[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: An Autumn Afternoon, the final film of Yasujirô Ozu, opens with an image that goes a long way towards establishing the film's distinctive tone and atmosphere. It is a patiently held shot of a factory with red-striped smokestacks spewing puffs of white smoke into the breeze, an image that is simultaneously industrial/modern and poetic/timeless. The sequence of images that follows—indicative of Ozu's characteristic "pillow shots" that establish setting and mood—traces the flowing smoke to a view through an open window, past which the smoke billows, and a hallway where the smoke casts a gently drifting shadow on the wall. Finally Ozu cuts to a shot of the film's central character, the aging businessman Hirayama (Chishū Ryū), with the smoke drifting by outside, glimpsed through the window next to his desk. This evocative, wordless introduction effortlessly glides from the macro to the individual, bringing the viewer into Ozu's unique world in the process.
By the end of his career, Yasujirô Ozu had developed a singular style and a set of themes and stories that were wholly his own. He was a director from 1927 to 1962, with World War II as an interruption dividing his early string of Hollywood-influenced comedies, melodramas and genre pictures from the mature style of his later years. An Autumn Afternoon is both representative of that style—quiet, carefully paced, built around static and strikingly framed shots—and a potent exemplar of the richness and emotional complexity of Ozu's work. Like all his post-war films, it is a domestic drama concerned with the tensions of post-war Japan, with the gap between generations in a rapidly changing society, with the dialectic of traditionalism and modernization, and especially with the ways in which these forces and ideas are reflected within the Japanese family.
An Autumn Afternoon, though it wasn't intended as Ozu's swan song, is fitting as a summation of his career, another of his subtle variations on his signature concerns. Like the voluminous steam clouds that eventually become a wisp of smoke in the background, An Autumn Afternoon is concerned with both the big picture changes affecting Ozu's society and the individuals living within that society.
Jason Bellamy: That's a fitting introduction, because as with An Autumn Afternoon (1962)—or Floating Weeds (1959) or Late Autumn (1960), the only other Ozu films I've seen (so sue me)—your attention to poetic imagery suggests greater "richness and emotional complexity" than I think is actually produced by those images. Throughout this discussion of Ozu's final film I'm going to find many opportunities to celebrate the legendary director's artistic eye, but I suppose we might as well begin this conversation by confronting my principal complaint about Ozu: I don't think his attention to detail is particularly productive.
I cringe a bit as I write that, because what richness and emotional complexity I do find in Ozu's films, and in An Autumn Afternoon in particular, is almost always a direct result of pure cinematic artistry. Ozu has a photographer's sensibility and technique—the ability to find both visual and emotional depth in static, carefully composed shots—and so his films' most affecting moments are often silent portraits, like the one that finds the old former professor Sakuma (Eijiro Tono), "The Gourd," sitting forlornly in his noodle shop after one of his former students has left to have a drink with an old military buddy who just criticized Sakuma's cooking. In that instance, Ozu's composition is truly poignant, truly rich, truly complex. But in other moments, I don't get much out of Ozu's cinema beyond my admiration for the shots themselves.
Before we go further, let me offer that the thrill of cinematic imagery can be fulfilling in and of itself. Just like I would argue that a film can succeed almost solely because of its writing, acting or basic dramatic construction (execution of plot), I think a film can also succeed purely because of its visual splendor. In this country we have a tendency to evaluate films mostly on plot (does it make sense? is it "new"? is it suspenseful? is it mysterious? is it intricate?), and I think that sets up American audiences to overlook and under-appreciate Ozu's cinema, which if not quite plotless is at least dramatically plain, relatively speaking. But, that said, I think it's a mistake to regard Ozu's visual splendor and attribute to it emotions that it doesn't actually produce.
Admittedly, this will inevitably lead us into subjective ground: you say a shot makes you feel X, and I say the same shot makes me feel Y, or nothing at all. So let's start here: You rightfully called attention to the imagery of the film's opening, which begins with that painterly shot of those smoke stacks and leads us, through a few more fixed portraits, to the shot of Hirayama at his desk. It's striking imagery, indeed. But you also called it "evocative" and said it brings the viewer into Ozu's "unique world." So, let me ask you: Those shots are evocative of what, exactly? They reveal the film's emotional themes how? Ozu's world is unique in what way? In short, other than the vividness of the shots themselves, is this sequence all that remarkable compared to any director's typical establishing shots?
EH: Those are a lot of big questions, the kinds of questions that fill whole books about Ozu. So I'll start with your last question by suggesting that, indeed, there is something qualitatively different about Ozu's "pillow shots" as compared with the typical establishing shots of other directors. Establishing shots, generally speaking, do exactly what their name would suggest: they establish the geography and feel of a place, providing a sense of context and setting for what happens next. Ozu's scenic inserts do this, too, of course, but it is only one function of these interludes. The difference lies largely in the syntax, the way each shot within these groupings observes a particular scene or object from a slightly different angle; there's a sense of an artist trying to capture the poetic essence of what he sees by sketching it from all sides. It's practically a cliché to say that a filmmaker's sensibility is "poetic," but with Ozu the description really fits. At times, the parallels even seem literal: it can be productive to think of each individual shot as a line of a written poem, with the meanings and subtexts generated between the lines.
There's also a powerful but perhaps easily overlooked thematic component to these shots. One of the dominant themes of An Autumn Afternoon—and many other Ozu films—is the state of post-war Japan as a country increasingly torn between traditional values and the Westernization and modernization that took over as Japan developed from devastation to renewed prosperity in the decades after the war. This theme is reflected not only in dialogue and plotting, but quite frequently in the images themselves, which juxtapose traditional Japanese-style architecture and clothing against modern conveniences and other changes: vacuum cleaners as bright and prominent as the more traditional red teapots that Ozu also often highlights within his carefully composed frames, or neon signs glimpsed out windows while women in kimonos and wooden sandals flutter past. In a similar way, the fluttering smoke of the opening scenes, industrial pollution filmed in such a way as to make it seem pastorally beautiful, subtly introduces the kinds of tensions that will drift through the rest of the film.
