This is the ‘makeweight’ title in the BFI’s double package of Blu-ray/DVD versions of An Autumn Afternoon, the last film by Ozu Yasujiro in 1962. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay included in the package makes clear that A Hen in the Wind has been neglected by many critics and considered one of Ozu’s minor works. Ozu himself is reported as describing it as a ‘bad failure’. It is certainly different from the later films and very different in some respects to its immediate successor, the highly celebrated Late Spring (1949). I personally find it a very moving film and it falls into my favourite period in cinema history in the late 1940s. I’ve just been back to look at what I wrote about Record of a Tenement Gentleman, the first film Ozu made when he returned to work in 1947 after re-patriation. My viewing of A Hen in the Wind confirms everything I wrote about the earlier film, but there are differences as well. The similarities to Italian neo-realism are again evident and the film seems in tune with what is happening in film internationally in those difficult post-war years.
One noticeable feature of A Hen in the Wind is the presence of the great Tanaka Kinuyo in the lead role. Arguably the dominant female figure in classical Japanese cinema, Tanaka is one of our heroes. Although she was best known in her later career as an actress for Mizoguchi and as a director in her own right, she did make several films for Ozu (including some in the 1930s) and it’s hard to imagine any other star in this role as the central character Tokiko – even though she played the role of a 28 year-old when she was already 38. Tokiko is effectively a single mother with a small son. Her husband has not yet returned from the war. We are never told where the husband has been stationed – perhaps in China? Re-patriation did take a long time so in itself this is not unusual. Tokiko is a dressmaker by trade but she has to stay home with the boy and can only survive by gradually selling off her kimonos to raise money for food. When the boy falls ill and needs hospital treatment she has no other resources and she turns to the only solution – selling herself for one night only to pay the medical bill. Her close friend Akiko, is furious with her (for not asking her for the money) and criticises her quite severely. She advises Tokiko to tell no-one and especially her husband about what she has done. At this point we think we know what will happen when the husband returns – which he does soon after. We dread being proved correct.
A Hen in the Wind is deemed an anomaly – in both style and content. My reference to neo-realism refers to two separate issues. First of all Ozu and Shochiku were faced with logistical problems in making films at this point. A Hen in the Wind is short, 82 minutes and it avoids expensive sets or complicated location shooting. This supplies the production context (in effect the restraints) which ‘fit’ for a narrative focused on a single everyday event/social issue at a time of austerity. In plot terms the event is the sudden onset of sickness for Tokiko’s son. It is the need to find the money to pay for his treatment that creates the narrative drive (just as the theft of the bicycle propels Bicycle Thieves forward). In a sense, the same scenario could have been played out in Italy or Germany in 1948. The difference might be in the treatment of the shame attached to the act of prostitution. There is also a second social issue compounding the conflict created by the sickness – the slow repatriation of service personnel (and in the background the problems associated with the Occupation, not mentioned directly in the script). The same issues – health problems and re-patriation – are found in films by Kurosawa and Naruse during this period. What is also important is how Ozu shows us this world of austerity trying to ‘get back on its feet’. I was struck by two long tracking shots showing first Tokiko and then her husband moving through the streets of Tokyo. The evidence of bombing is still there and the urban scene can seem desolate with rubble and wrecked machinery by the side of the road. A moving camera in later Ozu films is so unusual that these shots are quite noticeable. They are also contrasted with more composed scenes set by the riverside. Both Rosenbaum and David Bordwell (Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, BFI 1988) refer to the locations as ‘slum’ areas. I think perhaps ‘slum’ means something different in the US. Tokiko’s home is the top floor of a small wooden house rented from the family who live below. Nobody has much money but the connotations of slum housing – families crushed together in unhygenic mass dwellings etc. doesn’t apply. In fact I felt that somewhere in the film there was an attempt to present this as a transitional period when Japan is recovering. The scenes by the river seem more optimistic.
