Late Autumn (1960)

lateautumn1Yasujiro Ozu has the esteem of being christened “The Most Japanese Filmmaker.” It’s certainly a high honor, but at first, it can feel rather counter-intuitive because after all, such a great master of cinema cannot be considered average or a composite in the scheme of Japanese film history. And I don’t think that is what this title is trying to get at. The fact is that Ozu, over time, really experimented with the conventions written by classical western filmmakers and he built his own unique aesthetic that is quite evident later in his career. That being said, his film’s are very Japanese in the way they interact with and dissect the culture that he comes out of, and I think that is paramount to understanding and ultimately appreciating his work.

It’s no different with Late Autumn, Ozu’s penultimate film, a social-familial drama that shares a great deal of similarity to some of his earlier work. The fact is, he’s constantly returning to these ideas of marriage, family, generational differences, and the underlying etiquette that is so prevalent in Japan and Asian cultures in general. But of course, much of what he examines is universal and that’s what allows his films to remain timeless.

With Late Autumn, in particular, it’s easy to marvel at how the director frames his space because he seems to have tremendous spatial recognition. He’s confident in his aesthetics which he highlights with colors and axis lines, which are then further embellished with human subjects. Not many directors are brazen enough to show us an empty room, a hallway, or the mundane facade of a building, but Ozu is so self-assured in his composition. They are too long and occur too often to be establishing shots. He wants to continually convey to us the space that his characters inhabit and he’s meticulous. Everything is placed with pinpoint precision just the way he wants. And it shows.

On a basic level, Late Autumn can meld nicely with many of the director’s other works also based around the seasons. In this color installment, three adult men gather for the funeral of one of their mutual childhood friends. It’s a sad occasion as they wistfully remember the good old days when they were young and in love. But as a service to their deceased friend, they agree to find a husband for his sweet sunshine-faced daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa). However, they also worry for his widower Akiko (Setsuko Hara), who is equally beautiful, since the years have been very good to her. What follows is the typical fumbling attempts at matchmaking, trading manners, and so on. When Mr. Mamiya inquires if he should ask for a young man’s picture and resume, we assume it’s a joke, but he’s quite serious.

What makes Autumn different than earlier classics like Late Spring or even Tokyo Story, is that it shows the next generation of young people.  The kids embrace the rockability of Elvis while reading Mickey Mouse cartoons. The young adults are folks who have grown up in the specter of WWII. They want to leave behind the world of useless honor and restraint.They speak their minds and show their discontent.

lateautumn2I enjoy the light touches of humor injected into this film because the three chums sit around the bar making observations with a bouncy score that seems more at home in a Tati comedy. Sometimes they’re genuinely trying to be funny, but more often it’s hilarious because they’re actually so dysfunctional. They take on this task of watching over their friend’s family with all seriousness, but they get sidetracked by their own desires and personal concerns. They stir up rumors, make waves, and ultimately cause a lot of trouble. Everything gets muddled and it’s the blunt and frank assertions of young Yuriko (Mariko Okada) that points out their failures. She sees how they have made a mess of things and calls them out for it. Perhaps it feels abrasive, but I think they like her for it and the audience does as well. She’s a reflection of this new generation that’s not looking to mince words or hide behind social etiquette. They’re fed up with that type of lifestyle. In fact, Yuriko is the one who says marriage is the worst. The ideal would be if love and marriage always went together, but they don’t.

lateautumn3Thus, although the relationship between Ayako and her mother takes center stage as the film progresses, Yuriko is extremely pivotal. It’s the lives of the first two women that are affected by the unintentional bungling of these men, but it is Yuriko, who signifies change for the better. In many ways, this story feels very similar to Late Spring in particular, but the interest is not so much in original ideas as it is in re-imagining ideas. It’s a film for the 1960s where men are slowly losing their vice-like grip and societal norms are changing as women move to the forefront. But what remains are the suggestion that it’s alright to push back against societal pressures, and interpersonal relationships are delicate flowers that must be cultivated with care. So easily they can be trampled and destroyed. It takes a certain type of person to acknowledge their own faults while persistently loving those around them.

This is the utmost compliment, but in many ways, Setsuko Hara reminds me a great deal of my own grandmother, a woman who radiated a genuine kindness that was apparent to everyone who walked through life alongside her. Bless their souls. Both of them.

