Ozu’s reputation has gradually grown in the West, particularly in the US. Today it arguably surpasses that of Mizoguchi Kenji and Kurosawa Akira, the two directors whose international prizes in the 1950s introduced classical Japanese cinema to European and North American audiences.
Anyone who has seen several films by Ozu will be aware of the claims made about the director’s style and the assumptions made about what an ‘Ozu film’ is like. Given that Ozu made his first films in his mid 20s (i.e. in the 1920s) and that some of them have been lost and others from the 1930s and 1940s have been difficult to see outside Japan, it isn’t surprising that our assumptions about the films are based on what is sometimes called Ozu’s ‘late period’ from 1949-1962. This period begins with Late Spring in 1949, one of the most celebrated of his films and one which perhaps ‘informs’ An Autumn Afternoon. The period also includes the most well-known of all Ozu’s films in the West, Tokyo Story (1953), voted No 1 film by international film directors in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll.
If we focus simply on the post 1949 films, Ozu did appear to develop a very distinctive visual style. His aim seemed to be to strip away any expressionist flourishes associated with camera movement or framing. His camera (under the control of cinematographer Atsuta Yûharu) is usually stationary and fixed at a low height which means it nearly always looks up at characters and their actions. The camera also looks down corridors, through doorways and straight ahead in rooms – and occasionally obliquely like an observer. Each image is carefully composed within the frame with close attention to geometrical shapes and the positioning of simple objects. When characters speak, they are often given the whole frame in what would conventionally be a medium shot, but since they are often sitting or kneeling it becomes a long shot (i.e. we see the whole body). Ozu sometimes seems to dismiss the so called ‘rules’ of continuity editing found in Hollywood classical cinema. But in An Autumn Afternoon he actually uses the full range of conventional shots – it’s just that the unusual shots stand out.
One of Ozu’s framings and compositions has been described as the ‘pillow shot’, a distinctive ‘cutaway’ that occurs between scenes (and sometimes during scenes) and often shows a (deserted) street scene, a landscape or sometimes an empty corridor, a line of washing, a shop sign etc. What do these shots ‘mean’? There are many suggestions – just Google “Ozu pillow shots” and you will find discussions and examples. One thing we can be sure of. Each individual pillow shot is beautifully composed and no one is likely to begrudge Ozu the few seconds these images occupy the screen. Sometimes they just seem to allow us to ‘rest’ and contemplate what happens in the story – but sometimes they also seem to carry specific meanings and somehow they always seem to intensify the emotional quality of the narrative. In the later films Ozu’s compositions benefitted from better filmstock and then, from 1958, colour. All of the framings and compositions (i.e. the position of objects within the frame) are governed by Ozu’s use of the traditional ‘Academy’ screen shape (1.33: 1). Ozu stuck to this shape (like Satyajit Ray in India in the same period) despite a general move to the wider screen shapes of CinemaScope etc. in the West. Widescreen began to become common in Japan in the late 1950s, but Ozu’s meticulous compositions retained their own shape.
The use of colour also allowed Ozu to supplement his focus on rectangular patterns with a similar focus on specific colours. There are many examples of bright red objects and blocks of colour in this film. The vivid colours and the use of music, the jaunty strings in particular, give these later Ozu films a real sense of texture and a richness in the representation of ‘ordinary lives’.
The stories of Ozu’s late period films are often very similar. They use a ‘stock company’ of actors from Shochiku, the major studio for whom Ozu worked for most of his career, playing similar roles in different films. The most familiar of these actors is Ryu Chisu who often plays the head of a family. The families in the stories sometimes have the same name but they are all slightly different – genre is often about ‘repetition and difference’. Over the 13 years from 1949 to 1962, Japanese society was transformed, moving from the misery and austerity of Occupation through rapid economic growth to the beginnings of ‘consumerism’. Part of that transformation involved changes in opportunities for young women in particular. These changes in society enable Ozu and his regular scriptwriter Noda Kogo to subtly alter the family dynamic from one film to another. An Autumn Afternoon has one narrative thread about the money problems of the oldest son in the family as he and his wife juggle their desires to buy essential household goods (a vacuum cleaner and TV set) or personal items (a leather handbag or a set of golf clubs).
Social class is presented in a nuanced way. Social class descriptions are perhaps slightly different in Japan compared to the UK but they are just as important. In Ozu’s first films after 1945 his characters are sometimes struggling under the Occupation conditions but by the late 1940s the family groups have become quite ‘ordered’. Patriarchal families are headed by doctors or university teachers. These are not wealthy men as such but in the later 1950s films the central male characters have often become businessmen of various kinds. Mothers generally stay at home but gradually the younger women gain independence through employment in offices. While some of these characterisations might seem to be linked to the sociology of the modern Japanese family, Ozu and Noda also deal in nostalgia. Families often seem to have young boys, often cheeky and mischievous (e.g. in Early Summer (1951) and Ohayo! (1959) – harking back to some of Ozu’s earlier comedies. In the same way, the later films feature middle-aged men remembering their student days – and sometimes drinking too much in Tokyo’s little bars.
Ozu’s families don’t have ostentatious wealth but they are ‘comfortable’. In some ways the families might be compared to the ‘solid’ middle-class families of classical Hollywood in the 1950s. In An Autumn Afternoon, Mr Hirayama (Ryu Chisu) is an office manager of some kind and his oldest son has become a ‘salaryman’ – the new breed of office worker. But when Hirayama goes to meet his old schoolteacher he discovers that he now runs a noodle bar in a poor district – and this makes Hirayama uncomfortable. The tension involved in meeting people whose status has changed is palpable in these scenes. It’s also worth noting that the old schoolteacher enjoys eating a fish dish he hasn’t encountered before. Fresh fish has always been an important part of the Japanese diet and the Japanese title of the film, Sanma no aji, translates as ‘the taste of sanma‘, a type of mackerel particularly enjoyed in late Summer – suggesting a different tone to the film than the English language title.
Despite the economic changes, there is still an expectation that a father will help to find his daughter a suitable husband. In fact the story here is quite similar to that of Last Spring in 1949. Ryu Chisu as Hirayama faces some of the same questions about his daughter’s marriage as his 1949 character. But there is a change in that the representation of memories of the wartime period here are prompted by the ‘Warship March’ played in Tory’s bar (music and songs are important in Ozu’s films). There is a nostalgia here (partly for Ozu’s early films) but also an acceptance of recent Japanese history. Hirayama also comments on the relationship between Japan and America. Although Ozu’s style is seen as very different to the Hollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s, Ozu was in fact a big admirer of classical Hollywood. Ozu never really travelled outside Japan. He lived with his mother for most of his life and in his later years indulged his fondness for alcohol like his characters in the later films. The schoolboy humour of his own youth appeared in his early films and there are elements that re-emerge here in Hirayama’s meetings with his old school friends.
An Autumn Afternoon is a joy to watch, partly because everything functions so smoothly and the combination of camera, production design, performance and sound/music appears to be achieved effortlessly. There is humour in the film and an awareness of a changing society outside this controlled world, but also some sadness in the closing scenes.
(An Autumn Afternoon comes in a bfi Blu-ray dual format edition which includes Ozu’s 1948 film A Hen in the Wind (strongly recommended) and a print booklet with essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Hirano Kyoko.)