Equinox Flower/There Was a Father Review

Please Note: Although these BFI Ozu releases are Dual Format, with Blu-ray and DVD presentations of the feature films in the same release, the fine folk over at the BFI gave us the option of reviewing only a single format of choice, and so presented here is our review of the Blu-ray disc only. Should anyone feel strongly enough that we should've included a review of the DVD disc as well, please make a post in our comments section to let us know of such demand.

It's a commonly expressed opinion that perhaps the most important factor in the ever-lasting appeal of Yasujirō Ozu's films is his ability to tap into the universal issues of life, most notably the bonds of parent and child and the ever changing stages of human relationship. What isn't so widely expressed is how often Ozu used this talent to express the universal ironies and humour of life, which may be one of the reasons his films are generally perceived by non-fans as being somewhat formal and stuffy, but if you sit through any chunk of Ozu's oeuvre you will find a wealth of humour shines through.

Equinox FlowerThere Was a Father

He had been making comedies and comedy-dramas since the 20s and was more than a little adept at eliciting tears and laughter, but by 1958 when Shochiku had contracted one of Daiei's top starlets: Fujiko Yamamoto to work with their top director, Ozu had not made an out-and-out comedy for twenty years. Not only that, the studio had even persuaded the notoriously old-fashioned auteur to finally make the jump to colour productions - albeit on his terms. And so Equinox Flower came about, a sitcom about a father's disapproval of his daughter's impending wedding that in its simplicity and optimism, and colour, must have made quite an impression coming off the back of Tokyo Twilight, a sombre black-and-white drama that was arguably the bleakest film Ozu ever made.

Shun Saburi stars as Wataru Hirayama, a company director with two daughters who publicly projects a generally liberal attitude to life, and whose advice is keenly sought by his numerous friends with regards to their own familial quandaries. When it comes to their children, Hirayama extols the virtues of romance and marriage born out of love rather than arrangement, but behind closed doors he has already made tentative steps towards setting his eldest: Setsuko, up for an arranged marriage meeting with a man from a prominent family. This plans come crashing down when a young man named Taniguchi arrives in his office seeking permission to marry Setsuko before an impending work transfer to Hiroshima. Incensed that Setsuko has made all the decisions behind his back, the old man stubbornly refuses to accept the proposal, which ignites a battle of wits with wife Kyoko and friends of the family to confront Hirayama with his own hypocrisy.

With its uncomplicated set-up and narrative, Equinox Flower could have easily been relegated to just a bit of light-hearted fluff towards the tail-end of a decade where Ozu produced some of his most complex and heartfelt dramatic works, but as ever Ozu and co-writer Kōgo Noda manage to elevate the material by finding that sweet spot between the inherent tragedy of the realty facing Hirayama and the absurdity of his actions. The reason for his behaviour isn't ultimately because he's a domineering patriarch wanting to imprint his values on his daughter, but rather the heartbreak that must hit any parent when they realise their children are all grown up and no longer consider their parents a driving force in their development.

It's a feeling you don't have to be a parent to understand because we hit that wall in all manner of relationships, like when an elder brother/sister hits puberty and they are no longer interested in playing hide and seek, or when a best friend falls in love and their priorities switch. It's that sinking feeling when you know that change has been thrust upon you and it's sink or swim, and in Hirayama's case he's choosing to get out of the water altogether!

Equinox FlowerThere Was a Father

What is less typical for Ozu's output at the time is that a clear distinction is made as to which member of the Hirayama household is in the wrong. Ozu had touched upon these themes before, most notably a few years earlier in Early Summer, but usually in a much more objective manner. Here he chooses to focus on objectively defining Hirayama's character to justify his behaviour rather than his decisions. He does this with a couple of subplots in which two old friends seek his counsel on issues with their own daughters. One subplot has him acting as proxy for an old classmate (played by Chishū Ryū), whose daughter Fumiko has ran away from home to live with a musician out of wedlock, the other a madam of a Kyoto Inn who's intent on finding a suitor for her daughter: Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto, cast in an important supporting role).

