A wizened widower is pressured by family and friends to marry off his twentysomething daughter before they become sad and sheltered codependents. This universal tale is set against the background of a post-WWII Japan still contemplating its loss, its destruction and its Americanized renewal mid-century. Sound a little familiar? In addition to dealing with many of the traditional domestic concerns that inform nearly every film he made in the latter portion of his career, Yasujiro Ozu's final film, An Autumn Afternoon (literal English translation: The Taste of Mackerel Pike), is also a narrative recapitulation of perhaps his greatest film, Late Spring. And in that mid-career masterpiece, the widower is played (as he is in Autumn Afternoon) by Chishu Ryu. Rather than examine the later film's circumstantial status as Ozu's last film (he died working on its successor, after all), it's more rewarding to parse the two superficially identical films for their vast differences, if for no other reason than to put the lie to the notion that if you've seen one Ozu film, you've seen them all.
While many of his films deal with tragedies small and great, Late Spring comes very close (by Ozu's standards) to engineering a full-on three-hanky ending, and all in reaction to what should be a joyful event: a wedding. Interestingly, the widower in Late Spring seems far closer to death at the lonely end of the film than his doppelganger in An Autumn Afternoon, despite the fact that the same actor appears in both roles. The father and daughter in the earlier film have unfortunately passed beyond the point of codependence, to the point that their separation is indeed akin to a death or divorce. In contrast, the widower in Autumn Afternoon houses both a daughter and a son. None of the three appear to have an especially close bond; in their very first scene, none of them end up supping together, and the implication is that they've built this deflection of familial bonding time into their routines. You almost get the sense that even if they ended up living together until the end of the widower's life, codependence would never enter into their collective psychology.
Both films wind up with a cinematically exclamatory (again, by Ozu's standards) reveal of the daughter in her bridal gown. In Autumn Afternoon, the bride appears to be passively accepting her wedding day as the right thing to do, not particularly worried about the fate of her father. In Late Spring, the daughter (played by virgin diva Setsuko Hara) is all but doubled over, hollowed out with grief that turns her face into a grim mask surrounded by bridal finery. In the later film, the bridge appears to be contemplating how she's going to will herself to love the man she winds up with because he was not her first choice. Ditto the earlier film, only because the daughter's first choice is her father.
That said, if Ozu had notably turned down the empathetic volume by the time he revisited the scenario, he had also hardened his formal style. It isn't until you really start to compare and contrast the two that you see the trademarks of Ozu's style, still in gestation with Late Spring, having become hard-edged and downright merciless. If anything, the addition of color to his mise-en-scène only tightened his fastidiously balanced eye; now it wasn't enough to carefully control objects, focus and editing techniques—each shot also has a red object somewhere. (Many note the red swaths in the daughter's wedding dress, which seems to suggest her impending move into the periphery of the father's life, just as those red bottles and smokestacks hover in the periphery of Ozu's camera.) The progression of Ozu's style seems to parallel that of Jacques Tati, who moved from the mutable likes of M. Hulot's Holiday into the glass-cut inflexibility of Playtime.
What do all these subtle modifications to the otherwise similar template suggest? One could reason that Ozu, a man who appeared to embrace the encroachment of Western technology and values or at least react with warm bewilderment (as opposed to Tati's latently outraged mockery), saw Americanization bringing with it the sort of feminism that would make the father-daughter setup more untenable in the 1960s than it seemed just after WWII. Or that Ozu, a man who himself lived childless and unmarried with his mother up until her death which itself occurred not long before his own, may have spent more time contemplating his own situation and subconsciously decided it was really no tragedy at all. Or that Ozu, who at the end of Tokyo Story had one of his characters utter with rue how disappointing life is, may have found more value in the emotional implosion that closes Late Spring than the bittersweet but almost rote "life goes on" coda to Autumn Afternoon. The very weird irony of Autumn Afternoon is that its earlier cinematic double seems the far more likely candidate to fit the bill as Ozu's last will and testament. Maybe to everyone but the melodrama-averse Ozu.
IMAGE / SOUND:
Criterion continues to piss off HDTV set owners with their insistence on letterboxing their Academy ratio, full-frame transfers. (If overscan is their explanation, why don't they do the same for their anamorphic transfers? Picture information gets cut off on those too.) So while the image is maybe about five to seven percent less impressive than it could've been, it still looks a bit better than some of the other color transfers Criterion released last year on their Eclipse box set of late Yasujiro Ozu works. There are still problems with flickering that have marked all other Ozu transfers I've ever seen, and color balance seems to be an issue for the pedants over at the Criterion Collection Forum (I'll summarize their side of the story: If it looks good to Western eyes, it's not what Ozu intended). The sound is hollow but legible, with somewhat shrill music cues.
If Ozu never meant for this film to be treated like the grand summation of his career, Criterion isn't treating this DVD like their grand collection of Ozu ephemera. A single-disc effort, there are really only two major bonus features not counting the reliably smart booklet of liner notes. First is a full-length, intelligent but vaguely standard-issue commentary track by critic David Bordwell. Second is a set of excerpts from a French television documentary about Ozu. Critic Michel Ciment packs a lot of context into his few minutes of screen time, but I was mostly distracted by the use of two judo masters enacting a slow-motion sparring session to, somehow, demonstrate how Ozu eliminated nuance from his actors' performances by putting them through 20 to 30 rehearsals before shooting. I admit I probably watched that judo match 20 to 30 times.
An Autumn Afternoon examines disappointment, loneliness and isolation, but Ozu's final film is less a tragedy than it is a miracle of bemused resignation.