What I love about these images is how subtle they are. When I say that Ozu's inserts evoke ideas about modernization and nostalgia that are more overtly stated in the film's text, I don't mean that these are nakedly symbolic images. Ozu seldom resorts to surface symbols. Instead, these scene-setting images have multi-faceted, quietly suggested implications that resonate with the film's themes and emotions in indirect ways. They are invitations to silent contemplation: When, later in the film, Ozu abruptly inserts a shot of a lantern to interrupt Hirayama's musings about his military service and his family, the lantern does not directly comment on what's happening in the scene but nevertheless has a poetic relationship to the central character's emotions and thoughts. I think, just as Western audiences sometimes overvalue plot, there's a risk also of overvaluing direct symbolism and, as a result, failing to see the merit, or the meaning, in Ozu's more open-ended, less deterministic approach.
JB: See, here's my problem: I hardly disagree with anything you wrote there. It all sounds good in principle. But at the same time, is it really fair to call something "symbolic" when the supposed symbolism in question is ambiguous enough to be interpreted in multiple and perhaps contradictory ways? To my thinking, within the art form of film, "cinematography" and "symbolism" should be mostly synonymous, essentially both defined as "visual storytelling." My objection here isn't to ambiguity itself, because ambiguity is fine and good. Likewise, my objection isn't to the idea that very specific cinematography can create something unspecific, because of course that happens all the time.
In fact, a perfect example of the latter can be found in one of the best shots in An Autumn Afternoon when, just before Hirayama's daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) is about to be married, Michiko kneels in her formal wedding attire and looks up at her father with an expression that seems to suggest so many things at once—nervousness, sadness, regret, nostalgia, embarrassment—that it (wonderfully) doesn't have any specific meaning. In that case, what's being symbolized is ambiguity itself. There are multiple ways to interpret Michiko's emotions in that scene, and that's exactly what's being symbolized: her emotional chaos and uncertainty. Her specific emotions are buried, but her emotional conflict is unmistakable. To use your terminology, that's a "nakedly symbolic" image, even if it's filled with uncertainty. But I think that stands in stark contrast to the lantern shot you mentioned, which could mean many things or nothing at all. We can interpret meaning into it, but it isn't giving meaning to us. If a shot like that doesn't specifically tell us something, I question whether it is indeed "symbolic," the same way that the shot of the vacuum cleaner in the apartment of Koichi (Keiji Sada) and Akiko (Mariko Okada) directly informs us about their place in Japan's post-war modernity.
I understand the obvious counterargument: The lantern shot in and of itself might not tell us anything specifically, but shots like it, over time, contribute to the mood of the film. The lantern shot might be incidental on its own—remove that cutaway from the film, and you wouldn't significantly alter the scene or the film as a whole—but over time all those cutaways, all those "pillow shots," contribute to the feeling of being within Ozu's Japan. With that, I don't disagree. Not in the slightest. And yet when discussing Ozu there's a tendency to want to ascribe a meaning to specific shots that just isn't there within the shot (or brief series of shots) itself. So when we go back to your initial suggestion that the shots of the factory are "evocative," I think that's overstatement. Yes, those shots begin to suggest the modernized, post-war world in which this entire story will take place—but they only begin to do that. Yes, those shots begin to set the mood—but they only begin to do that. We have the benefit of seeing in hindsight a significance to those images that isn't immediately apparent. And whereas the shot of Michiko before her wedding speaks for itself, the factory shots only find meaning when coupled with many other exterior shots in this film. (Interestingly, I think many of Ozu's interiors are, on the contrary, immediately evocative, which is a topic for later.)
If it seems like I'm making a big deal out of your word choice to describe a series of four shots that account for less than 30 seconds of this film, it's because I think there's a tendency when admiring Ozu's very technical and undeniably striking compositions to read into them an emotional subtext that isn't there, as if to justify their meticulousness. To try to read emotional depth and complexity into every shot is, in my mind, an insult to the many Ozu shots that are truly powerful and indeed evocative. Over the rest of this conversation, we'll be coming back to this theme a lot, I'm sure.
EH: In one sense, I see your point, although I did say that Ozu's images are not symbolic, at least not in the conventional sense. Many of Ozu's "pillow shots," by themselves, might not mean much. Many of these shots don't have any obvious symbolic or thematic interpretation. On that much, we agree. But we're not looking at these shots in isolation. Their cumulative impact, over the course of a film—and, not incidentally, over the course of a career in which Ozu very meticulously and consistently developed his visual language—can be tremendous. If the opening shots only "begin" to suggest the themes and imagery that will drive the remainder of the film, that's to be expected; it's the beginning of the film. But I don't think it's overstretching to suggest that not only are these images poetically beautiful in their own right, they also suggest emotions that are not yet fully expressed but that are nevertheless felt in a more amorphous way. Over the course of this film, those initially amorphous feelings are sharpened and clarified. To put it another way: right from the start, An Autumn Afternoon makes me feel something, stirring me with the suggestiveness of those opening images, and subsequent images and scenes build upon that foundation to express more fully developed ideas. It's Ozu's way of gently guiding the viewer into the film's substance, developing his ideas and stories slowly rather than hammering his point home more forcefully.