The latter dilemma is a source of amusement for Hirayama, who advises Yukiko to take her time and not be pressured into accepting "brass instead of gold", the other issue however plays heavy on his mind because it's a clear worst-case-scenario for himself. In fact it's after meeting Fumiko and seeing her modest life as a bar hostess that probably the most emotionally charged scene in the film plays out, when a distraught Hirayama returns home and demands to know how developed Setsuko's relationship with Taniguchi is. She chides him for not trusting her enough, leaving the father at his most emotionally vulnerable, pacing the room in anguish alone.

Here we get a good example of how Ozu can take a scene of high drama and playfully turn it on its head for light relief, because later when Yukiko presents Setsuko's situation as her own in order to trick Hirayama into consenting to his daughter's marriage, we get the exact same shot in the same room of him pacing up and down in anger! The old man is vanquished, the delivery of his defeat: utterly delicious, and he ceases to be credible threat from this point on, acting more like a spoiled child than a concerned father. His last act of defiance is to refuse to attend the wedding, prompting Kyoko to unload a few home truths on her husband in another triumphantly amusing scene, thanks to the excellent performances of both Shin Saburi and Kinuyo Tanaka.

Of course, Ozu doesn't just rely on torturing his lead character for laughs, there is more than a fair share of clever social observations and charming supporting turns - like Yukiko's motor-mouth mother: Hatsu, and Hirayama's employee: Shotaro, who finds his less than reputable social life busted open when the boss turns up at his local after-hours haunt looking for Fumiko - to justify Equinox Flower as another classic entry into Ozu's post-war output based on comedy alone. The performances are all excellent, the script is light and cheerful, and it's a film to simply enjoy rather than analyse.

Equinox FlowerThere Was a Father

If Wataru Hirayama has anything in common with Shuhei Hirokawa; the titular father of Ozu's wartime drama: There Was a Father, it's his firm belief that providing for his family takes precedent over personal time with them. The similarities between the two films pretty much end there, because There Was a Father, the second of Ozu's two films made during World War Two, contains very little humour for an Ozu film and has clearly been affected by the stern national politics of the time. I'm not sure whether government officials made any changes to the script (a collaboration between Ozu, Tadao Ikeda, and Takao Yanai), but you can at least imagine their nods of approval at its patriotic tone; and it is perhaps a testament to Ozu's strong sense of identity that There Was a Father does not feel tainted by the presence of wartime propaganda at all. It is in fact a very moving family saga, much in keeping with the rest of his most beloved classics.

There Was a Father has the distinction of giving Chishū Ryū his first leading role in an Ozu film, playing a widowered maths teacher who quits his post in remorse when a student of meets with a fatal accident on a school field trip. He was not responsible for the accident itself, but he punishes himself for being too lenient on the students in the first place, and thus chooses to concentrate solely on the upbringing of his own son: Ryohei. He moves back to his hometown to live with a Buddhist Monk friend and takes a modest job in town, but their location is too far from the nearest school and so Ryohei has to move into a dormitory. Their separation is made concrete when Hirokawa realises he has to find more prosperous work in Tokyo if he is to enrol Ryohei in a reputable High School - a decision that affects Ryohei profoundly. Father and son nevertheless persevere in their own separate lives and eventually Ryohei follows in his father's footsteps as a teacher at an industrial college in Akita, but their dream of one day living together under the same roof remains nothing more than an often expressed desire.

For an Ozu film there is a surprising amount of rhetoric here, with numerous opportunities given for Hirokawa Snr. to remind Ryohei of the importance of civic duty and applying oneself to be the best that they can be, but perhaps inevitably Ozu chooses to focus more on how this ideal affects both generations on a deep emotional level than how it benefits society, and as such the story hangs on the longing of separation and the joy of personal discovery as father and son realise fresh facts about each other in their infrequent meetings. So while There Was a Father may not contain as many angles as other Ozu films - Ryohei doesn't really challenge his father's opinions at all for instance - it manages to maintain an emotional purity that makes for a powerful drama, and the message that life is as much a series of partings as it is meetings really shines through, reminding us to really appreciate the time we spend with our own loved ones.