Sound in the film is also important. Several scenes in the house are accompanied by what sounds like the thud of a machine in a factory. This contrasts with the sound of children singing in a primary school close to the brothel where Tokiko received her ‘visitor’. The singing is heard when Suichi, the returned husband, goes to the brothel and meets the young woman who works there in order to feed her family. This whole sequence offers the possibility of ‘moving on’ in some way. Music also provides one of the (surprisingly few) references to American culture in the dancehall/nightclub next to the office where Suichi eventually gets work.
The other notable element in the mise en scène of A Hen in the Wind is the ‘pre-figuring’ of action focused on the staircase leading up to Tokiko’s apartment. Staircases are rarely shown in Ozu’s later films but here the staircase is introduced, almost like a pillow shot, early on. Later it will become the site of something even more unusual in Ozu’s later films – a sequence involving violent action. It is this violent action that will perhaps signal the biggest ‘difference’ to the films of Ozu’s late period and the way the staircase is used makes us think of Hitchcock thrillers or film noir melodramas.
David Bordwell’s chapter on the film refers to Sato Tadao’s 1982 Currents in Japanese Cinema. Sato suggests that the film is essentially progressive in moving away from using easy scapegoats to represent the state of Japan in the aftermath of war. Instead of villainous militarists or weedy collaborators, Ozu offers us a woman whose shame reflects the loss of ‘purity’ in the Japanese spirit while Shoichi’s aggression comes from the brutalisin experience of war. In Ozu’s vision (as perceived by Bordwell) these ‘ordinary’ and flawed people find a way to face the future without national or personal purity but with a sense of realism – Ozu the humanist?
Overall I found this a fascinating film which deserves to be more widely seen and discussed in the context of the ‘Occupation Cinema’ in Japan. Keith’s review of the film from the Tanaka Kinuyo season a few years ago at the Leeds International Film Festival takes a slightly different approach. He focuses more on Tanaka’s performance (and gives away more of the plot details).
I had somehow gained the impression that this was not going to be the best of director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent work, but I enjoyed it a great deal. Certainly, if I hadn’t seen Millennium Mambo (2001) and Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007) I would have found it more difficult. As it was, I was prepared to go along with its gentle narrative flow and just observe a new, but still East Asian, perspective on the life of Tokyo’s suburbs, coffee shops and railway systems. The railways are the giveaway clue and this is a film commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku to commemorate the centenary of their famous director Ozu Yasujiro in 2003. I take the title to be a play on words evoking film history and the coffee shop (what would have been a bar in Ozu’s Tokyo) which forms the alternative setting to the railway.
The central character in the narrative is Yoko, a young writer from Tokyo who is researching a Taiwanese musician/artist from the 1930s (Jiang Wen-Ye (1910 – 1983). She has just arrived back from Taiwan and she spends time with her parents who still live in Takasaki, a city in Central Japan 100km away by rail. Later she meets up with her friend Hajime, a bookseller in Tokyo with a railways obsession. There is very little plot but part way through the narrative Yoko reveals that she is pregnant.
I’ve read a lot of comments about the film and what many of them miss is that although Hou’s film is undoubtedly an art film, Ozu produced mainstream entertainment, albeit for what I assume to be an upmarket audience. This is an important point because although loving Ozu marks anyone out as a cinephile today, in the 1950s and 1960s he would be a ‘popular’ director. Hou, however, is definitely for cinephiles. However, Hou knows how to sell a film. In his earlier career when he was a leader of Taiwanese New Cinema, he invariably cast non-professionals. Here he casts Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, as Yoko. Hajime is played (in very relaxed style) by one of Japanese cinema’s leading stars, Asano Tadanobu.
Café Lumière is a very easy film to watch, but arguably a difficult film to read. Mark Lee’s camera frames characters in careful, often static, compositions in Hou’s usual recent style – i.e. through doorways or windows, down corridors, round corners etc. Outside the houses and coffee shops it offers us long takes in long shot, observing the world and Yoko’s journey through it. The shots of trains and trams are beautiful. One shot of a minute or so shows a scene in Tokyo with three railway lines at different levels crossing over each other – and across a river. It’s as if we are looking into a model railway layout or watching a scene from an anime. I love trains but I can understand that for many they are not particularly interesting. And this is what makes the film problematic for a mainstream audience. Comments on the film complain about particular scenes, why are they doing this or that? There is a desire for narrative, a need to be told something, for actions to be in a chain of cause and effect – for the story to mean something in the way that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson argue constitutes a typical Hollywood narrative. But this story doesn’t have an ending, it doesn’t really have a direction. What we see instead is a family and a relationship between friends. In many ways this is a ‘realist’ film par excellence since it corresponds to the ways many of us live our lives – we don’t lurch from one dramatic crisis to the next, sometimes what we aim to do isn’t achieved, we can’t think of things to say, we’d rather just stare out of the window.
Café Lumière could be described as a postmodern narrative, one in which references are made to other ‘texts’ on several levels. The situation of the unmarried daughter and her parents’ concern features in both Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) and one scene is very close to that in Tokyo Story (1953) when the parents visit their widowed daughter-in-law who has to borrow something from a neighbour in order to offer them hospitality. Hou doesn’t attempt to copy Ozu’s compositions directly but he achieves something of the same tone. The obsession with Tokyo’s railways emerges not just through Hajime’s actions as a character but also the camera’s seeming obsession in almost fetishising train images as if exaggerating Ozu’s occasional glimpses of trains simply for effect. Yet railways also act as triggers for memory – Yoko spots the station cat which she remembers from her childhood in Takasaki when she took the train to school. It’s also interesting that she lives on a tram route in Tokyo, one of the last two remaining from Ozu’s Tokyo. None of these references will mean much to audiences unaware of either Ozu or Taiwanese-Japanese history but this is the nature of film art for a cinephile audience.
The little details that emerge about the Taiwanese boyfriend and from Yoko’s meeting with Jiang Ewn-Ye’s widow and daughter point to a ‘discourse’ about a personal and cultural history that brings together China, Taiwan and Japan over the last century and which is mirrored in the histories of the film industries in these countries (and which also involves Hong Kong).
Hou is now in his 60s but still wishes to represent a younger generation – even when it is via the incomprehension of their parents. Fortunately, for me, the occasional musical accompaniment, which I think refers to the composer who Yoko is researching, was much easier on the ear than the techno of Millennium Mambo.
Banshun (Late Spring) is often regarded as the first of the late cycle of Ozu’s films and defines the style that is regarded, especially outside of Japan, as defining his work. It contains a number of those traits that have come to be seen as classic Ozu: from the visual traits such as sequences of travelling by train, the famous ‘pillow’ or ‘intermediate’ shots, which pepper the opening sequence or an elaborate tea ceremony that introduces the women of the story to the narrative pace, the focus on the intimate spaces of the middle class Japanese home and the narrative elision of important events. This last is a powerful means of skewing the structure to make those small moments and details the focus of screen time and, therefore, to allow the development of the drama through the intimate exchanges and not external drama. As part of this, the rhythms of daily life capture the emotional temperature and are used symbolically. The familiar greeting “tadaima” (“I’m home”) alters for Noriko as events threaten her happiness; the return of Somiya after his daughter’s wedding recalls an earlier scene of his homecoming and disrobing with some stark changes. What Ozu does so masterfully is to weave so subtly varied emotions into ‘set pieces’ that might on the surface appear very familiar, not least because of the reappearance of actors. Both Hara Setsuko and Ryû Chishû appeared in many of these late cycle films, Ryû was Ozu’s actor on most of his features (apparently all but two) and their playing of the emotions maximise the feeling of small moments that have deeply-felt repercussions for each of these characters. At times, it is in the nuance of an expression – at other times it is in a dramatic heartfelt outpouring. An observation of Hara (in character) is that she smiles when she is unhappy and cries when she is happy – adding to her enigmatic appearance, since her emotions are often contrapuntal when they are not hidden.
