Late Autumn Review
Considering how deeply self-referential of a filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu was, it's perhaps fitting that four of his final five pictures were reworkings of earlier movies he'd done. None were shot-for-shot remakes but Good Morning revisited the same territory previously tread in I Was Born, But... while Floating Weeds was an obvious return to Ozu's silent A Story of Floating Weeds. Twice, and only two years apart, the source of a color Ozu film was the director's 1949 masterpiece Late Spring, about a widower coming to terms with finding a spouse for his live-in daughter who prefers to instead stay with her father. An Autumn Afternoon, the film that became Ozu's swan song following his death on his 60th birthday in 1963, again used frequent collaborator Chishu Ryu as the father character. Maybe the more interesting tweaking was in 1960's Late Autumn, where Setsuko Hara assumed the role of the parent figure after having earlier played the daughter in Late Spring.
By reversing the gender of the widowed character, Ozu, per his way, quietly commented on a number of issues ranging from the relationship between mother and daughter - and how it may differ from that between father and daughter - to the way Japanese society changed during the 1950s to reflect a somewhat different level of independence for females than just after the end of World War II. The daughter Ayako, played by Yoko Tsukasa, supports herself by working, alongside both males and females, and has no practical need for a husband. She is less the wilting wallflower than Hara had been in Late Spring. Ayako also makes a point of rejecting the idea of blind matchmaking, instead preferring to more naturally cultivate a romance with her potential husband Goto (Keiji Sada) when three meddlesome businessmen who'd been friends with her father try to intervene. This plays out through her actions in the film and it's made even clearer when, after their initial date, Ayako firmly tells one of the businessmen that she's only just met Goto despite the older man trying to insist that he was the one who'd tried to bring them together.
Ozu's canvas seems a bit larger in Late Autumn than in the nonetheless superior and more affecting Late Spring. He deals with a number of threads running through the film. Some feel minor but almost always they're all of roughly equal importance. Each of the three men, first seen as the picture opens during an informal memorial to Ayako's father, have their own family lives. One is a widower who's grown increasingly lonely with, in his words, an itch that has gone unscratched for some time. All three of these men maneuver and finagle their way around Hara's Akiko, with whom they seemingly were all in love when she worked at her family's drug store and the men would stock up on cold medicine or decongestants day after day just to see her. The men, who don't necessarily strike us as being unhappy, have a tendency to manipulate the truth both amongst each other and to their wives. For instance, when one goes to visit Akiko with the intention of finding out whether she'd consider marrying the widower he returns without having even mentioned his friend's name and instead shared an apple, which he claims to have been "delicious," with her. Later this same fella tells his wife it was the other married businessman who saw Akiko, going so far as to include the bit about the apple in his needless misdirection.
Worth pointing out is how Ozu opts not to show several conversations and interactions that are, after the fact, referenced by the characters. This too feels like the director broadening his scope somewhat to include more than just what is directly seen. It's a deemphasizing of the intimacy of the film a little. He has several characters to play with and is careful to make sure that none are too thinly sketched. In the process, the result is a rather rich tapestry of comings and goings that never loses its main focus of the evolving relationship between Akiko and Ayako. When the two quarrel, especially since it's based on a misunderstanding, the effect is upsetting. The emergence here of Mariko Okada as Yukiko is an inspired development that perks up the film plenty. Yukiko is fresh air in comparison to the staid or overly polite or interfering nature of the other characters. Her scene with the three businessmen is the sustained highlight of comic relief in the picture. Pleasingly, Yukiko still never approaches being too broad and strikes just the right tone in support.
The nuances in Ozu's films are really what allow for seriously considering these various incarnations of what often seem to be very similar stories. The idea that Ozu never made a bad film is valid but it seems to owe very much to the fact that he remained firmly within his established comfort scene. There are no major surprises to be found among Ozu's sound films. They are, invariably, domestic dramas centered around family issues and often involve the relationship between parent and child, romantic couplings and/or longing of some sort. That Ozu could successfully use the same rough template three times in a span of only thirteen years is rather remarkable but we shouldn't entirely dismiss the potential for tedium while viewing these pictures. The way to overcome any such lag is to, again, appreciate the nuances from one film to the next. It might still be difficult to find the same joy in Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon after having previously seen things play out in similar fashion in Late Spring, and that's a potential criticism worth acknowledging here, but to miss them entirely is to lose a significant aspect of Ozu's career.