Equinox FlowerThere Was a Father

Presentation

As with their previous Dual-Format Ozu releases, the BFI have sourced their HD masters from The Criterion Collection and they claim to have done "further colour grading and picture restoration" in-house, which certainly appears to be no idle boast because this is definitely the best I've seen either film looking on home video (although I will admit that my experience is limited here).

The primary focus of the BFIs time has obviously been on Equinox Flower, presumably in the colour grading to accurately reflect the Agfacolor system that Ozu shot either all or most his colour films in. The result is a transfer with slightly muted scheme and skintones but absolutely gorgeous saturation of the primary colours; I've read that reds are particularly deep in this system but on the strength of Equinox Flower's cinematography I would says blues and yellows can also be quite striking. Contrast and brightness also make an impression, the image may look a little crushed but nothing about the deep blacks and strong whites seemed out of place to me.

Elsewhere the image is in impressive condition, with only subtle signs of wear and tear in the form of colour stains and occasional scratches, and a very thick layer of grain that for the most part is fairly innocuous, but can occasionally become a little intense and form an almost ripple-like effect in portions of the screen. Despite the pristine appearance the detail levels are deeply satisfying, offering a lot of depth for a film that's over half a century old. Lastly I will just confirm that this is a 1080p 24fps AVC transfer with an average bitrate of 25Mbps and no significant compression issues to report from a regular viewing.

The sole audio option is the original Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono which also appears impressively restored, as there's little in the way of snap, crackle & pop, and only a faint trace of audio hiss or hum. The sound in general is suitably refined and detailed, with dialogue remaining clear and audible throughout, even if it does lack the depth of a more recent production.

There Was a Father is also presented in 1080p with an AVC encode, but understandably it doesn't look anywhere near as detailed or pristine as Equinox Flower. Considering the film is included in this set merely as an accompaniment to the main feature, I think the most that we can demand from the BFI is that they use the best source they can get hold of and slap it onto disc as professionally as possible, which I feel is a burden that is met here. The one exception is that the AVC compression (at the same average bitrate of 25Mbps) seems to struggle more with this film, so I guess in a perfect world it should have been given its own separate disc.

Equinox FlowerThere Was a Father

Compression aside, every other limitation of this transfer can be shrugged off as almost certainly inherent to the source materials; the image is soft enough that there's probably little benefit in going with the HD format (although I can certainly appreciate it being available in 1080p) and a distinct lack of gradation in white levels robs the image of further detail still. Grain is thick and fuzzy and the print exhibits a plethora of physical damage. It's not easy assessing transfers like this because it's hard to appreciate how much restoration work has taken place without having seen theatrical screenings or prior home video releases, so you'll just have accept it on face value when I say that all things considered the image is very presentable and at the very least it's on par with the Criterion DVD.

Another Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono track presents the original audio, which too has been badly affected by damage to the print, so there is frequent crackle and hiss draining out the dynamics. Dialogue is undoubtedly low and rough, but it easy enough to follow and the audio in general is presentable enough.

Optional English subtitles are provided for both films, and aside from one scene in Equinox Flower where a character is listening to a play on the radio, all songs are fully translated across both features. This includes the poem recital by Chishū Ryū towards the end of Equinox Flower.

Extras

There Was a Father is technically classed as Extra Material in this release, so if you think in those terms then the release is rich in extra footage. If you prefer to think of it as a co-feature then the disc itself is barebones, but you do get the usual BFI booklet, which comes with an essay for each film by Tony Rayns and information on both the films and their presentation.

Overall

It's laughter and sorrow with the film pairings of the latest dual-format release in the BFI's Ozu collection, which offers an excellent transfer for Equinox Flower and a strong but more limited presentation of the older wartime classic: There Was a Father.

Equinox FlowerThere Was a Father

Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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