Something to appreciate about Banshun in the cinema, is how it is as much funny as it is dramatic or even tragic. Noriko (Hara) is a young women out of joint with her time – finding her father’s close friend and fellow widower ‘unclean’ for marrying again (although, in discussion at Bradford, we wondered whether something had been lost in translation there from the original Japanese?) for which she is constantly teased by him. Professor Somiya (Ryû)’s sister is played by another regular Ozu actress (Haruko Sugimura – the daughter, Shige, in Tokyo Monogatari) in a comic turn as the match-making aunt. Ozu jokes directly with us by leaving out narrative elements (as he does in other films in the visual language) – when he withholds certain information from us – Hattori’s engagement, for example.
As part of a Western audience, I can find things that are ‘very Japanese’ about the film – the noh play, for example (which is apparently Kakitsubata based on the Tales of Ise? If so, it performs a second function as a metaphor as a tale of loss and longing, of being banished on a journey. However, aside from recognising that what might appear representative of a culture to outsiders has a far more complex position within the culture itself, it’s also worth remembering that in Late Spring as elsewhere in these films presents us with a world that is Ozu’s own rigorous creation. Part of effect of this is the way in which the emotions are incredibly ‘globally’ resonant – the relationship between the daughter and the father is entirely recognisable and affecting. Ozu is involving in a way that can (whether it should or not) lead us to ignore the specific cultural setting and talk about the characters – as people. In the end, does Noriko move towards something that is ‘natural’ and necessary – the right course of action to start a life with her husband. Or should she have been left to choose her own, completely contented (and free) life, with her father?
This was the first film that Ozu Yasujiro was able to make for five years (he was stationed in Singapore from 1943-5) and it was made on a shoestring at Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio in Kamakura, the ancient city South-West of Tokyo where Ozu lived and died. According to David Bordwell the film was scripted in just 12 days and the final cut lasted only 72 mins – it was after all a very difficult time in Japan.
Bordwell writes in detail about the film, including the similarities to prewar films by both Ozu and Naruse but he doesn’t mention the two things that struck me straightaway – the social and industrial context and the neo-realist feel. (To be fair he probably mentions these traits in other parts of his book that I haven’t read.)
The story is very simple. One of a group of people living in a clutch of houses amidst the rubble of Tokyo comes home one day with a small boy in tow. All the local residents have temporary jobs that reflect a struggle to make ends meet in this period of post-war reconstruction – yet there are also ‘new’ characters such as the smart young niece of one of the men.
The boy appears to have been abandoned by his father in the city and Tashiro (Ryu Chisu) has taken pity on him. But Tashiro doesn’t want to look after the boy himself and he tries first to unload him on his neighbour Tamekichi and when he refuses, on the widow Tane. She doesn’t want to look after the boy either but she lets him stay the night. Over the next week the reluctant Tane comes to accept the boy. That’s about it really as far as the narrative goes. There are incidents and there’s an ending, but the film is about the characters and the social situation rather than the narrative structure. This is why I think that neo-realism is a valid reference. The situation in Tokyo was similar (worse probably) to that in Rome or Berlin. Perhaps the Japanese were fortunate in not having so many ‘displaced persons’ (although there were Korean and Chinese migrants in Japan under the Occupation Authority). Like the neo-realists, Ozu was working with a familiar daily occurrence and seeing what it allowed him to explore in communities. May 1947 was too early for Ozu to have seen Bicycle Thieves or Germany Year Zero – or indeed any of the German ‘rubble films’ of the postwar period. But there are similarities in the situation and his approach. Although most of the film is studio bound, there are significant location-shot scenes. There are studio sets and these are studio actors, but still there is a sense in which this is a ‘story from the streets’ (rather than a literary adaptation like many of Ozu’s later films). It’s worth remembering also that the Occupation Authorities were supportive of some themes while they banned others. A story about a widow in the ‘new Japan’ was probably very acceptable in a climate of support for women’s rights.