Maybe we can agree more about a sequence of silent, unpopulated still shots that occurs later in the film. After Michiko's wedding, Ozu twice inserts a series of views of the interior of Hirayama's empty, quiet home. The meaning is obvious—the old man is feeling lonely and abandoned now that his daughter has left to get married—but it's obvious, to some extent, because these kinds of feelings have been building up throughout the film. By themselves, these images don't directly say anything about loneliness, though one could argue that the image of an empty stool placed in front of a mirror, repeated several times in the film's last act, is a direct representation of absence. More importantly, these images are affecting because Ozu has been so attentive to mood-setting in the scenes leading up to this denouement. The image of a staircase shrouded in shadows is beautiful and sad in its own right, but it's doubly moving with the knowledge that this is the staircase leading up to Michiko's now empty room. The film's final image, of Hirayama sitting in his kitchen, pouring himself a glass of water in the darkness, mirrors an earlier, nearly identical shot in which this same frame was filled by the bustling activity of Michiko, running back and forth across the frame as she performed household chores. It's a pointed but still subtle demonstration of the hole left in Hirayama's life by the departure of his daughter.
The finale is, on its surface, as undramatic as the rest of the film; there is no big climax, no confrontation between the characters, and the only direct expression of feelings is Hirayama's drunken lamentations. The pivotal event of the story, Michiko's wedding, takes place offscreen, and her husband is talked about but never seen. As with so many of Ozu's films, emotions are largely contained beneath the surface. One of Ozu's points about Japanese society is his observation—and criticism—of the excessive politeness and reticence that can prevent his characters from expressing themselves clearly. This is especially apparent in the scene where Michiko talks with her brother's friend Miura (Teruo Yoshida) at a train station; their conversation is superficial and banal, but there's a sense of something deeper lingering beneath the surface, a hint of unarticulated attraction passing between this pair. But neither says anything to reveal their feelings, and later in the film this scene becomes emblematic of the missed opportunities that result from this failure to communicate. (Ozu had already made a similar point in a more lighthearted way in Good Morning, which contrasted the empty small talk of adults against the directness of children.) In a cinematic conception where words only rarely reflect anything more consequential than formalities, the images in Ozu's films—whether it's Michiko's shy sideways glances at her brother's friend or the periodic inserts of unpopulated interiors—convey the nuances of thought and feeling that too often are left unspoken.
JB: With that I agree. Despite my negative tone thus far, which is sparked by my objections to overly generous readings of the emotionality and meaning of Ozu's compositions, I do believe that his films are most expressive when his characters aren't speaking at all, or when their conversations are so mundane that they're hardly worth listening to, which is most of the time. Yes, those shots of the empty house are especially poignant as employed toward the end of the film, because by that time we know precisely how much Hirayama will miss his daughter's nurturing presence. Having said that, Ozu consistently displays a knack for generating emotion from empty-room shots no matter the context, at least to some degree because empty rooms are inherently lonely. Ozu's exteriors I find less impressive. Sure, I suppose the smokestack shots might have greater impact if employed later in the film, but I can't say I find a tremendous amount of mood in any of Ozu's exteriors, save for the shots of bar and restaurant signs shining brightly in the dark outside the Gourd's noodle shop. The problem isn't that Ozu is less artful with his exteriors, necessarily. It's that, with the exception of those sign shots, his exteriors rarely feel connected to his interiors, no matter how much smoke we see billowing on the other side of Hirayama's window. In fact, Ozu's exteriors sometimes seem like less than establishing shots for that very reason, which only makes them feel all the more random, all the less expressive.
In a sense, Ozu doesn't help his case when so many of his shots are visually artistic for the sake of being visually artistic. A perfect example in my mind would be his fascination with corridor shots. Corridors make for perfect Ozu landscapes, of course, because they allow him to quite naturally play with visual depth, layering and patterning, which are things that Ozu otherwise had a habit of forcing into his compositions (think of the way he arranges teacups and beer bottles in the foreground of so many of his otherwise bland one-shots). In another director's work, say Pedro Almodóvar's, such an intense fascination with corridors would almost have to be symbolic (the corridor as birth canal, or some such thing), but all I think it reveals in An Autumn Afternoon is Ozu's fondness for those compositions. He ogles corridors the way Quentin Tarantino ogles women's feet. There's nothing "wrong" with that, per se, so long as we don't force a meaning onto those shots that I don't believe is there to be found.
EH: I feel like we're starting to run aground on the reef of subjectivity with this topic. Partly, that's because Ozu's cinema steadfastly refuses the kinds of concrete meanings that would allow for more solid, definitive interpretations. That's why I've tried so hard to avoid suggesting that Ozu's images are overtly symbolic; there's no trace of that "corridor as birth canal" type of sensibility that finds symbols everywhere. Generally speaking, Ozu's corridors are just corridors, and his bar signs are just bar signs, but they still fulfill multiple roles within his films. At the most basic level, they transition from place to place or character to character. They are also visual signals for recurring locations, which is why Ozu sometimes walks through similar sequences of shots several times to create an association between a location, its surroundings and the emotional undercurrents of that place. And in the tensions Ozu sets up between the different elements that he places so carefully within the frame, the tensions of the narrative are often worked out in miniature. When Ozu positions a small black-and-white TV set amidst the clutter of traditional tea cups and sake pitchers, it's yet another small suggestion of modernity and traditionalism coexisting, though it's also (and perhaps more obviously) simply a way of setting the scene at a small bar where businessmen are watching a baseball game after work.
In the past, I've compared Ozu's exteriors to the Japanese artist Hokusai's famed Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, a set of woodblock prints depicting the mountain from various angles and in different lightings and seasons. Ozu's methodical examination of exterior locales—a cluster of shots of baseball stadium lights, a progression down a street lined with bars, a rubble-strewn and rundown area with apartments overlooking its disarray—seems like a modern expression of the same impulse to limn a setting's visual and poetic possibilities. That, and not the need to pin a single meaning or intent on each frame of the film, is what I'm talking about when I say that Ozu's exteriors are "evocative" or "suggestive."