4.5/5 Stars

Late Autumn: A Close Reading of a Japanese Auteur (2015)

lateautumn_1_originalYasujiro Ozu has the esteem of being christened “The Most Japanese Filmmaker.” It’s certainly a high honor, but at first it can feel rather counter-intuitive, because after all such a great master of cinema cannot be considered a composite or even representative of Japanese film history. And it doesn’t seem like that is what this name is trying to get at. In reality Ozu experimented with the conventions written by classical western filmmakers over time and out of those frameworks he built his own unique aesthetic. It’s quite evident especially in his later films. That being said, his films are very Japanese in the way they interact with and dissect the culture that he comes out of, and that is paramount to understanding and appreciating his work.

A prime example is Late Autumn, Ozu’s penultimate film, a social-familial drama that shares a great deal of similarity to some of his earlier storylines. The fact is he’s constantly returning to these ideas of marriage, family, generational differences, and the underlying etiquette that is so prevalent to Japan and Asian cultures in general. Yes, he takes on the everyday as his subject matter, but far from being mundane, it suggests that Ozu gets at the very fabric of Japanese society like few directors were ever able to. But of course, much of what he examines is universal and that’s part of what allows his films to remain timeless.

One scene that proves crucial in Late Autumn occurs when the radiant young beauty Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) returns home to her mother in a huff. This scene is integral because she believes her mother is keeping secrets from her about getting remarried, and it threatens to drive a spike through their relationship.

As he often does, Ozu will use an extended establishing shot, in this case, the outside of the apartment, and he lingers on it for a time, as if to convey the space that his characters occupy. In fact, these type of sequence became so synonymous with the director they received the moniker “pillow shots.” Historians Bordwell and Thompson contend that we can “hardly consider these mere ‘establishing shots’ in the classical Hollywood usage, since many of them are more confusing than orientating” (6).

The following long shot is of young Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) walking solemnly down a hallway, and it conveys her dismay even from a distance. Her downward gaze tells the full story as much as the muted colors on the walls around her. Next we are situated inside her home watching Ayako come into the space that she shares with her mother. However, the normally peaceful sanctuary is certain to be a place of conflict, at least this evening. What follows is a long shot peering in from the next room, once again suggesting the distance that has already been created between these characters. Akiko (Setsuko Hara) comes into the frame for the first time. What it does is create a space for the audience to observe this intimate scene while still maintaining a certain amount of space to analyze what is in front of us.

There is a medium shot of the mother sitting down and she begins to talk about something routine like the groceries she was buying at the local market. What follows is one of Ozu’s variations on the classic Hollywood shot-reverse shot formula, as mother and daughter trade comments. Ayako is facing away from the camera, sitting by the window sill. Understandably Akiko is oblivious about what happened earlier. How could she know what her daughter heard from Mr. Mamiya? We end up going back and forth between mother and daughter with Akiko facing the camera head on as if she’s talking directly to the audience. Her daughter is completely turned although she does finally turn around and accuse her mother of lying. There’s still a noticeable distance between them.

But the camera does another interesting thing during this climactic moment. It makes a move, ending up behind the daughter, looking over her shoulder. It’s still stationary, but Ozu has circulated through this world made of 360 degrees of movement. Thus, “Once this pattern of circular space is established, Ozu’s films use the same devices Hollywood does, but without the axis of action” (29). Essentially, he is not constrained by the 180 degrees of Hollywood filmmaking. Such a tactic allows him to elicit a different response and capture a different view in such an integral sequence. Because Ayako has just accused her mother of hiding her plans of marriage, and we know what she’s talking about, but if we look at Ayikko’s face we can tell she’s confused; certainly befuddled by it all.

Then, just like that Ayako gets up to leave and once more the camera shows a medium shot of the doorway. This time the mother gets up and questions her daughter, but really it’s directly to the audience once more. She doesn’t get an answer as her daughter leaves without a word, the door closing behind her. It’s seemingly such an everyday look at human interaction, but it’s full of so much meaning, so much emotion. A great deal of that is thanks to Ozu and how he situated his camera in reference to his two actors. Each works off the other in perfect unity to make this sequence simple but at the same time dynamic in its effectiveness. We care about these people and truly feel their hurt, because we are experiencing it alongside of them.

This scene really resonates because it feels like one of the first times we actually get to know these characters. Oftentimes we cannot judge people by how they interact when times are good. That especially rings true in a Japanese culture that often appears to hide behind manicured etiquette and demure smiles. True, all cultures do this in a sense, but it feels especially prevalent in Japan. It’s a nation where the whole is more important than the individual. You’re not to show how feeling out of respect for those around. However, it’s when there’s actually a source of conflict or pain that a person’s true character breaks through the guarded exterior. In this instance, Akiko no longer carries her ever-present grin, but instead it’s given way to a look of deep concern. Her daughter was equally bright-eyed most of the film, and now her brow is furrowed with frustration. These are not the character we first met, or perhaps this is the first time we have seen them for who they really are. They have shed the holistic mentality, and finally given way to their true self.

To Ozu’s credit, he sets up his scenes beautifully, optimizing the space in front of him and situating his camera in a way that is unobtrusive yet unique. It provides the perfect environment for examining his human subjects in their natural rhythms of life. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, and it’s ultimately very telling of the human condition.

R.I.P. Setsuko Hara

Late Spring (1949)

latespring1Late Spring is a film that I found in some ways more rewarding than Tokyo Story, another acclaimed classic from Yasujiro Ozu. Both films share a few of his trademarks. They are home dramas with basic, everyday plots, termed Shomin-geki. Also exhibited are a stationary camera and low camera angles that Ozu often used to focus on his characters while sitting. In this way, he invented the quintessentially Japanese viewpoint known as the “tatami shot.” We see it most certainly in Late Spring as the daughter Noriko interacts with her widowed father or when they have friends over in their home. It may look somewhat similar to Tokyo Story, but it does differ in subject matter.

Late Spring is a film about fathers and daughters. Marriage and divorce. All the things that make up a life that remain the same whether you’re in modern America or post-war Japan. Noriko is a pretty young woman who is devoted to her aging father through thick and thin. He likes having her around and she likes being there for him.

It’s the culture, namely aunts and friends, who tell Norkio that she must get married. She’s 27 years old, and she needs to find a husband before it’s too late. Her father won’t be around forever. She’ll need to make a new life for herself. But Noriko is content with not listening to the voices trying to sway her. Only when her father talks to her about marriage does she finally begin to listen. He makes conversation about getting remarried and encourages her to think about an arranged marriage that her aunt has waiting for her.

We never meet this man who supposedly looks like Gary Cooper, but Noriko seems to genuinely like him. And yet there still is something that isn’t quite right. In Japan there is great importance in “reading the air,” and it seems like some of the characters in Ozu’s film fail at this or they see only what they want to see.

latespring3In the end, Noriko gets married and it should be no surprise because it was what was ultimately expected of her. Her father, on the other hand, acknowledges to a friend that he had no intention of getting remarried, it was only to prompt Noriko. Professor Somiya took on a great sacrifice in the eyes of society and goes home alone.

This is a bittersweet tale that is surprisingly funny on many occasions, but it is also topped off with human tragedy. Not death or dying, but something potentially worse in loneliness and discontentment. It is only a thought, but it seems like Noriko and her father would have both been happy with the status quo. However, their sensibilities and society said otherwise, so they acted as they were expected to. From this simple drama comes one of the most powerful films on father-daughter relationships ever.

I must admit, at first, I really was not fond of Chishu Ryu’s character, but over the course of the story, he grew on me. As for Setsuko Hara, she is an amazing example of kindness and servility, but also the undisputed muse of Yasujiro Ozu.  Late Spring also plays off the conflict between the old and new not to mention the traditional Japan and western culture. It’s not a blatant presence, but the allusion to Coca-Cola and Gary Cooper reminds us that this is a post-war Japan still recuperating from an awful war. That’s the backdrop of this film and its part of what makes Ozu’s human drama all the more striking. Despite, where it is situated in the historical context, Late Spring is a timeless film giving calculated insight into human relationships.

4.5/5 Stars

Tokyo Story (1953)

42390-tokyo_story_posterThis critically acclaimed Japanese film directed by Yasujiro Ozu has a relatively simple plot having to do with a kind elderly couple going to Tokyo to visit their adult children and extended family. They are excited to see the big city but it is not quite like they had expected. Furthermore, all their relatives and family have very busy lives making it difficult for them to spend time with the couple. The eldest son who is a doctor and then a daughter who owns a salon decide to send their parents off to a spa. Unhappy, the elderly couple return to Tokyo but they feel like they are imposing. Finally, the two of them head home and there the wife becomes ill. Because she is dying, her children do decide to visit. However, after she has passed away it seems they all too soon forget her and go on with life. This film is an interesting study of the void between generations. It also uses realism and focuses on the manners of the Japanese without fully criticizing them.

4.5/5 Stars