“Sanma no Aji” (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962), what turned out to be the last movie made by Ozu Yasujiro (1903-63), mostly takes place in evenings, and there is no shot of leaves to indicate that it is autumn, and none of the characters wear (or take off) overcoats.
The movie was shot in vibrant color (the reds particularly pulsate, but there are yellow seats, yellow and blue ceramics that also seem drawn from the Douglas Sirk palette, prefiguring the saturated colors in Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” which was set only a year later than “An Autumn Afternoon”).
Part of the movie (a drunkard who was once a middle school teacher of a group of alumni who still see each other regularly) prefigures Kurosawa’s last film, “Madadayo.” Now running a noodle stand, the teacher who had been nicknamed “the Gourd” (Eijiro Tono) bows lower to his former students than they do to him, though they still use respectful forms of address to him. And, having kept his daughter to run household, “the Gourd” is held up as an example for the widower Hirayama (Ozu regular Ryû Chisû) to avoid.
Ryu’s kindly business executive (Hirayama) puts back a lot of alcohol (beer, sake, Johnnie Walker black-label) during the movie, but always keeps his dignity. Once he realizes that his daughter is sacrificing her own life to take care of him and his younger son, he presses Michioko (Shima Iwashita) to marry (which involves go-betweens arranging a union). The movie ends on the father’s first night without the daughter who has been taking care of her since the death of his wife (that is, Michioko’s wedding night, but the wedding is not shown, nor is the groom, and the focus remains on the now womanless household of her father).
As usual in Ozu sound movies, there was no camera movement, and no high angle shots. The cameras were usually stationed at 3.5 feet above the floor, with actors moving through the frame, but cuts were frequent enough to avoid the staticness of the movies of Ozu’s Taiwanese admirers (Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang). The musical score by Saitô Kojun worked very well without calling attention to itself.
It’s difficult to tell if Michioko was ambivalent about marriage or concealing her wishes to run the household of her deadbeat brother and mostly absent father. The focus is primarily on the aging father (the never-married Ozu’s alter ego) and the relationship seems more one of filial piety (and paternal responsibility) than the kind of close emotional father-daughter bond in “Late Spring” (1949).
An older son, Koichi (Kinoshita-regular turned Ozu-regular Sada Keiji), who lives elsewhere but needs money from the old man, comes across as a spendthrift, though he believes he is unjustly nagged by his frustrated wife, Akiko (Okada Mariko), whose impatience seems fully justified to me. (I’m not entirely sure whether Akiko and Michioko have jobs: I think both do.)
There is baseball on tv distracting one of the old schoolmates from conviviality, there are power-lines in abundance, along with red-and-white smokestacks, name-brand golf clubs, imported whiskey and cigarettes—all signs of the crumbling of the old order. The film ends in a long shot down a hall of a saddened Hirayama sitting in a semi-stupor (though it is possible to infer that he has found a possible second wife who reminds him of his first one, so that his future may not be as bleak as this final shot of Ozu’s career…)
Although the male characters are by no means lacking in selfishness, and the women show some irritation at their helplessness, drunkenness, and profligacy, the characters accept without question traditional roles, even as there are many signs of rapid social change, including social atomization and the obsolescence of traditional responsibilities.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray