An Autumn Afternoon
An Autumn Afternoon was Yasujiro Ozu’s final film, made at a time when he had been diagnosed with cancer and shortly after the death of his mother. Whilst it is debatable as to whether he knew this would be his last work, the sense of summation and the undertow of the effects of age and ageing are readily apparent. It is a mature film populated by mature characters; children, so often the source of cuteness and comedy in Ozu’s filmography, are nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile the plotting revolves around and arguably collates many of the director’s familiar themes and devices: the relationships between family members, particularly parents and their children; the unmarried daughter as cause for the father’s concern; the fear of loneliness inherent in the life of singleton or single parent. Such ideas are a well-worn presence in the cinema of Ozu, honed over the years by a familiar troupe of performers and collaborators, many of whom return here, whether it be actors such as Chishu Ryu and Haruko Sugimura or composer Kojun Saito and cinematographer Yuharu Atsura.
For all this surface familiarity, An Autumn Afternoon never once feels like a simple retread over old ground or, for that matter, a ‘greatest hits’ package. Whilst such devices as the unmarried daughter may immediately recall previous works such as Late Spring, Early Summer and Late Autumn, Ozu is sure not to make it the crux of his film, but rather just one of many components in a rich and complex narrative comprised of various strands, characters and emotional touchstones. Indeed, the maturity wins through and allows An Autumn Afternoon to take these many recognisable themes, ideas and faces and combine them in a manner that allows each to complement the others in full and interesting ways. There is no single standout performance or storyline with which to dominate proceedings, instead we find an almost equal billing that forces the viewer to see the film as a tapestry rather than something more immediately identifiable. This is a film about an unmarried and the effects this has on her father, but it is plenty besides: a film about the father’s relationships with his close friends and other family members; a film about his old teacher and his own relationship with an unmarried daughter - and the regrets in the both their lives; a film about the eldest of his two sons and his own marriage; and so on. Each of the characters is as richly conceived as the next, as are their interactions and own little narratives.
Given this dense weave it helps, from the viewer’s perspective, that Ozu’s style is so reassuringly familiar. By the time of An Autumn Afternoon the director had made over 50 pictures, dating back to the late twenties (many of the earliest works are now lost). As such his command of actors and that distinctive visual approach is at a point whereby it feels completely natural, almost instinctive. Backed by his frequent collaborators both in front of and behind the camera, Ozu arrives in a position where so many of the formal qualities are by now second nature and set in stone, albeit not to the point where it becomes repetitious or tired. Rather the ability to maintain those various features with which we associate the director is such that he is free to concentrate more upon the detail, whether that means brining a certain nuance to a particular scene or moment, or the ability to interrelate their emotional underpinnings into a complex and fulfilling whole. In other words the more immediate aspects are assured through years of experience and a honing of Ozu’s craft (and that of his collaborators); his task becomes that of ensuring what exists beneath the surface is just as expertly handled.
It’s worth emphasising, however, just how light An Autumn Afternoon can be. Those years of experience allow Ozu to avoid any potential heavy-handedness with a particularly gentle touch. There’s also a playfulness at work that even sees the director toying with some of his well-known traits. In lieu of any children being present, Ozu instead has many of his male characters regress back to childlike states. It’s no doubt the sheer amount of booze consumed (a really quite surprising amount and certainly enough to shame an episode of Mad Men), prompting various bouts of banter and tomfoolery that would sit easily amongst the kids of Good Morning, for example, although their conversations and practical jokes clearly wouldn’t revolve so much around their sex lives. (One of the men has remarried a much younger wife, resulting in a series of gags questioning his virility.) As a result An Autumn Afternoon can arguably be just as funny or charming as the likes of Good Morning, albeit with a slight sting in its tail. Whereas the kids of Good Morning are moving towards adulthood and an eventual seriousness, as seen by the older generations in that particular film, here the adults look to be losing their grip somewhat. This is especially apparent in the case of the elderly former teacher, a man who has surely turned to the booze as a means of coping with his regrets, primarily that of having never allowed his spinster daughter to marry. Those moments in which he drunkenly slumps on a chair or falls asleep in a bar have certain qualities of slapstick to them, but their emotional weight is far more forceful. It’s an undercurrent that plays out in many of the drinking scenes, cutting through the ostensibly celebratory nature - complete with jokes - to reveal some harsher truths.
Yet if such discussion suggests that An Autumn Afternoon gravitates more fully towards its male characters, then it needs to be mentioned that the female side of things is in no way underdeveloped. The film is as much a women’s picture as it is a look at ageing masculinity. A part as small as Haruko Sugimura’s, playing the teacher’s daughter, is as significant as any other, despite only amount to a handful of brief scenes, and carries as much weight. Meanwhile the bigger roles, that of the unmarried daughter and the young wife, are suffused with Ozu’s typical sensitivity to his female characters. These are no mere sketches, but fully rounded and sympathetically captured portraits. They are also arguably stronger than the men who populate the film, independent in voice and spirit and resolutely taking their own course in life. If the elderly teacher and his daughter represent a failed hope, then the younger female characters redress this balance somewhat. As with so much of An Autumn Afternoon, there’s this constant mixture of the upbeat and the downbeat colouring proceedings, feeding off and complementing each other to rich and rewarding results.
In other words it’s a masterpiece. Ozu went on a terrific run of films from Late Spring onwards, producing consistently excellent results to the point where to pick a favourite is almost entirely subjective. Of course Tokyo Story is the seemingly immovable cornerstone - the must-see film - but many from this period are its equal, whilst the lighter likes of Good Morning are amongst the most purely joyous examples of cinema you’ll ever find. Needless to say, An Autumn Afternoon has no trouble in rubbing shoulders with such an outstanding series of films, marking both a splendid summation of this period and indeed Ozu’s entire career.
The materials used for An Autumn Afternoon’s transfer to Blu-ray were supplied by the Criterion Collection. These elements are in generally excellent condition save for some damaged and missing frames in the opening reel. Further work has been carried out by the BFI to help correct these issues of instability as much as possible, whilst the overall colour scheme - bringing it back to the more traditional Japanese grading - has also been worked on. It really does look wonderful as a result, emphasising that blue-green-ish tint but never to the detriment of the rest of the colour range. Indeed, the primary colours (which Ozu likes to pepper his foregrounds with: a yellow pot, a blue bowl, etc.) really do pop, with the red star that populates the various bottles and cases of Sapporo lager continually shining through. A light grain also dances atop the image in a perfectly film-like fashion, whilst the expected Academy ratio is correctly adhered to. The English subtitles are optional. As for the soundtrack here we find the original Japanese mono which similarly comes across in as pleasing a manner as could be expected. Dialogue is crisp and clear, whilst Kojun Saito’s melodies are introduced from time to time without any untoward issues.
The extras are comprised of the usual fully illustrated BFI booklet - in this instance containing two meaty essays on the disc’s two films by Kyoko Hirano and Jonathan Rosenbaum respectively, plus the expected credits, transfer notes and acknowledgements - and, on the DVD, Ozu’s 1948 feature A Hen in the Wind. There’s always a feeling with these additional films that they must have drawn the short straw when chosen to accompany such masterpieces as Tokyo Story, Late Spring or, indeed, An Autumn Afternoon. Of course, thematic connections come into play - most obviously in the pairing of I Was Born, But… and Good Morning - yet it would be a foolhardy approach to presume that some of these bonus features will stand close comparison with the central film. A Hen in the Wind is a case in point, an undoubtedly lesser film than An Autumn Afternoon, although by no means a uninteresting one. Here we find an instance of an Ozu work that is entirely serious in its outlook with no time for fanciful elements. Indeed, even though a child plays a prominent role, he isn’t here for comedy purposes or to up the charm, but rather to get ill and force his mother into prostitution. What follows is a mostly melodramatic account of her husband’s reaction upon his return from the military, yet told in such a brisk and to-the-point fashion that it feels more like a parable than anything else. Ultimately it’s an intriguing but minor piece, more than welcome as an inclusion (especially given its comparative rarity over the years) though also somewhat surprising to discover it was made as late as 1948. The ‘Noriko Trilogy’ was only a year away, yet clues to their narrative complexity and richness of emotions are buried somewhat. (Similarly the presentation cannot be expected to compete with An Autumn Afternoon’s, though it’s a perfectly acceptable one given the inherent flaws in the original materials and also comes with optional English subs.)