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.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.