Criterion // 1962 // 113 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // September 30th, 2008
"The blossoms are melancholy
And the flavor of sake becomes bitter."
(excerpt from a poem by Yasujiro Ozu)
When legendary director Yasuhiro Ozu made An Autumn Afternoon, he did not intend it as his swan song, but his untimely death in 1963 made it so. Intentionally or not, the themes of loss of family and remembrance serve as an appropriate send off for this cinematic giant. Simply told but intricately drawn, An Autumn Afternoon is a bittersweet journey through the everyday struggles and small triumphs of middle class Japan.
For years after his wife's death, Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu, Dreams) has lived with his daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita, Seppuku). She cares for him and her brother very well, but she's come to marrying age, and Hirayama realizes that he must soon say goodbye. Heavy in heart, he accepts and encourages her to find someone with whom she can experience the joy that he has always felt for his own family.
For all the work and for all of the love that parents put into raising their children, they will inevitably leave the nest with their parents left holding the bag. At once the happy ending to the ultimate labor of love and the devastating ending of their life as they've come to know it, there may be no more conflicting event for parents than their children beginning their own lives. Not having kids myself (can I get an Amen!), I cannot fully understand the emotions that this life-changing experience brings, but Ozu, in An Autumn Afternoon does an amazing job at describing them.
Hirayama is a traditional man. A former naval officer during WWII, he learned the ways of life before Japanese modernization. Now, in his autumn years, the ways that have always made sense to him often run in conflict with a more Americanized, consumerist Japan. He sits in his usual restaurant with his usual friends eating and drinking while his eldest son practices his golf swing and struggles over raising the cash for a new set of MacGregor clubs. Hirayama discusses the old ways and the new with his friends; they are all nostalgic for the old times, but accepting of the new. In Hirayama's case, he is convinced that the new ways are best for Japan, no matter how much he misses the old ways. In this same way, Hirayama feels nostalgia for all the beautiful times he's had raising Michiko, but knows that it's best for her to leave and follow her own path. He cannot keep her chained to him; he cannot be the same as "The Gourd" (Eijirô Tono, Yojimbo), an pathetic old teacher of his, who has cloistered his daughter into her middle ages, guaranteeing that she'll be a spinster, taking care of his needs until his death. No, Hirayama loves her Shuhei too much to see her miserable.
Hirayama, however, doesn't just accept Michiko's getting married out of the gate. At first, he's confused as to why she should get married at all, selfishly wondering who is going to take care of him if he leaves. She took over the housekeeping duties after her mother's death and Hirayama has never learned to do any of this for himself. But, after talking with his friends at the restaurant and other acquaintances, he starts to realize that his unwillingness to see her go has more to do with his own nostalgia for the past than anything reasonable in the present. The lessons they teach him reveal his self-centeredness and, more than that, the joy that awaits her in marriage and the sorrow if she stays with him.
Ozu was a master filmmaker with a gentle style that belongs only to him. Shot at extremely low angles, the viewer is placed in the position of someone sitting on a mat, looking up respectfully at the action. Using few stylistic flourishes, Ozu presents the film naturally in every way, from shots to dialogue to performance, and keeping melodrama far away. Instead, the film's emotional weight comes from the tenderness with which the story unfolds, and the gentle treatment of the characters in their struggles. Subtle perspective changes: doors opening to reveal space and curtains closing to seal it off, subtly show different levels of inclusion between the characters. During a scene in the restaurant, the friends are joking with Hirayama, telling him that he should get a new young wife like one of the just had. Hirayama becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the jests when a door opens n the front of the scene, cutting Hirayama out of the frame and showing that his two friends are the only ones joking now. These little things are what make An Autumn Afternoon so special. Everyday life and everyday struggles in a no nonsense style. It's simple and subtle, but beautifully drawn.
Criterion has done its usual great work for this release of An Autumn Afternoon. While the image starts off a little shaky, with some scratching on the print and some muddled colors, it gets a lot better after the first few minutes. The mono sound is crisp and free of noise, good for this dialog heavy film, but is limited by what a single channel can do. There aren't a lot of extras, but those there are very good. An informative, interesting commentary from film scholar David Bordwell lends a lot of insight into the last days of Ozu. Also, excerpts from the 1978 television program, "Ozu and the Taste of Sake," does more of the same from a less scholarly perspective. This is another strong showing from Criterion for this beautiful film.
While Ozu and his fans may have wished for more films, An Autumn Afternoon is a fitting goodbye for the director; sweet and gentle but still full of humor. Like a good cup of sake, it is beautiful in its simplicity.
Review content copyright © 2008 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary with film scholar David Bordwell
* Excerpts from 1978 French television's Yasujiro Ozu and the Taste of Sake