Capturing the calm and thoughtful manner of a father, reflecting on his duty to his daughter, is a moment rarely seen on film.
Director Yasujiro Ozu though, is a filmmaker who has effortlessly caught this type of moment throughout his career. From the generational divide seen in the family in Tokyo Story (widely considered one of the Greatest Films of All-Time) to the widowed men in An Autumn Afternoon, it is clear that reflecting on your life in your twilight years is a rite of passage. An Autumn Afternoon was Ozu’s final film – and his sixth in colour. Considering he remained single his entire life, living with his mother during her final years, it is perhaps surprising that he manages to capture the sense of family so well.
An Autumn Afternoon tells the story of Hirayama (Chishu Ryu), an older man, who has three children. His eldest son, Koichi, is married and lives away from home, while his daughter Michiko and college-son Kazuo remain at home. He works within a factory and meets with his friends Kawai and Horie over sake and . The three friends spend a night with a former teacher, referred to as ‘The Gourd’, who lives alone with his daughter. ‘The Gourd’ works in a noodle shop, his daughter is older now and will clearly not marry as she has dedicated her life to look after her father. Kawai tells Hirayama that this could be him and his daughter. This becomes the drive of the story as Hirayama has to release his daughter from the boundaries of home, and marry into another family – as Hirayama will have to learn how to look after himself.
Ozu’s unique direction is apparent within An Autumn Afternoon, as it would be within the majority of his films. Indoor locations, low-framing and static shots are part and parcel of his oeuvre. The style of filmmaking makes you analyse and hone in on the characters emotion. A final shot of Hirayama sipping tea switches our thoughts – we wonder what he is thinking. Indeed, a calm and slow structure forces a viewer to work harder at considering the purpose of each sequence. This isn’t a flaw in any respect, merely an observation from a viewer who is fed on the fast-paced, urgency of modern filmmaking.
Ozu ranks amongst the very best filmmakers of all-time, alongside Welles and Hitchcock. His inspiration reaches to Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis and Wim Wenders. An Autumn Afternoon balances the personal story of Hirayama against the larger context of the change in tradition within Japan. While the arrangement of marriage is an important role for parents – something Hirayama holds dear, it is clear that the traditional role of husband and wife is vastly different within the younger marriage between Koichi and his wife, Mariko. He helps with the chores and food-preparation, literally wearing the apron, while Mariko is happy and content to dictate where the finances will, and will not, go. This larger context provides a fascinating angle to the story – and something that a small, domestic story rarely demonstrates.
Ozu, for many years, was considered “too Japanese” for Western audiences. The year his films were screened at the Venice Film Festival, was followed the following year by his death. International films, and especially Ozu, are a great example of watching a film that in every respect is rooted in Japanese culture and tradition. But what is clear about An Autumn Afternoon, is how themes still resonate with Western audiences. Caring for parents may not be as traditionally expected as it is in Japan – especially in 1960’s, but our duty to our family against our own ambitions and aspirations, for a family or otherwise, can often be a conflict. This tender story, though distant, is recognisable and will remain relevant for as long as family exists.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 15th May 2014