Also included in the BFI's Dual Format edition, ostensibly as a supplement and also serving as an apt companion to Late Autumn, is A Mother Should Be Loved. The 1934 silent film survives now without its first and last reels so it, unavoidably, has the feel of an incomplete work. The lack of a proper introduction and conclusion nonetheless has only minimal effect on what does remain, and there are intertitle screens to try to make up for the missing sections.
Ozu ventures more aggressively into the delicate pathos of the parent-child relationship with this film. A woman has lost her husband and must raise two young boys on her own. One of the sons is not hers, having been from her husband's first marriage to a woman who's also now deceased. She keeps this a secret from the boy but he discovers it upon finding his birth certificate in preparation for college. As the boys grow up, the older one begins to resent his mother for what he perceives as special treatment in comparison to his brother, who still doesn't know they share different mothers. This is exemplified when the woman doesn't want to worry the elder child about her money issues and even gives him something to help out a friend. This debt is actually to a whorehouse, which is where the eldest eventually finds himself after having disowned his mother and separated himself from his brother.
The message, as related by an older woman working at the brothel as a cleaning lady, is to treat parents with respect. It's a favorite maxim of Ozu's, who was no stranger to exploring this dynamic. It's unfortunate that the ending here is chopped off, as it takes away some of the emotional impact of the child's reconciliation with his mother. You don't get quite the same tug when it's quickly relayed in an intertitle at the end of the film. What does remain is the more interesting visual look Ozu gave the film in comparison to his later sound work. There's certainly a discipline to be taken away from the movies he made in the 1950s and early 1960s, but the shadows and less rigid angles on display here, and elsewhere among the earlier Ozu pictures, are quite accomplished at developing mood and often beautiful to enjoy. An outdoor digression is especially lovely, and provides one of the instances involving the dead father's pipes which is then sort of resurrected in Late Autumn.
The Ozu Collection from the BFI continues in grand form with separate Dual Format releases of Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon. The former is paired with A Mother Should Be Loved while the latter also includes A Hen in the Wind. Both of these second features are exclusive to the DVD portion of the release while the main film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. All of the BFI's Ozu releases have been region-locked, with the Blu-ray discs Region B.
The single-layered BD and dual-layered DVD both have Late Autumn in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The high definition presentation is strong enough to resist any real dissent and certainly accentuates the detail and Ozu's use of color in ways that a DVD would not be able to accomplish. Some grain, a fairly thin but noticeable layer, sits comfortably on the image. There's little damage to speak of, with maybe just stray bits of dirt visible on rare occasions but generally removed. The BFI notes, somewhat vaguely, that the best available film elements were used to transfer Late Autumn in high definition. The same is written for A Mother Should Be Loved, except the transfer was done in standard definition. It looks much more beat-up, though still easily watchable. There are potentially some framing issues with the silent, where tops of heads look cut off by an overly tight frame, but it's not at all as extensive as what was seen in the BFI's transfer of I Was Born, But... that was included with Good Morning.
The Japanese mono audio on Late Autumn is rendered cleanly. The two-channel track is a lossless PCM for the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital on the DVD. No stray noises or instances of popping or hiss were detected. There's little doubt that this is a deeply reserved audio track but it sounds like a faithful and pure representation of the dialogue-heavy intentions of the film. A Mother Should Be Loved has a newly composed score by Ed Hughes that was commissioned exclusively for the BFI. It's interesting and, at times, odd. The acoustic sounds of flute, clarinet and cello all register pleasantly but Hughes' synth feels invasive and out of place. His intention, included in a write-up found in the booklet, was "to register key moments in the film's structure." The problem there, I'd argue, is that the onus should be on the viewer to visually accept and recognize those key moments rather than have them pointed out by the alarming use of a synthesizer.
Besides A Mother Should Be Loved, the BFI has added a 20-page booklet to complement Late Autumn. An essay written by Alexander Jacoby weaves the two films together across six pages of text. The only other piece of writing is Hughes' two-page explanation of his score. The remainder of the booklet is made up of stills and credits.