September 26, 2008

An Autumn Afternoon

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Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Ratings (out of 5): *****

Last year, while making my way through Criterion Eclipse's five-disc Late Ozu DVD box set, I had a small revelation, and window to understanding this great master's work opened. I had always experienced a kind of relaxed bliss while watching his films, but I suddenly understood that this kind of tranquility comes only from acceptance -- acceptance of life's inevitable imperfections and disappointments. Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) dealt with these things by comfortable repetition, casting the same actors again and again, hiring the same crew, using the same angles (low, just above floor level), and the same methods of cutting. He mastered the use of "pillow shots," which give the viewer time to breathe and meditate between scenes. Even his opening titles, with their simple burlap backgrounds, are familiar. Over the years, Ozu made only two major changes in his work: he converted from silent to sound and from black-and-white to color (both decisions made several years after everyone else).

That said, An Autumn Afternoon, has some striking departures. It turned out to be Ozu's last film -- the director died exactly on his 60th birthday in 1963 -- but it's also a remarkable example of a "last film." It sums up a career's worth of work, while simultaneously looking ahead and coming to terms with new ideas. The film begins by eradicating the burlap backgrounds over the titles, and then using industrial images (polluting smokestacks, etc.) rather than more innocent ones, like his usual clotheslines. Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) works in an office; outside his windows, we can glimpse more (red) smokestacks, belching smoke. Hirayama is pre-occupied with marrying off his 24 year-old office girl, but is more reluctant when it comes to his own daughter, who is the same age. Since the death of his wife, his daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) has been looking after him and his youngest son, Kazuo (Shinichiro Mikami). The implication is that the men would be helpless without her. (Of course, Ozu also explored this theme in the great Late Spring as well as in several other works).

Ozu also spends time outside this family circle, looking at Hirayama's other son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), who is married and living away from home. Koichi pouts and behaves like a spoiled child when his wife Akiko (Mariko Okada) won't let him buy a set of expensive golf clubs. One of Hirayama's drinking buddies has married a younger woman and takes pills to keep up. And a reunion with an old schoolteacher (Eijiro Tono) eventually convinces Hirayama that he must marry off Michiko, no matter what the cost. Whereas Late Spring ended with the poetic image of the father (also played by Ryu) peeling an apple, An Autumn Afternoon is more "in touch," and simply ends with the immature youngest son coaxing his drunken father into bed -- another twist on the old parent-child relationship.

Perhaps more so than usual, An Autumn Afternoon considers the past in that Hirayama was once a military man. He and other veterans often discuss the war, singing fight songs and so on. But at one point, the idea that the Japanese losing the war was a good thing is introduced and accepted. The men also look back on their school days with a kind of regret -- and relief. Though they had fun, I think they would all agree that they're better off now.

Ozu's choice to add color wasn't made lightly, it seems. Here he uses red for a punctuating effect, placing red objects in unusual spots in the frame, including foreground and background space. They all lead up to the surprising shot of Michiko in her white wedding dress, highlighted with red sashes. She turns slowly toward the camera, in perhaps the showiest shot I've ever seen in an Ozu, and the red indicates the fact that she is leaving. It's interesting to note that, unlike Late Spring, this film rarely deals directly with the father-daughter relationship. Rather, all the other, supposedly secondary characters, more or less represent the various angles and facets of their relationship, and the ways in which it could go (or not go). In that way, it's one of Ozu's richest films.

The Criterion Collection gives us this very welcome 2008 release, which is the 15th Ozu film released on DVD in the United States (each and every one of them from Criterion). It's a little lower on quality and lighter on extras than some of the others, but it's still very much worth having. Color film is harder to preserve and restore than black-and-white, and one early scene is still noticeably damaged. David Bordwell's commentary track is a good one, more casual and conversational that we usually get from Criterion. The excerpts from a 1978 French television program with Michel Ciment are fairly interesting (he makes a great summation of Ozu's career and appeal), and the liner notes booklet is packed with good stuff.



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Posted by cphillips at September 26, 2008 3:03 PM
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