JB: Fair enough. Again, I agree that Ozu's shots are evocative in the collective. That said, I think this was a worthwhile discussion to have, because I think we've just demonstrated how easy it is to exaggerate the evocativeness or symbolism of a specific shot in Ozu's oeuvre, either by reading more into the composition than is actually there to be found or by not specifically tying a shot's evocativeness to other shots that are crucial to giving that single shot meaning.
In my mind, David Bordwell makes at least one of those mistakes in his audio commentary for the Criterion edition of An Autumn Afternoon. As the author of the book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (which, for the record, I haven't read), Bordwell might be the foremost expert on Ozu. So of course his commentary is packed with sharp analysis and interesting historical anecdotes. But as I listened to his commentary, I came away with the feeling that Bordwell knows Ozu and this film almost too well, because at this point he seems to see An Autumn Afternoon through Ozu's eyes and with Ozu's sensibility: Ozu was obsessed with color, particularly red, and so Bordwell fittingly calls attention to the presence of color in many shots. Ozu was also obsessed with the general compositions of his shots and with the duration of each shot, and so Bordwell calls attention to that, too. It's all very educational. But it's also a little like an algebra equation. Bordwell frequently combines Ozu's cinematic instinct with Ozu's cinematic execution of his intent and comes to a result that, in my opinion, is greater than the sum of those parts. In other words, Bordwell doesn't solve for x.
For example: In a scene where Hirayama is drinking with his friends, Bordwell notes how a small flower in the background "provides a nice burst of red," and then he refers to a pair of mirroring shots of two men drinking as a "visual flourish." Later, he raves about Ozu's (carefully preplanned) editing in a scene that uses multiple angles to show Koichi lying on his back and then standing up, commenting that Ozu "daringly cuts on [Koichi's] movement but flips [our view] 180 degrees to the opposite side"—just one of one of the many times he praises Ozu's "action cuts." I have no objections to Bordwell's specific observations, but what's frequently missing is any convincing description of how or why these elements of Ozu's filmmaking serve the drama of the story. I suspect Bordwell could make those arguments convincingly, he just doesn't do that in his audio commentary, which seems to assume that because Ozu was a skilled perfectionist who "obsessively" composed each frame, that his intent-laden compositions must succeed in enhancing the film's emotional depth and complexity—because otherwise we'd have to call many of Ozu's shots visually resplendent and nothing more.
Perhaps the best illustration of what I'm talking about comes in Bordwell's description of the acting in this film. When I watched An Autumn Afternoon, I scribbled down the words "animatronic" and "confined." In this film, and in the other Ozu films I've seen, the actors often seem bolted in place, as rigid as something out of a Star Wars prequel. (There are extreme exceptions to this of course, one of them being the comical scene at the bar in which Hirayama's military buddy, Sakamoto (Daisuke Kato), performs a drunken march.) Prior to listening to Bordwell's audio commentary, I always assumed that the rigidness of the acting was indicative of the time and place in which it was made—Japan in the early 1960s—but then Bordwell's commentary track informed me that Ozu provided "hyper-exact direction" to his actors, going so far as to regularly demand specific expressions and movements, which were often timed on a stopwatch to ensure they complied with Ozu's planned pacing. Once I learned that, it all made sense: The acting is often rigid because the actors are constantly trying to hit their marks, even when they're sitting down. This seems a fairly obvious and almost inarguable conclusion, even if subjectively we might disagree on how often the acting is "rigid." Yet somehow Bordwell concludes that the acting of this film is impressively "not robotic." To that point, I'll give Ozu (and Bordwell) this much: Considering how much Ozu micromanaged each shot, it's amazing that the acting is as natural as it is. But here's a case in which I feel like Ozu is being celebrated for a meticulousness that in fact might have been detrimental to his film, whereas in the cases above, when Bordwell compliments Ozu's "action cuts," I feel as if Ozu is being complimented for a technical skill, without instead considering the degree to which that skill affects (if at all) the emotions of his film.
I respect that Bordwell, like many film buffs (Jim Emerson comes to mind), thrills to technical execution almost as much as to what that technical execution achieves. I'm not trying to disqualify that reaction. (If it thrills, it thrills.) But if that's the case, Ozu should be praised explicitly (and justifiably) for his craftsmanship. I think sometimes knowing or suspecting Ozu's intent can be an obstacle to seeing what the filmmaking actually achieves.
EH: I'm totally with Bordwell on the acting in this film. The performances never strike me as the least bit "robotic" or "rigid," except in the sense that the actors are portraying people who purposefully (try to) disguise their emotions behind pleasantries and formalities. This type of restrained performance is essential to Ozu's aesthetic, and to the points he's making about Japanese society. This approach to performance is as much a part of Ozu's carefully constructed milieu as his static camera placement, finicky mise en scène and avoidance of dissolves and fades. The characters in Ozu's films don't generally express themselves directly, seldom diverting from meaningless social chit-chat. This is something that Western audiences understand intuitively when Ozu is depicting the relationships between businessmen, but it can be disconcerting to realize that the private, familial relationships in Ozu's films often seem nearly as formal, nearly as bound by rules of decorum and politeness.
Furthermore, I'd argue that An Autumn Afternoon, more than most other Ozu films, depicts the cracks in this system of emotional restraint. The relationship between Koichi and Akiko is held up in many ways as a more "modern" template than the traditional relationship where feelings are suppressed and conversation is limited to trivialities. Akiko in particular is a more liberated woman than many of the female characters in Ozu's oeuvre; she banters with her husband, negotiating to get what she wants. Ozu partly plays this off as a joke on Koichi, who seems weak and hesitant as a consequence of his wife's forcefulness, but I think Ozu also gets a kick out of Akiko's sharp wit. There's also the scene in which Koichi is shown preparing dinner for the couple, which seems like a small thing except in the context of Ozu's Japan, where women are often attentive servants to the men, who don't contribute to the household chores at all. This film, more than any of Ozu's others, shows a Japan in flux between traditional values and a new modern era, and the shifting dynamic between men and women—as represented in the dialectic between the shy, hesitant Michiko and the outspoken Akiko—is one site of this transformation.
