[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.