I’m beginning to realise, as I watch more of Ozu, that most critics are too keen to ‘sectionalise’ the director’s output – as if he stopped making one kind of film and then started something else. He didn’t of course. There is a gradual accretion of stylistic devices and although there are shifts in thematics, there are also threads running through the whole body of work. For instance, I understand that there was reference to the difficult social realities of contemporary Japan in the 1930s films. In this sense, Record of a Tenement Gentleman is a continuation rather than a new beginning. The comic tone that lies on top of the sentimentality in the film is also a recurring element and the focus on the boy picks up on earlier films and is repeated in cameo appearances in Late Spring (1949) and is very evident in Ohayo! (1959).
In stylistic terms, this film has some of the ‘straight on’, Medium Close-Ups/Mid-Shots (as in the image above), shots of laundry drying, groups around the stove in the houses etc. – as well as shots outside amongst the rubble and along the beach. (I honestly can’t recall whether the camera moved in these sequences or if it was the movement of characters within the frame – certainly there is the sense of movement along the beach.)
I see no real reason to separate this film from those that followed in the so-called ‘late period’ of 1949-62. I haven’t watched all of the latter yet, but I’m sure that I will find them both similar and different, but consistent – if that makes sense.
I enjoyed this film that sneaked out in the UK on a single print from Dogwoof – who appear to have offered it no support at all. In Germany it was a significant hit (1.1 million admissions) and it seems to have had a reasonable distribution in North America. The reviews in the UK were generally OK I think, but in the US I’ve come across some real stinkers in which the filmmaker is accused of banality and ‘hippie fripperies’. It’s clearly a film that touches the ‘superior art’ button in some critics. I know I’m prone to this kind of response, so I’ll proceed with care.
Doris Dörrie is a German filmmaker who I’ve tended to associate with comedies – often about gender relations. I’m not sure that I’ve seen any of her earlier films. If I have, I don’t remember. I watched this film without any other preconceptions and was quickly aware that the narrative in the first half closely follows that of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Perhaps more surprising, the second half of the film corresponds more closely to aspects of Zhang Yimou’s Riding Along for Thousands of Miles and also includes sequences that could remind audiences of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. In a way, none of this is surprising since the central narrative ideas are universal. However, any filmmaker foregrounding a debt to Ozu needs to tread carefully. I thought Dörrie’s script and direction, and especially the performances of her leads, kept the narrative simple and provided a moving experience for the audience. Others clearly don’t agree.
If you don’t know Tokyo Story, it involves an older couple living in Osaka who decide at short notice to visit their grown-up children in Tokyo. Their son and daughter have busy lives with jobs and families and the parents feel as if they are imposing. They visit a spa to relieve the burden and the only real welcome they receive is from their dead son’s young widow. There is also another son who doesn’t live in Tokyo. Dörrie locates her parental couple in rural Bavaria and their children in Berlin and Tokyo. Ozu’s young widow becomes their daughter’s lesbian partner. Dörrie also utilises two other Ozu traits – trains and what has been termed the ‘pillow shot’. The film is a rail fetishist’s dream with numerous railway scenes in both Germany and Japan. The ‘pillow shot’ in Ozu’s mise en scène is a ‘cutaway’ to a shot of a deserted street or landscape placed between the shots of characters inside buildings and engaged in some form of discourse. Personally, I thought that Dörrie used this idea very well and I didn’t find the images banal.
There are a number of specific Japanese elements in the German sequences that become of great significance when the story moves to Tokyo. The first is the work of the artist Hokusai and specifically his famous series of woodblock prints, 36 Views of Mount Fuji produced in the 1830s. Hokusai was very popular in Japan and woodblock prints were arguably the world’s first mass medium. Contrasted with this is a much more modern Japanese cultural form, butoh – a form of contemporary dance developed in the 1950s. Both the relatively old and the new Japanese cultural forms have fans in the West and Dörrie uses this as the basis for the trip to Japan. The Zhang Yimou film Riding Along For Thousands of Miles sees a father travelling to rural China to film the folk opera that was his dying son’s research objective. In Cherry Blossoms, the quest is to see one of Hokusai’s views of Fuji, the ‘shy mountain’. The quest means engagement with a totally different language and culture and finding a sympathetic local to act as a guide.
