An Autumn Afternoon

Japan 1962, 113 mins
Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Critics, especially auteur critics, tend to take an artist’s last work as a summing up, the goal toward which every other work has moved. The impulse is hard to resist with respect to An Autumn Afternoon. Here is Chishu Ryu, front and centre as he has been in no Ozu film since Tokyo Story; how can he not be Ozu’s alter ego, brought back for a final encompassing statement? Here too are many familiar faces – players from films from The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family onward. And here, surely, is Ozu’s last meditation on resignation to change, on the inevitable dissolution of the family, on the ultimate loneliness facing every individual.

Actually, all this is not entirely plausible. Ozu was told to avoid borrowing actors from other studios; hence the Shochiku stock company and the centrality of Ryu. Moreover, a close look at the film suggests that while it owes a good deal to prior works, in its characterisation of young people and especially women, it constitutes a departure, not a repetition. Finally, it is significant that the narration observes the protagonist with more detachment than would be expected of the sympathetic study of solitude we get in, say, Late Autumn. The English-language title itself perhaps slants too much toward sombreness. The original title is ‘The Taste of Sanma’; it does evoke the brief season in late summer when sanma, a variety of mackerel, is at its most savoury, but the phrase is also appropriate for a movie that revolves around eating and drinking and that features a scene in which an old man, confessing that he leads a lonely life, discovers the succulence of sea-eel.

In the sections involving Hirayama’s son Koichi and his wife Akiko, Ozu is able to present a portrayal of the younger generation and the new salaryman culture. Unlike the anachronistic portrayal of a family business in The End of Summer, the scenes in and around Koichi’s and Akiko’s apartment stress current commodity worship. She wants money for a refrigerator while Koichi, like the little boys who crave balls and mitts in early Ozu, sulks because he can’t buy golf clubs. Two shots of a neighbour’s apartment emphasise the three electrical treasures of postwar life – refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, and television. It would be wrong, I think, to see Ozu’s treatment as more than a satiric jab at contemporary lifestyles; it is no more a denunciation of ‘Westernisation’ than is his affectionate mockery of movie posters and pipes in his early films. There is satire as well in his characterisation of Koichi, a timid and spoiled husband who at one point dons an apron. Akiko is a tough, no-nonsense wife who orders Koichi to make his bed, criticises him for coming home tired, refuses to let him buy golf clubs, makes fun of his name, and snatches Hirayama’s loan from Michiko before he can raise a protest. Yet she is never judged as harshly as, say, the self-centred Shige in Tokyo Story.

Just as it would be reassuringly simple to judge the contemporary salaryman’s world as mercenary and soulless, so the critic’s task would be easier if longing for the past were presented wholly as a warm haze. Like most of Ozu’s late works, An Autumn Afternoon includes many scenes steeped in nostalgia. The Gourd’s reunion evokes middle-school memories running back 40 years. Hirayama’s meeting with Sakamoto recalls the war and postwar years. In Torys Bar Hirayama finds a hostess who reminds him of his dead wife. Most concrete is the use of ‘Gunkan machi’, the ‘Warship March’, which Sakamoto plays on the jukebox in Torys and to which he marches and salutes. Although composed in 1897, it was one of the biggest hits of the 1930s. (Interestingly, the early 1960s saw a revival of old popular songs. The ‘Warship March’ became a staple background tune in the sort of pachinko parlor shown in Green Tea.) As usual the nostalgia is not only for the historical period but for earlier Ozu films. At the reunion, the Gourd reports on the health of ‘The Badger’ – a reference to the name of a teacher in Days of Youth and to the protagonist of There Was a Father. The stylistic handling of the two ‘Warship March’ renditions in Torys Bar, with their cutaways to hanging lamps, recalls inserts of ceilings, fans, and lights in Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?, Passing Fancy, and The Only Son. The use of ‘music-box’ renditions of ‘Annie Laurie’ recalls such popular Western tunes as ‘Old Black Joe’ in The Only Son and ‘Home Sweet Home’ in Early Summer.

But before we see the present as inevitably a corruption of that past for which the old men yearn, we should notice how, as in Equinox Flower, nostalgia is qualified and criticised, often by the very characters who indulge in it. The Gourd’s drunken pronouncement that ‘Human beings have melted away since the war’ is ‘placed’ by the commonsensical comments of the salarymen who entertain him. In a moment of sharp comedy, Sakamoto fantasises Japan’s winning the war, with Westerners wearing wigs and playing samisens while chewing gum. Hirayama replies: ‘It’s lucky we lost.’ The same note is struck when, as the ‘Warship March’ booms out, two strangers at the bar imitate officers repeating by radio that the Imperial Forces were wiped out. Ozu manages to make us feel the intensity of nostalgia while maintaining some ironic distance on it.

An Autumn Afternoon is not, then, a testament. Like Ozu’s other works, it is a complex reworking of strategies derived from earlier films, as well as an attempt to try new things. It is another manifestation of an aesthetic system whose rigour, breadth of detail, and suppleness of variation give it a simplicity and richness unparalleled in the history of the cinema. His next film, for which he completed only notes, was to have brought back Tadao Ikeda, the scriptwriter of the 1930s, to work with Noda. It was to centre on a man who gets cancer and who has a daughter about to get married. Once more we find a minimal variant on a pre-established pattern. But the film’s innovation would have reflected more explicitly than ever before a life steeped in the love of cinema. The film’s characters would have been movie performers, and the title was to be ‘Radishes and Carrots,’ Ozu’s favourite slang for poor actors. One might be tempted to consider this unfinished film (a version of which was directed by Ozu’s pupil Minoru Shibuya) a summing up, were it not for the fact that when Ozu died there was no evidence of flagging powers: An Autumn Afternoon, despite its concern with ageing, is in form and attitude a young man’s work.
David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (BFI/Princeton, 1988) Reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury Publishing © David Bordwell

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Production Company: Shochiku Co. Ltd.
Producer: Shizuo Yamanouchi
Assistant Director: Kozo Tashiro
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Director of Photography: Yuharu Atsuta
Lighting: Kenzo Ishiwatari
Camera Assistant: Motoshige Oikawa
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Art Directors: Tatsuo Hamada, Shigeo Hagiwara
Colour by: Agfa-Shochikucolor
Music: Kojun Saito
Sound Recording: Yoshisaburo Senoo
Studio: Shochiku Ofuna

Shima Iwashita (Michiko Hirayama)
Chishu Ryu (Shuhei Hirayama, Michiko’s father)
Keiji Sada (Koichi, Hirayama’s elder son)
Mariko Okada (Akiko Hirayama, Koichi’s wife)
Teruo Yoshida (Yutaka Miura)
Noriko Maki (Fusako Taguchi)
Shinichiro Mikami (Kazuo, Hirayama’s younger son)
Nobuo Nakamura (Shuzo Kawai)
Eijirô Tono (Sakuma, the ‘Gourd’)
Kuniko Miyake (Nobuko Kawai)
Kyoko Kishida (bar hostess)
Michiyo Tamaki (Tamako)
Ryuji Kita (Professor Susumu Horie)
Toyo Takahashi
Fujio Suga
Daisuke Katô (Yoshitaro Sakamoto)
Haruko Sugimura (Tomoko, Sakuma’s daughter)
Tsusai Sugawara

Japan 1962
113 mins

Tokyo Story (Tōkyō monogatari)
From Fri 1 Sep
I Flunked, But… (Rakudai wa shitakeredo)
Sat 2 Sep 16:15; Wed 13 Sep 20:35
Tokyo Chorus (Tōkyō no kōrasu)
Sat 2 Sep 18:30; Sun 17 Sep 16:00
An Autumn Evening with Yasujirō Ozu
Mon 4 Sep 18:15
I Was Born, But… (Umarete wa mita keredo)
Mon 4 Sep 20:30 (+ intro by Jinhee Choi, King’s College London); Fri 15 Sep 18:30
Tokyo Twilight (Tōkyō boshoku)
Thu 7 Sep 18:00; Wed 27 Sep 20:15
The Only Son (Hitori musuko)
Fri 8 Sep 20:40; Sat 16 Sep 18:10 (+ intro by season curator Ian Haydn Smith)
A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa monogatari)
Sat 9 Sep 11:50; Sat 23 Sep 16:00
Good Morning (Ohayō)
Sat 9 Sep 18:10; Sat 30 Sep 20:40
Floating Weeds (Ukigusa)
Sat 9 Sep 20:30; Sun 1 Oct 11:30 BFI IMAX; Mon 2 Oct 18:00
Late Spring (Banshun)
Sun 10 Sep 12:15 (+ intro by season curator, Ian Haydn Smith); Fri 22 Sep 20:50
Early Summer (Bakushu)
Sun 10 Sep 15:00; Wed 13 Sep 14:30; Sat 23 Sep 20:35
Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Todake no kyōdai)
Mon 11 Sep 18:00; Sat 30 Sep 18:20
There Was a Father (Chichi ariki)
Mon 11 Sep 20:40; Thu 28 Sep 18:20
City Lit at BFI: Ozu: Cinema of Everyday Life
Tue 12 Sep – 3 Oct 18:30-20:30
Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya Shinshiroku)
Tue 12 Sep 20:30; Wed 20 Sep 21:00; Sat 23 Sep 18:30
Early Spring (Sōshun)
Thu 14 Sep 20:10; Sun 1 Oct 18:00
The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (Ochazuke no aji)
Fri 15 Sep 20:45; Sat 30 Sep 15:30
The Anatomy of Ozu
Sat 16 Sep 12:00-17:00
Late Autumn (Akibiyori)
Sun 17 Sep 18:20; Sat 30 Sep 12:30
Equinox Flower (Higanbana)
Thu 21 Sep 18:00; Sun 1 Oct 15:10
An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji)
Sun 24 Sep 18:25 (+ intro); Tue 3 Oct 20:45

Influence and Inspiration
Make Way for Tomorrow
Sat 2 Sep 12:40; Sun 24 Sep 15:50 (+ intro by season curator Ian Haydn Smith)
Sun 3 Sep 14:00; Mon 2 Oct 20:45

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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