As usual with Ozu, one has to be attentive to nuances to pick up on the emotional stakes of these performances: Akiko's sly smirk and mock surprise when she's taunting her husband; Michiko's shyly smiling complicity with her sister-in-law's maneuvers; Koichi's petulant, boyish pouting when he doesn't get what he wants. It's frankly surprising to me that you'd denounce these performances as stiff when, to me, beneath their surface reticence, these performances are practically bursting with subtle gestural cues and slight shifts of expression that signal the churning emotions or comical subtext of these scenes. This submerged expressionism is evident in dramatic scenes as well: I already mentioned the subtle, meaningful glances during Michiko's seemingly banal conversation with Miura, and you brought up the mysterious but nonetheless affecting emotions running through the wedding preparations. It's equally evident in seemingly minor sequences, like the way Hirayama interacts with a secretary who's leaving to get married, and his tenderness with her reflects his confused feelings about his own daughter of the same marriage-ready age. Far from feeling that Ozu's meticulous, rigid scene construction unnecessarily restricts the actors, I think Ozu is trying to convey a societal structure that is restricting the characters—who, nonetheless, betray the true depths of their feelings in small ways despite all the pressures on them to hold back.
JB: I think you've made strong points and identified scenes in which emotion slips through the cracks of the film's rigid structure. And I agree that Ozu is trying to say something about the relationships between the characters, and indeed about the evolution of social behavior in Japan, by contrasting the more uptight manner of Hirayama and his friends with the considerably more relaxed manner (in some scenes) of his son Koichi and people from that younger generation. So it's here that I backtrack to admit that in the same rant in which I expressed frustration with Bordwell's lack of specificity, I made the same mistake. Because in saying that the acting in this film is robotic, I wasn't trying to imply that An Autumn Afternoon lacks characters with character, if you will. Instead, I was trying to make the point that even the most boisterous acting—Akiko yelling at Koichi, for example—is made to fit into such a specific space that it's as if the characters are moving on rails, as in a Disneyland ride.
That's why I identified Sakamoto's drunken march as an exception, because it's one of the few times when the actors don't seem bolted down, pivoting on one specific point. Does it really seem in character that a modern wife like Akiko would lecture her husband while leaving her lower body perfectly still, as if standing at attention? To me it seems forced—forced not by a desire to dig into themes but to ensure that Ozu's precious compositions are preserved. (If Akiko moved a foot to the left or the right, it would throw Ozu's shot out of balance.) Other than Sakamato's march and the scene in which Koichi hits golf balls on the roof of his office building, there aren't many moments in this film in which the characters are allowed to move of their own free will, which perhaps explains why Ozu has so many ancillary shots of people walking up and down corridors and in and out of doors, as if to make up for the, yes, robotic visual plotting of the other scenes.
In his commentary, Bordwell says that one of Ozu's longtime assistants thought it was unusual, and un-Japanese, for a filmmaker to be so fixated on a specific visual approach that he would essentially force each scene into that mold. So what I'm trying to get at is the idea that Ozu's meticulousness sometimes led him to construct the action in a way that confined his actors, that made their movements seems programmed, not for dramatic reasons but for aesthetic ones.
Take, for example, the scene in which Koichi and Miura have drinks late in the film: Ozu shoots most of the scene in his distinctive straight-ahead singles in which the speaking actor looks directly into the camera, or sometimes just above it, as if looking into the eyes of the person he's talking to. Between Koichi and Miura are various items on a table, including a bottle of soy sauce. To the right of each man, as established in an initial two-shot, is an oversized beer bottle. The way Ozu films the scene, the soy sauce bottle jumps from one side of the table to the other in each alternating shot, to reflect each man's perspective (the soy sauce bottle is slightly to Koichi's left, and thus it's slightly to Miura's right). The beer bottles, on the other hand, only appear one at a time in each alternating shot, and always to the character's right, which means always on the left edge of the frame.
Bordwell seems to suggest that this is a continuity error, but it isn't; the shot structure implies that each character is looking over his own bottle (and glass) of beer to see his friend's bottle, whereas the soy sauce bottle appears in each shot—and jumps from one half of the screen to the other—because it's in the middle of the table. Still, this scene exemplifies Ozu's obsession with visual patterning and, in my opinion, demonstrates how he painted his actors into corners. The actors playing Koichi and Miura have no choice but to sit in the same erect posture, not because it's "in character" (in the scene on the rooftop, they're much more relaxed) but because that's what Ozu's visual aesthetic requires. Bordwell theorizes that perhaps Ozu is trying to suggest the men are mirrors of one another, but he doesn't seem convinced, noting in the end that Ozu probably shot the scene this way because it's "cool." And that's fine by me. As I said before, if it thrills, it thrills. But whereas you feel that Ozu created this kind of patterning to convey a social structure that restricts these characters, I don't buy it. Or, more specifically, I don't think that was the main impetus for the rigid structure of Ozu's compositions, which I feel often overcame the emotions and story he was supposedly trying to evoke and explore. I don't expect to convince you of this point. I merely mean to explain why I feel as if Ozu's compositions don't always translate into emotion, mood, theme or social commentary. Sometimes I think they reveal the director's passion for composition itself.