Japanese culture produces many festivals, often associated with seasonal phenomena and the spirits that inhabit places of natural beauty. The blooming of the cherry tree for a few weeks in Spring is the signal for ‘viewing parties’ – social gatherings beneath the trees. (The festival is known as hanami.) Dörrie uses one of these in a Tokyo park as a central focus for her Japan-set narrative – one in which a bewildered German tries to find some form of spiritual connection. Unlike Coppola whose film controversially offers a postmodernist view of Tokyo, Dörrie just lets us struggle with her German character to comprehend another culture through mundane actions like buying a cabbage. If this is cinematic banality (“unoriginal and boring”) for some critics, I think that they must inhabit very different worlds to the one I experience.
I think that most adults in their thirties with ageing parents or most couples in their sixties with grown-up children will find this film to be moving and gently provocative in thinking about how they feel as parents and children. If it also gets anyone interested in Ozu, Zhang, Hokusai or simply visiting Tokyo that would be a bonus. I’d certainly recommend it. The music is also terrific with some pieces by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Here is the trailer from the film. Spoiler – it rather gives away the plot twists, but apart from that gives a fair indication of the film.
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.
The more I see of the films of Ozu Yasujiro, the more I enjoy them and the more differentiated they become. This film, made just before Tokyo Story and scripted by Ozu with his usual writing partner Noda Kôgo, has the usual focus on family arrangements and personal relationships, but its tone is unusual. For long periods it seems quite bitchy and cynical and then becomes quite sweet and sentimental. The train trip is here, the bar and the visit to a spa, but also other aspects of the leisure time of the middle classes – dress shops, baseball, cycle-racing, kabuki, pachinko parlours and even Tokyo Airport and a tracking shot of a couple walking through the streets. There is more sense of the social life of a Japanese city in this film than in all the other Ozu films that I have seen.
The family is middle-class. The wife, Taeko, is very definitely ‘leisured’ and has at least two maids. She lives in a large Tokyo house with two floors (though Ozu carefully avoids actually showing us stairs – I’m not sure why). Her husband, Mokichi, who she thinks of as ‘Dull-san’ or a ‘relaxed turtle’, is from a lower middle-class background. He was a corporal in the Imperial Army and has done well in his (office) job at an engineering company. A sudden trip to Uruguay becomes a plot point in the last third of the film. Taeko is bored and constantly lies to her husband in order to spend time with her girlfriends at the club or going away to a spa. The lying is pointless, since she is a very bad liar and anyhow, Mokichi would probably raise no objection if she told him straight.
Both husband and wife are acting as mentors. Taeko takes her niece Setsuko under her wing and Mokichi agrees to be a guarantor for a young man, Non-chan who is seeking employment. The two younger characters represent the rapidly modernising Japan and Taeko is taken aback to discover that her niece has no intention of agreeing to an arranged marriage (which of course she went through – and ended up with Mokichi). The young man meanwhile is tempting Mokichi into spending time in pachinko parlours and baseball.
Taeko and her girlfriends gossip much like suburban wives in a 1950s Hollywood comedy-melodrama. The tone then changes a little with the resistance shown by Setsuko to an arranged date. An intriguing sequence this, set in a kabuki theatre – we never see the stage, but hear the actors – as we watch Taeko and her friends searching for Setsuko who has ‘escaped’. She ends up with her uncle and Non-Chan. Mokichi is quite sensible and when he realises that she simply won’t accept the arrangement, he leaves her slurping noodles with Non-Chan. I won’t spoil what happens in the end, but it’s an interesting resolution to the narrative.
The film’s title refers to the kind of meal that Mokichi really enjoys – poor people’s food, simple but subtle with the clash of flavours producing something pleasing. It becomes an important plot point and Mokichi suggests it’s a metaphor for marriage with the different flavours of men and women. Taeko comments on the smell of pickles on her hands which Mokichi refers to as the smell of a ‘working woman’s hands’.
I watched this film on a busy train and it is a testament to Ozu Yasujirō’s art and craftmanship that I was completely enthralled as the world passed by my window. I approached the film with no preconceptions except that I presumed it to be a shomingeki of some – a drama about the lower middle-class or “people just like you or me”. I hadn’t realised it was a comedy – an earthy social comedy as well as a comedy of manners, beautifully shot of course by Atsuta Yuuharu (Ozu’s regular cinematographer) and presented in a bright colour print on the Artificial Eye DVD.
The film is described by many critics as a remake of Ozu’s I Was Born But . . . (1932). Ozu’s early work is another of the gaps in my film viewing, but Ohayo! stands up on its own for me and even if it repackages an earlier idea, it does so in a very specific production context. In many ways the film refers to the period of my childhood with its black and white TVs and hula hoops. The setting is a ‘new build’ community on the edge of Tokyo, presumably somewhere by a river or flood plain since there is a large embankment behind the tiny houses (by UK standards) along which the children dawdle to school and the grown-ups walk briskly towards the train (ah, Ozu and his love of railways!). (I was reminded of the new dwellings being imagined at the end of Mizoguchi’s The Lady of Musashino.) There are two basic ‘plot lines’ set against an almost soap opera-like set of relationships between the housewives. In the major narrative strand, the two boys (aged roughly 7 and 13) in the Hayashi family are excited by the arrival of television in the community and they join two other boys in watching the sumo wrestling at a neighbour’s house. Their parents don’t really approve of this, especially as the neighbour is a young cabaret singer of dubious respectability. Also, the boys seem to prefer TV to doing their homework – extra English tuition with an unemployed translator. This is the link to the second narrative strand, the possibility of a romance between the translator (who lives with his older, unmarried sister) and the boys’ young auntie who lives with them.
These two narratives both relate to the social context of the time. In the late 1950s, Japan was approaching the period of economic ‘lift-off’ but the economy still showed some signs of uneven growth after the struggle to recover from the disaster of 1945 and the subsequent Occupation. Some men are still out of work and the international success of the Japanese manufacturing companies is still to come. The translator’s sister sells Austin cars (a British make that was assembled and then transformed into a Japanese car by Nissan in the 1950s) – a sign that we are still in the period when Japanese companies were studying European and American designs before offering their own improved versions. The TV set is a marker of both the economic prosperity that is to come with advanced technology and also of the cultural changes that might ensue. Ozu’s community is otherwise traditional. The key plot device is the declaration by the two boys that they are going to refuse to speak until their parents give in and buy a TV set. This challenge proves disruptive in the community – they don’t speak at home, at school or in the street, where not saying “ohayo!” (“good morning!”) could be seen as offensive by the neighbours. In raising the importance of inconsequential, ‘polite’ speech (the boys accuse the older generation of prattling on and not saying anything), Ozu is able to link the second narrative in which the young couple meet but are afraid to speak directly about what is clear to us as an audience.
The script by Ozu with Noda Kôgo is very clever and ties together both narratives and all the themes very neatly. The IMDB comments on the film are revealing as usual. Overall the film performs very well and the Ozu fans confess that it is one of the most enjoyable of his films. However, most find it necessary to say that as a comedy it must be ‘lightweight’ or ‘not serious’. I’m with the minority who think it can be both a comedy and a serious work that captures something about humanity in time and place in a way that only a truly cinematic genius can. The other problem, for some, is the comic ‘business’ around the boys’ farting contest (which too is linked to the other stories and characters). I confess that on a noisy train, I at first didn’t hear the rather musical farts, but on a second viewing all made sense and I think the characters only become more human by doing the things we all do. Now, where’s the dried fish and miso?
Here’s the trailer: