(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
This first Leeds Film Festival Retrospective screening was a real pleasure. A fine performance from the lead actress Tanaka Kinuyo: a rare masterwork from director Ozu Yasujiro: and viewed in the fine old auditorium of the Hyde Park cinema. The slight drawback was an old 16mm print, somewhat worn with the image quality rather dark, leading to loss of the film’s definition and its play with the nuances of light and shadow. But it is a remarkable and distinctive melodrama showing Ozu’s mature style in its early days.
The film centres on the wife and mother Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo) with her son Hiroshi. Tokiko’s husband has been away at war and is among the last of the Japanese soldiers to be repatriated. Tokiko and her son are boarders in the household of the Sakai family. She is hard up and post-war prices are high. Then her son is taken ill with a catarrh of the colon. The distraught Tokiko has to find a doctor and then pay for the subsequent hospital care. This leads her into unseemly action in order to raise the money. When her husband returns and he learns of her actions a marital crisis ensues.
Tanaka’s performance is the centre of the film. And she plays the changing responses and emotions of the wife with an emotional flair, whilst avoiding melodramatic excess. In the latter part of the film the focus shifts to the returned husband Shuichi (Sano Shuji) whose conflicting emotions are played out as he grapples with and then comes to terms with his wife’s tragic ‘mistake’. The strong supporting cast include Tokiko’s friend and confidante Chieko, the Sakai family father (Sakamoto Takeshi) and his wife Tsune (Takamatsu Eiko), a colleague of Shuichi, Satake (the familiar Ryu Chishu) and the most negative character Orie (Mizukami Rieko ).
Tanaka presents Tokiko as much through her movement and position as through her delivery and facial expressions. One particular trope in her performance sees her leaning, usually against a set of drawers in her room, displaying at various points the sense of weariness, worry and concern and at potent moments – despair. Shuji, as the husband Shuichi, is at times is tellingly still and passive, as he works through his anger. At other times he is active and even violent. The contrast in styles is very effective.
Ozu’s direction offers many familiar tropes found in his later classic films. The low-angle camera: the sequences between scenes of building and objects: the cutting between shot and reverse right down the 180% line. However, the film makes less use of the long takes and long shots that increased in his later years. In fact at times there are relatively short camera shots and relatively rapid cutting. Several times he focuses on a character, mainly Tokiko, in a series of reverse shots. The most powerful is a scene where the now shamed Tokiko regards herself in the mirror, a set of images that vividly convey her feelings. A later scene has a similar set of shots and cuts as she regards a portrait of her absent husband.
The film has more dramatic moments that are found in later Ozu. In the climatic moments of the film Shuichi throws his wife down and she falls headlong down the stairs. She lies passive, and then obviously in severe pain rises and climbs painfully back up the stairs. She finds her husband once more in a position of angry passivity. As so often in the film he is shot and framed from behind, emphasising the emotional gulf in the scene.
The stairs are one of the settings that Ozu returns to with great frequency. Earlier at a moment of anger Shuichi kicks a can and it rolls down the stairs, a premonition of what will follow later. Equally Ozu’s frequent exteriors positioned between scenes both place the action but also comment upon the changing story. It may be I missed some relevance in the later films, but these seem to me to carry greater meaning than in those later works. The Sakai house is set near some tanks or gas tanks, which loom large over the streets. At times characters traverse places beyond their small neighbourhood. Tokiko and Chieko share a picnic with Hiroshi on the banks of the river and reminisce about their youth and their dreams for the future. Later Shuichi sits on the bank of the same river and converses with a girl from the brothel – a point at which he can be seen to be coming to terms with his situation and that of his wife. Shuichi had visited the brothel earlier in his driven attempt to discover his wife’s actions. On the way he passes along a dilapidated street and crosses a wasteland covered with industrial piping. And close-up draws attention to a shattered pipe on the ground: a potent symbol of his situation.
Music is used frequently in the film, but with care and deliberate attention. In one scene Shuichi and Tokiko watch their son play with pleasure, and there is light cheerful music on the soundtrack. In a later scene as Shoichi relentless questions his wife the music is darker with a clearer bass sound. This precedes a scene of marital rape. When Shuichi visits the brothel, which is situated behind a school, we hear the children singing, reminding the girl with whom he converses that she once studied there. At work, where he has returned, he discusses his situation indirectly with his colleague Satake. Next door is a dance studio, or even a brothel. Shuichi finds the ‘jazz’ ‘sad’ whilst his colleagues correctly identifies it as ‘merry’.
Ozu also shows his customary attention to objects. A bottle of saké given Tokiko by Tsune is shown several times, once in close-up and then in different positions in the frame. It again speaks volumes regarding the husband. And shortly before the rape (which occurs off-screen) a large ball falls to the floor. In the shot following the rape Shuichi sits in a hunched position and the ball is clear in the lower right of the frame.
