Widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest ever film directors, Yasujiro Ozu made over 50 films in a career spanning 35 years. An Autumn Afternoon (aka: Sanma no aji) is one of only two Ozu films shot in colour (the other being the comedy Good Morning) but, aside from the departure from black and white, it is still very distinctly a product of Ozu. As with all of Ozu’s films, An Autumn Afternoon is shot using static cameras mounted at waist height and frequently in the eye-line of the actors. This gives an impression of being an active participant in the plot rather than a mere spectator watching from the sidelines. Ozu also alternates between dramatic scenes and shots of the Tokyo skyline or footage of people walking home from work. These serve to clear the mental pallet as well as embed Ozu’s stories in what feels like a real and vibrant world. However, despite the famed stylistic flourishes about which much has been written, Ozu’s work is ultimately incredibly accessible and human. Indeed, one of the great tragedies of Ozu’s legacy is that while Japanese film might have attained a certain degree of mainstream respectability in the west, Ozu himself remains still very much the preserve of cinephiles and film geeks. This is really unfortunate as in An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu’s last film, we have a nice little drama that revisits Ozu’s favourite themes of filial ties, changing social norms and old age and packages them in a way that is both intelligent and completely accessible. Put simply, if you can cope with EastEnders then you can cope with this.
Shuhei Hirayama is a widower and an aging patriarch to a family composed of himself and three children all either recently married or about to marry. Long since widowed, Hirayama relies upon his daughter Michiko to keep house for him and keep him company. Happy with this arrangement, Hirayama puts no pressure on his daughter to marry until he has a class reunion and encounters the dishevelled spectre of his former teacher. Also a widower, ‘The Gourd’ (as he is known to his students) is now running an unpopular noodle bar with his aged spinster daughter. Having grown accustomed to having his daughter wait upon him, The Gourd never applied any pressure for her to marry and as a result, he is a lonely old alcoholic with a daughter who has left it too late to marry or find any happiness for herself. Immediately seeing himself in The Gourd, Hirayama tries to fix his daughter up with a medical assistant only to discover that her initial protestations and refusals in fact are only deflections motivated by her interest in another man. An interest she does not speak of out of filial loyalty to her aging father. Overcoming his fears thanks to an encounter with a woman who reminds him of his wife (even though his son does not see any similarities) and a man who once served under him during the war, Hirayama realises that one cannot dwell in the past or try and live in some fictitious golden age. One must embrace change and move forwards. So, reluctantly, he organises his daughter’s marriage to the medical assistant and starts his life again, this time without his daughter.
While the plot of An Autumn Afternoon may closely resemble many of Ozu’s other films (most notably Late Autumn and Tokyo Story), there is no feeling of Ozu having an axe to grind. Indeed, rather than force a moral down his audience’s throat, Ozu is happy to set the stage and allow his audience to reach their own conclusions about his themes while gently nudging them thanks to the tone of the film and the various subplots that adorn the film’s central motif. For example, while Late Autumn tries to use comedy to bring out the absurdities of the social games we are forced to play, An Autumn Afternoon seeks to suggest that the changes Hirayama has to deal with are as unavoidable as the wider social changes brought about by Japan losing the war. Ozu suggests this through the character of the son, Koichi Hirayama who does not work particularly hard and wants to spend his life playing golf and acquiring expensive consumer goods; a very un-Japanese attitude. But this point is mostly underlined by Hirayama’s encounter with an old sergeant who expresses regret that Japan did not win the war because then it would be the Americans who would have fallen under Japanese influence rather than the other way round. This possibility is beautifully summed up by the image of a woman with blue eyes and a Japanese topknot playing a Japanese instrument whilst chewing gum. If Hirayama cannot avoid the social repercussions of Japan’s defeat, then why should he avoid the repercussions of Michiko becoming a grown woman?
As stylistically superb as all of Ozu’s other films, An Autumn Afternoon features another great performance by Chishu Ryu (a favoured actor for Ozu’s patriarchs) and a supporting cast who not only seem perfectly cast but inspired by the subject matter.
An Autumn Afternoon would prove to be Ozu’s last film as he died during the filming of the next film he started. It was made after the death of Ozu’s mother, a woman with whom the bachelor lived his entire life. The Japanese title Sanma no aji means ‘the taste of mackerel’, a line taken from the poem Ozu composed upon his mother’s death. This fact makes the film’s themes of abandonment, advancing age and children who leave it too late to marry seem particularly moving. It’s a fitting epitaph to one of cinema’s true greats.