An Autumn Afternoon Review
Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu often recycled characters and situations in the films they wrote together. In watching their films now, it can become difficult to keep separate the plot of one film from another, and to keep the individual titles straight with their constant reference to seasons and time. An Autumn Afternoon was Ozu's last film, and in watching it, it is hard to not be put in mind of Late Autumn, which he made several years earlier. Both films have the same sequences of older fathers drinking together in a threesome, the same story about marrying off a daughter and a widower/widow possibly looking for a new love. Still where Late Autumn kept the national politics of its time far from view here they seem much more evident.
For Setsuko Hara as the widow in Late Autumn, take this time the wonderful Chishu Ryu as the widower Hirayama living with his daughter as she approaches marriageable age. One of his drinking buddies, Horei, another widower, has married a young woman so that he will not be alone and now finds himself the subject of humour from his friends as they joke about his need for potency aids. Through the passage of the story, Hirayama finds another example of being a widower in his old teacher Sakuma, the Gourd, whose daughter has never married and has stayed with him, becoming sour and embittered, to look after him in his somewhat drunken dotage.
Hirayama therefore is offered two clear options in how he can choose to live the rest of his life either with his daughter becoming an old maid, or him finding a new woman. After admitting that he finds Horei's example "filthy" and seeing the drunken lonely rascal Sakuma becomes, he finally gets his daughter to consider marriage and accepts the third option of a lonely old age. He is, at first, too late to ensure the love match she wants and then encourages her to try a "prospect" he knows. The film concludes on the day of her wedding but not in the ceremony of matrimony but the severing of ties between daughter and father, and we then follow the father taking solace in drink as he returns home to a house that has become more empty.
Alongside this basic story and social commentary, delivered I must say with great humour, is a deeper interest in the new Japan, free of occupation and out of recession. For possibly the first time in his post war movies the fact of American occupation and cultural imperialism is addressed, with Hirayama and an old armed forces buddy pondering in a bar, as they watch baseball mind you, whether if they'd won the war New York would have been ringing to the sound of samisens rather than young Japanese shaking their "rumps" to American swing music.
This concern of change and new generations is carried further into the married life of Hirayama's oldest son, Koichi. Koichi lives in one of the new apartments, whilst his father lives in a traditional Japanese home, and he is a salaryman who sponges off his father for the next consumer durable he and the wife fancy. The son asks for more money than he needs in a loan so he can buy golf clubs too, and his wife buys herself a chic handbag with the excess as well. When his father gives up his daughter to marriage it is never considered that this eldest son and his wife may want to move in with his father and look after him, and Hirayama knows to not ask.
So a selfish new generation, a daughter married off for her own good and sad compromise abounds. The key image of An Autumn Afternoon is the drunken father tottering down a road filled with neon gaudy signs, mostly in English, to escape his loneliness for the solace of further drink in an Americanised bar and the memories of his lost wife that he gets from seeing the barmaid. It is further instructive to consider that throughout this final film, the men are drinking or drunk and the usual clean compositions of social gatherings are cluttered by empty bottles at the front of the frame.
This was his final film, and this is also one of Ozu's best. It is an explicit summation of a society moving between old ways and new, and the circle of life changed by the experience of defeat in the war. Ozu's own sympathies may lie with the faithful daughter and the reluctant father who represent traditional values, but he knows that the world around them has changed and that old virtues will not win out in a world of neon bars and all mod cons.
Transfer and Sound
Criterion present the film in their usual slightly window boxed method to help those with bad overscan on their displays. Despite some restoration, the transfer is not always pristine and in fact at the very beginning it seems far from clean and sharp. The image soon improves though and overall this is a remarkably detailed transfer with true colours and confident contrast. There are a couple of moments where minor edge enhancement becomes visible and this will be noticeable on larger displays.
The monaural Japanese track is not entirely free from blemish but it is clear and distortion free if not always impressive in range. The English subtitles are a real boon to those of us used to the old R3 discs and their awkward translations.
Discs and Special Features
This is a single disc release with a 30 page booklet included. The artwork is exquisite as it makes much of the tableaux that Ozu's film uses - the factory and the train station shots appear on the front cover of the disc. The commentary that accompanies the film is from David Bordwell who pitches his fluent remarks at a level that will be useful for those who know the director's other works as well as those new to Ozu. He follows the films themes well and fights reductionist readings of the movie in order to experience the detail and variety of the director.
The disc also contains two trailers which trumpet the film as Shochiku's latest masterpiece and are fully subbed in English. The large extra is almost 15 minutes of excerpts from "Ozu and the taste of sake", an edition of a French TV program that looked at the director. Michel Ciment is interviewed and introduces the director well, explaining his technique of shooting low and avoiding tracking shots. Clips from Ozu films are sequenced with examples of traditional Japanese culture such as scenes of archery and Judo, as the program plays up his "exotic" cachet. To be honest, it all gets terribly pseudish and ripe for parody as chins begin to be stroked in thoughtful fashion by wirey haired academics.
The booklet that is included contains beautiful stills from the film and two essays. Geoff Andrew's A Fond Farewell is a good piece which appreciates this final movie much like I have above, and although he elaborates on the subtleties of the film he has a lower opinion of it than mine. Finally, Donald Richie contributes a piece on Ozu's diaries, where we learn his feelings on other's films such as Naruse's Floating Clouds, a "masterpiece", and learn more about his expulsion from school and his relationship with his mother.
Whenever I am struggling to review a disc for this site, I try to remember DVD editions like this one. Criterion don't overdo the extras but they have served Ozu well on DVD already and this is another fine treatment of a truly beautiful movie.