Friday, June 9, 2017
Late Spring (1949) through An Autumn Afternoon, his final film, we get the same milieu -- middle class Japanese family life -- with the same problems -- aging parents, marriageable daughters, unruly children -- and the same style -- low-angle shots, stationary camera, boxlike interiors, exterior shots of buildings and landscape used to punctuate the narrative. Ozu's style would be called "mannered" except that the word suggests an obtrusive inflection of style for style's sake, whereas Ozu's style is unobtrusive, dedicated to the service of storytelling. There are, I suppose, some who are turned off by such consistency, who don't "get" Ozu. All I can say is that it's their loss, because it's a wise consistency, dedicated to trying to understand the way people work, why, for example, they conceal and obfuscate and manipulate to get what they really want. And why, sometimes, they don't even know what they really want. An Autumn Afternoon could almost be mistaken for a remake of Late Spring because of its central problem: a young woman at risk of sacrificing herself for an aging, widowed father. It stars the same actor, Chishu Ryu, as the father, Shuhei, and it ends in a strikingly similar way: The daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita), gets married, but we never see the bridegroom, just as we never see the man Noriko marries in Late Spring. But where Late Spring centered itself on a kind of moral dilemma, the white lie the father tells to resolve the problem, An Autumn Afternoon illuminates the relationship of father and daughter through the experiences of secondary characters. If Michiko marries, will her marriage be like that of her brother (Keiji Sada) and sister-in-law (Mariko Okada), strained by constant arguments about money? If Shuhei doesn't encourage her to marry, will she end up like the daughter (Haruko Sugimura) of his old teacher (Eijiro Tono), embittered because she gave up the prospect of marriage to serve him? There's yet another possibility for Shuhei: His close friend (Ryuji Kita), a widower, remarried, but now his much younger wife (Machiyo Kan) has him on a tight leash, putting limits on him that Shuhei doesn't have, such as the ability to stop off in bars and to drink with his old war buddies. (Even Michiko tries to rein in her father where this is concerned, pointedly commenting when Shuhei comes home a little late and tipsy.) The screenplay by Ozu and his usual collaborator, Kogo Noda, deftly integrates all of these stories and more, but the shining center of the film is the performance of Ryu, constantly letting us see the conflict that is churning beneath Shuhei's calm demeanor. And it's entirely fitting that the final shot of Ozu's last film -- Shuhei, saying softly to himself, "Alone, eh?" -- features Ryu, the actor who appeared in so many of his films that he seemed to be Ozu's alter ego.