EH: That makes sense to me. It seems like, rather than thinking the performances themselves are rigid or robotic, it's the blocking of the actors and their carefully managed arrangement within the frame that strikes you as restrictive. I don't see it as a problem—for one thing, there's no reason it can't be both an aesthetic/pictorial choice and a reflection of Ozu's themes of societal rigidity—but I understand what you're seeing. To some extent, we're seeing the same thing—Ozu denying his actors much mobility within the frame—and disagreeing about its effects. You say that "there aren't many moments in this film in which the characters are allowed to move of their own free will," and that's a very telling description. The central theme of the film is precisely that lack of control over one's life. Hirayama is caught between two bad choices, the loneliness of a solitary old age versus the misery of forcing his daughter to sacrifice her own independent life for him, likely leading towards a future very similar to the Gourd's unhappy situation. If these characters often seem like they're on rails, unable to move freely, that's because they are; they are tied to seemingly unavoidable destinies mandated by culture and tradition. Hirayama looks to the past so much, with his school reunions and reminiscences of his military career, because he has so little to look forward to in the future. Even Michiko, who at times shows signs of modernity and independence, winds up with little role in her own fate, acquiescing to her father's choice of husband when her own choice falls through. Ozu purposefully never shows her with her new husband to emphasize how little it matters, to anyone, who she marries, as long as she marries someone to fulfill the role that's expected of her.
At the same time, I don't think our views of Ozu's rigidity are entirely incompatible. There's no question that Ozu was a formalist, and that there are many images and sequences within his oeuvre where formal and aesthetic concerns are foremost. The examples you cite do seem like moments where Ozu is simply delighting in visual patterns and, certainly in the scene with the bottles that dance around the frame as Ozu dispassionately cuts back and forth from speaker to speaker, expressing his wry sense of humor. Humor, in general, is probably the most consistently undervalued aspect of Ozu's cinema, and it manifests itself not only in the playful touches he sometimes applies to his scene decoration, but in his characters and dialogue as well. We've already touched on some of the most comical scenes in An Autumn Afternoon, like Sakamoto's goofy military march, which only gets funnier the longer it goes on, and the more angles that Ozu provides on this earnestly silly spectacle. There's also a lot of comedy in the banter between Hirayama and his friends Horie (Ryuji Kita) and Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura), a trio of friends who have known each other for a long time and have, in their own quiet way, developed a camaraderie and rivalry that's both touching and a rich source of humor. This is particularly true of Horie's relationship with his young new wife, which prompts lots of jokes about impotence and vitality, as well as some jabs at henpecked husbands. When the wife comes to visit Horie at a lunch with his friends, her subtle manipulation of her husband into going home with her rather than staying to eat with his friends is made even funnier by Ozu's characteristic restraint: She gets what she wants without saying anything overtly, a nice twist on Ozu's more general point that his characters' reticence prevents them from being happy.
This scene, in addition to being rich in low-key humor, is exemplary of the way Ozu uses ancillary characters to sharpen and comment upon the central dilemma of Hirayama and his daughter. It's never made explicit, but Horie's choice is implicitly one option that Hirayama could pursue for his future, to stave off the loneliness of old age. Similarly, the half-joking bickering of Koichi and Akiko provides a portrait of married life for Michiko to observe, while the plight of the Gourd and his bitter daughter (Haruko Sugimura) is a cautionary tale for father and daughter. Ozu weaves these different characters and their stories into a web of possibilities, images of what life could be like in the society of the time.
JB: Right, and by the end of the film, Hirayama proves there's yet another option: solitude. The final shot of the film, of a drunk Hirayama pouring himself some water, is bittersweet: on the one hand, he's behaving the way his daughter would have wanted, the way he probably would have resisted if she were still there caring for him, and yet on the other hand he's such a lonely and pitiful figure. That final shot is signature Ozu: a layered corridor shot that captures an ultimately still and unspeaking character. But it also reminds me of the final scene in John Ford's The Searchers. Hirayama, like John Wayne's Ethan Edwards, is destined for a life of solitude, and whereas Ethan's isolation is symbolized by his position outside the home, Hirayama's is symbolized by his place in the background of the shot.
That's not the only time some of Ozu's late work seems linked to The Searchers. Floating Weeds, in particular, has several interior shots that remind of the scene in which Ford allows us to learn about the dynamics of the Edwards family just by watching them move within the hustle and bustle of their home. It's in cases like these that I think Ozu's passion for layered, almost deep-focus compositions, and his desire to evoke the personalities of his characters by showing how they fit within their living spaces, are perfectly harmonious. In An Autumn Afternoon, I love the shots of Akiko in her kitchen and of Koichi in their living room, with the relative clutter of their apartment contrasting with the more ascetic home of the former military commander, Hirayama. In my opinion it's those shots that best show the divide between the older generation and the post-war generation.
Of course, there's also the conversation between Hirayama and Sakamoto at the bar, which is the scene in which the film is most overt in pointing out the generation gap. Hirayama and Sakamoto refrain from telling war stories, but it becomes clear how much they still self-identify as soldiers, as if that was their true calling, as if everything since has been a form of dress-up in the name of just getting by. Eventually Sakamoto wonders what their lives would have been like had they won the war and taken over the United States, but Hirayama decides almost immediately that it was probably better that Japan lost. It's a shocking moment in the film, not just because Hirayama suggests that defeat was a good thing but also because he seems so ill-fit for post-war life that you might have suspected he'd spent those years bitter that his life had been defined by a losing effort. I'm curious what you think about that scene.
EH: I think it's one of the scenes in An Autumn Afternoon where Ozu's ambiguity and reticence are most effective. What makes it such a fascinating scene is how Ozu shifts between tones, introducing bitter and resigned notes only after the initial comic spectacle of Sakamoto's march and his grinning fantasy of what things might be like if Japan hadn't lost the war. He imagines that Americans would have been taking their cultural cues from the Japanese, rather than the other way around: Americans would be chewing gum while playing the shamisen instead of Japan importing rock n' roll and American fashions. It's played off as a joke, but it's actually a pretty layered scene. Sakamoto's revisionist history fantasy is funny, yes, but buried within it is a lamentation for Japan's defeat, and for its increasing reliance on the Western world for the direction the country is heading in the future. In this context, Hirayama's admission that maybe Japan's defeat wasn't so bad carries with it a subdued hint of regret. He's ruefully commenting on the absurdity of Sakamoto's vision of victory, and perhaps acknowledging that that kind of victory was never especially likely in reality, but I do detect a bittersweet tone that suggests he's still not happy about the loss.
Indeed, the war lingers subtly over the film, as both Sakamoto and Hirayama remember how hard it was in the years immediately following the war, when they returned in defeat to ruined homes, high prices for everything and few job prospects. Both men have since recovered and gone on to success, but it's apparent that they—and perhaps all those Japanese of a generation old enough to have experienced the war directly—are still haunted by its memory. The war is tied up in Hirayama's backward-looking mentality, as even his nostalgia for his school days can be viewed as a desire to reach back to the days before the war. That's perhaps one subtextual reason for the many incidences of class reunions in Ozu's work, class reunions where, as often as not, the former classmates engage in chanting singalongs of old songs with near-militaristic fervor. The Japan of An Autumn Afternoon is a country that's aggressively leaping into the future, importing modern appliances and filling its traditional homes, with their sliding screens and tatami mats, with modern accoutrements that make the film's interiors into a mish-mash of styles and eras. But people like Hirayama are being left behind by these advances, still wedded to traditional ideas like arranged marriages, still moping over the defeat of World War II and the economic stagnation that followed it. When Hirayama says that it's a good thing that Japan lost, he's basically parroting back the idea that wartime defeat had led to a period of rapid recovery and rebirth—but it certainly doesn't sound like he fully believes in what he's saying.
JB: That sounds about right, though I think Hirayama is being sincere when he says it's probably better Japan lost the war, and I take his admission as a sign of his surrender to old-age irrelevancy. I'm not sure it's directly implied in the film, but I get the sense that 10 years ago Hirayama was still resisting Japan's defeat. Now it's as if he's coming to terms with the way things are. For too many years he kept his daughter at home, unwilling to face the reality that she needed to be married off to take care of someone else, per the culture. And so I suspect that for too many years Hirayama clung to his fantasy of a victorious Japan. (Incidentally, this is one of several scenes in which Chishū Ryū reminds me of a Japanese version of Tom Skerritt, circa A River Runs Through It, and with that in mind it's easy for me to picture Hirayama in his younger Top Gun-esque days in the military.)
I already cited the scene at the bar as a welcome relief from the rigidity of many of Ozu's compositions, and the other one that stands out in my mind is the scene with Koichi and Miura on the roof of their office building, as Koichi hits golf balls into a canvas target. Koichi has a graceful swing and he looks so comfortable yet chic in his pressed dress shirt and tie that the scene could double for a modern American fashion ad for Banana Republic. But I'm calling attention to it now because the juxtaposition of that scene with Sakamoto's march reminds us of how different life is for a son and his father. Hirayama was consumed with order and the military. Koichi is consumed with MacGregor golf clubs. About all the men have in common now is a taste for alcohol.
EH: Very true. At the heart of this film is the sharp divide between the generations in post-war Japan. Hirayama, still stung by military defeat and still clinging stubbornly to the old ways, really doesn't share much common ground with his sons, who are much more concerned with material wealth and the luxuries available in a growing consumer economy. This isn't the only Ozu film in which he explores the theme of the elderly being out of touch with the priorities of the younger generation. Tokyo Story, arguably Ozu's most famous film, deals with an old couple who are increasingly isolated as their children move on with their own lives. That film, though, is a much more universal examination of generational cruelty and neglect, as the children of this elderly couple (the patriarch played, as here, by Chishū Ryū) are reluctant to interrupt their busy lives to spend time with or care for their parents. Its most famous exchange, offered as a coda to this heartbreaking melodrama, is the question, "Isn't life disappointing?" and a straightforward, resigned reply: "Yes, it is." An Autumn Afternoon has similar themes and concerns, but Ryu's character here isn't left behind by familial neglect or the shallowness of his children; he's left behind by society itself.
This makes An Autumn Afternoon both a poignant narrative of disappointment and aging, and a probing examination of a society in flux; it's emotionally resonant on multiple levels, in other words. One thing I fear I haven't gotten across in this conversation thus far is the extent to which Ozu affects me. His best films—and An Autumn Afternoon unquestionably belongs in that category—are overwhelming, but overwhelming in a very subtle and specific way. It's this aspect of his work, in part, that I was getting at by leading off with a discussion of the poetic quality of the film's opening images. Ozu's aesthetic, his patient way of slowly building up thematic and emotional material from a minimal foundation, is unbelievably moving to me. We already mentioned the scene where Hirayama and Kawai return their former teacher home to his noodle shop and meet the Gourd's daughter, Tomoko. It's a devastating scene: Tomoko barely maintains a veneer of civility with her father's former students, giving them a tight-lipped smile while speaking to her father in clipped, condescending tones. It's a portrait of a shrewish, nasty old maid. But after the two younger men have left, Tomoko sits down next to her father and looks at him with an expression of despair and disgust. The caricatured emotions she'd projected earlier melt away, replaced by an unnerving emotional nakedness as she breaks down, her head bowed into a handkerchief in the shadowy shop.
This scene is so effective because so much of Ozu's cinema generally revolves around the suppression of emotions. His characters aren't prone to melodramatics: like real people, they hide the full extent of their feelings around others, putting up brave fronts in everyday discourse, having conversations where the subtext carries the deeper meaning beneath the trivialities and niceties of prosaic conversation. When Michiko learns that Miura, who she'd liked, is already engaged to someone else, she has a moment where she bows her head in quiet contemplation, and then she becomes chipper and upbeat, agreeing to meet with another prospect her father has in mind. After she leaves, Hirayama and Koichi marvel over how composed she'd been, how well she'd taken the news, but this only shows how oblivious they are, as Michiko's attempts to seem happy are transparently false. This layering of appearance and truth is a big part of what makes Ozu's cinema so powerful despite its surface tranquility and simplicity. Something as simple as a bowed head, an averted gaze, a shy smile, takes on seismic significance within this careful aesthetic of understatement.
JB: I wish I could second your praise for the emotionality of Ozu's films, and An Autumn Afternoon in particular, because that would mean I shared the impact of all that emotional weight. But I just don't, at least not as a norm. I find specific moments in Ozu fairly devastating, but they are the exception to the rule, and so "probing examination" and "overwhelming" aren't words I'd use to describe this film on the whole. Maybe the problem is that the characters are so skilled at hiding their emotions that many scenes play flat, even if later they are revealed to be false demonstrations of composure. But I suspect the real problem for me is the fact that I always sense Ozu's presence pulling the strings of his marionettes. These characters rarely feel like they become real boys and girls, in the parlance of Pinocchio. They are puppets, props almost, in someone else's make believe.
If all of this makes it seem like I dislike An Autumn Afternoon or Ozu in general, that's not the case. I've said before in these conversations that I'm a fan of intentionality, of films that reveal the specificity of the artist's vision. Ozu's cinema is nothing if not purposeful, thoughtful and calculated. But my admiration for his films tends to be an admiration of craft before anything else, and, personally, that's not the way I prefer to "feel" a movie. Even in the final shot, of Hirayama slouched at the kitchen table, drunk and depressed—a shot I would classify as indeed devastating—my first reaction to that shot was less, "Oh, that's painful!" than it was, "Oh, look how Ozu evokes Hirayama's loneliness by capturing him at length, down a corridor, and in the dark!"
I realize that there are many cinema fans who perhaps prefer to have the mechanics of cinema be as visible as the emotions those mechanics are trying to convey, I'm just not one of them. I also realize that many people could watch the scene I just mentioned and be so overwhelmed with Hirayama's pain that they wouldn't begin to unlock the craftiness of the cinematography until later. But Ozu's craft is so apparent that for me it overshadows the drama of his films, even if the drama does succeed in stepping into the spotlight here and there. Maybe this is another way to explain it: If I were talking to an aspiring filmmaker, I'd tell him/her to watch Ozu, to see just how much can be accomplished with a fixed camera, with repeated compositions, with (relatively) long takes, with basic cuts and with dialogue so patient that characters never talk over one another. I think that suggests how much I admire Ozu. But it also reveals how much I see his films as exhibitions of craft. When I watch Ozu, I see the little man behind the curtain, instead of falling under the spell of the Great and Powerful Oz.
EH: Well, there's no arguing what you feel, and if you find that Ozu's undeniable formalist craftsmanship overshadows the subtle emotions at the core of his stories, that's simply a very different response than the one I have. We've talked before about Matt Zoller Seitz's "best friend theory" of directors, and I'm going to suggest a related paradigm that might have some special resonance for Ozu. It's the idea that watching a film can be analogous to being invited into someone's home and taken on a tour. The host, or the director, shows you what he wants you to see, and to be comfortable in this unfamiliar place you have to adjust to the style and customs of his home. Maybe it's Ozu's homey but distinctly foreign—both in time and place—interiors that make me think of this analogy. To get the most out of his films, one must be immersed in them, attuned to both his singular aesthetic and the distinctive characteristics of the culture he's depicting. Ozu's attentiveness to domesticity and ordinary rituals—like the pouring of sake, around which so many scenes in his films are structured—only accentuates the extent to which his films are windows into life in a very particular time and place.
For me, at least, Ozu's style never distracts from the deeper stakes of his stories. His aesthetic is measured and attentive to nuance, and he favors compositions that are bold but also practical, in that his intimate vantage point and love of cluttered frames help establish the context for his narratives. He developed a style that was perfectly suited to the kinds of stories he wanted to tell and the milieu in which his work was set: his patience and his keen observational eye are especially relevant virtues when applied to characters, and a society, where restraint and calm are highly valued. Ozu's scripts could, as you say, seem "flat" in the hands of another director, as little seems to happen overtly and the characters consistently underplay their own dramas. But Ozu's directorial choices, I would argue, consistently draw attention to the unspoken subtexts of these understated tales, by investing small gestures and seemingly inscrutable expressions with such weight and importance. Far from believing that form eclipses content in Ozu's oeuvre, I'd hold him up as a perfect example of form in service to character and themes.
That's as true of An Autumn Afternoon as it is of the rest of Ozu's work. Despite its old-age themes, An Autumn Afternoon wasn't intended to be the director's final film—he was actively working on a new script when he died—but it's a fine capstone to a career in which he frequently returned to the same themes and basic situations. An Autumn Afternoon recycles ideas from Late Spring (which has a nearly identical plot), Good Morning, and Equinox Flower, among others, suggesting that Ozu saw life as consisting of the same basic stories repeated, with variations, in slightly different contexts. This is why films like An Autumn Afternoon, despite the specificity of Ozu's commentary about post-war Japanese society, resonate with me in more universal ways as well. This film, with its emphasis on nostalgia, family, love and tradition, is heartbreaking, moving, thought-provoking, frequently quite funny, and a fascinating look at social structures through the prism of thoroughly personal and small-scale dramas. If Ozu's films are domestic spaces in which the viewer is invited to settle in and slowly get acquainted with the residents, An Autumn Afternoon, like so many other Ozu films, is somewhere I'm happy to visit very often.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.