In the final moments of the film husband and wife embrace and Tokiko tightens her arms around her husband and her hands lock in an attitude of prayer. David Bordwell comments on this moment, “as in the 1930s films [of Ozu], the male falters, scraping by on good intentions and the strength of his woman . . . ”. This seems a fair assessment of the film’s resolution. It also points up what I find to be a major difference between Ozu and his contemporary Naruse Mikio. In Ozu’s films despite their strength, women continue in their predominately subservient role. In many of Naruse’s films women are unable to continue in such roles, and what is striking is their resilience and determination to soldier on, providing them with a flawed independence. Whilst both directors’ films are frequently referred to as belonging to the genre of shomin geki [stories of the little people] Ozu tends to focus on the strata between the working classes and the bourgeoisie, including the petit bourgeoisie: Naruse’s films are more determinably concerned with the working classes and often the lumpen proletariat. However, A Hen in the Wind shows Ozu working much more closely to the territory occupied by Naruse. This might account for the fact that this is a film which is somewhat, neglected on the Ozu oeuvre. I thought it the equal of his famous films from the 1950s.
One last point that struck me was there seemed to be little sense of the US occupation, under which this film was produced. There are a few visual references to US popular culture in the flat of Orie, whose manipulation of Tokiko leads to her situation. She comments at one point that there is ‘an easier life’. There are also western references in some of the music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, though the use of western music in common in films of this period. And the workplace of Shuichi and Satake has a large Time Life sign emblazoned on it. But there is little else. However, Bordwell refers to a Japanese critic who sees the film as part of a cycle which comments both on the war and the post-war world. With the plight of Tokiko providing metaphors for the pre-war and post-war codes in Japanese society. This seems an apt reading, the best melodramas comment not just on the personal but on the social as well.
Claire Denis delivers a nuanced portrayal of a relationship between a father and his grown-up daughter as their relationship reaches a defining moment moving from their symbiotic closeness to try to move beyond to start their own lives not without but beyond each other.
Denis uses many of her typical collaborators – Agnès Godard as cinematographer, Jean-Pol Fargeau on the script and ‘Tindersticks’ (lead singer, Stuart A Staples has written for Denis before on L’Intrus) for the scored parts of the film. It reminded me of Vendredi Soir where a chance meeting of a couple leads to a night of passion – but the film spends its time on the nuances of their mutual attraction as it builds. In Vendredi the Parisien buildings and skyline is the mesmeric presence throughout the film, shot by Godard so that the lights glimmer and create a beautiful cityscape to frame the stories within it. In that film, the city is thematically an ephemeral place where people have little contact, distracted and disconnected within their cars until they are forced to stop and made to touch. In 35 Rhums the city is there again but, even cinematically, plays a completely different role. It has been reconstituted because these are the lives of very different people and therefore seems to take on something of their perspective. Lionel is a train driver and the city is represented as a web of rails and moving trains through the high rises. Lionel and his daughter Josephine live in one such, near their neighbours including Gabrielle and Noé, pining for father and daughter respectively.
Godard, Denis and Fargeau are able to tell this story with great simplicity and yet embody the complexities that are present in relationships – the ebbs and flows of emotion between people as they seek to let each other go but can’t quite, or as they move in and out of desire or longing. Denis is unafraid to play the symbolic moments thrown up in these narratives (sometimes very literally) but they are blended so seamlessly into the narrative flow by the cinematography that there is no jarring or loss of dramatic impetus. (e.g. the death on the train rails). This moment of melodrama in 35 Shots almost jars because Denis is most powerful when she conveys the impact of an emotion and the state people are swept up into – visually and sonically – through moments of detail. Through Godard’s cinematography the visceral is conveyed through the visual. Early in the film, Lionel puts his foot into the slipper brought by his daughter – a resonating symbolic moment of their domestic symbiosis accentuated by the focus on that physical pleasure of slipping on our comfy shoes on getting home.
The performances are nicely underplayed, emotions seen passing through characters’ eyes in close-up. Gregoire Colin (a Denis regular) plays the courtly lover upstairs and the two central performances from Alex Descas and newcomer Mati Diop are absorbing in their simplicity – in keeping with the overall aesthetics of the film. Everything appears ordinary and flat on the surface (I’m reminded of the opening of L’Intrus with Colin’s character engaged in the domestics or Chocolat where Aimée sits idly on the back of the truck with Protée or where the legion soldiers in Beau Travail attend to their washing out in the desert); but in Denis’s films the flat surface is always slowly peeled away to reveal the depths of emotion that sit beneath – ordinary emotions create the dramatic tension in her films rather than melodrama.