Ozu Collection Volume 4 Review
The stories and the settings of Yasujiro Ozu’s final three films are familiar ones of the trials and tribulations of family life, but the tone is rather more reflective - a fact that is even evident in the common seasonal titles of the films, Late Autumn (1960), The End of Summer (or Autumn for the Kohayagawa Family) (1961) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Volume 4 of Tartan’s Ozu Collection collects two of those films (the third The End Of Summer is already available on DVD from Artificial Eye). While the themes, the characters and the storylines are familiar from earlier films, Ozu nevertheless tweaks situations here and there, makes subtle changes of tone and emphasis and in doing so brings his remarkable depictions of human love, friendship and interaction to the screen with ever more precision and awareness.
Late Autumn (1960)
Opening with a memorial service and ending with a wedding, two occasions that bring families together, Late Autumn is clearly in recognisable Ozu territory. What happens in between may also sound familiar, but Ozu’s lightness of touch plays out the situation and a fair amount of humour that fully opens up the situation and its underlying attitudes with remarkable precision and insight.
Much of the humour in Late Autumn comes from the hopelessly bungling efforts by three friends to make wedding arrangements for Ayako (Yôko Tsukasa), the daughter of an old colleague Miwa, whose memorial service they attend at the start of the film. Although they think they have found a suitable candidate for Ayako in Goto (Keiji Sada), the young girl seems reluctant to commit to marriage. The three men come to the conclusion that it will be easier to persuade the daughter to marry if they also can arrange a match for the mother. All of the men are in love with Miwa’s widow Akiko (Setsuko Hara), but since Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura) and Mamiya (Shin Saburi) are married, they nominate the widower Hiriyama (Ryuji Kita) as the lucky man to be a match for Akiko. They neglect however to mention their plans to Akiko herself, which inevitably causes a more than a few problems.
The principal theme of Late Autumn is one that goes right back to Ozu’s Late Spring in 1949 (also co-scripted by Kogo Noda), where a young woman, played by Setsuko Hara, is unable to contemplate a marriage that will separate her from her widower father. The theme is even recycled in Ozu’s subsequent film The End Of Summer, again using the same actresses Setsuko Hara and Yôko Tsukasa as a widow and young unmarried woman, only this time as sisters and in a much more sombre context. Essentially, in all these films, it’s about the continuation of the cycle of life - older people finding an accommodation with the past and allowing the youth to break free and find their own way in the world. There is nothing here quite like the revelatory Noh theatre scene in Late Spring (there isn’t in anything like it in any other Ozu film), and although the light humorous approach can make the film seem not quite as sincere as the earlier masterpiece, Late Autumn is nonetheless equally worthy of being considered as one of Ozu’s best films.
The first thing that will strike the viewer is the beauty of the compositions. Shot in vivid Agfacolour, the sets meticulously decorated and the actors dressed in both traditional and modern 1960’s costumes, Late Autumn truly is one of the most beautiful-looking films ever made, ranking up there with In The Mood For Love (which surely must have referenced this film for its period settings of corridors and green-tinted restaurants). Quite literally every single scene in the film is perfectly composed and framed, the figures occupying space in perfect harmony and balance with the geometry and colour of their surroundings, the focus often drawn to the customary splash of red (a vase, a jar, a pen, even a fire extinguisher), deliberately placed somewhere in the frame. More than just being designed to be aesthetically pleasing, the sense of balance extends to the characters, whose contrasting and complementary behaviour encompasses everything Ozu wishes to convey about the natural rhythms and harmony of life, family and human interaction.
The story is likewise perfectly structured and balanced in terms of light and shade. Opening with a memorial service and closing with a wedding, it sets out with old men settled into their own family life, looking back on the past and their old love affairs, it reaches a centre in the happy-turning-to-conflicting relationship between a widowed mother and her daughter, and then moves on to show the youth standing up for themselves and taking their own direction with their lives. With a typically bittersweet Ozu touch however, the memorial scene is played for laughs while there is an air of melancholy surrounding the wedding. Structurally perfect, thematically perfect and compositionally perfect, Ozu draws all these elements together as only a master filmmaker can. More than just a technical achievement however, Ozu brings his magic to this impeccable setting, working some indefinable alchemy through his actors and the dialogue, bringing in the essential human element and weaving past and present, hopes and regrets, drama, conflict and humour to present a beautifully balanced overview of everything that life is about.
An Autumn Afternoon (1962)
Yasujiro Ozu died in 1963 on his 60th birthday, making An Autumn Afternoon his last film. Like the previous year’s The End Of Summer, it seems to sum up a lot of Ozu’s recurrent themes in an appropriately all-encompassing way - looking back on the past with fondness and mixed feelings, being concerned about the world that has been left for the younger generation, while at the same time being full of life, sentiment and humour. It’s not quite as formally and structurally brilliant as Late Autumn, but it still flows with ease between each of these recognisable themes and situations, showing how lives can be interconnected and interdependent, moving, progressing, developing and ever-changing, deepening in meaning with the weight of memories and the challenges of the future.
The film centres around the Hirayama family. The father Shuhei (Chishu Ryu) is a widower living with his son Kazuo (Shinichirô Mikami) and his daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita). Michiko is 24 years old, an age where, according to Hirayama’s old school friends, she ought to be looking for a husband. Michiko however has not considered leaving her father so soon, concerned about how he and her brother will manage for themselves. Hirayama’s other son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), is married to Akiko (Mariko Okada). Like the other males in his family, he seems to be untroubled by the realities of the world, looking to buy a set of expensive second-hand golf clubs that he cannot afford, while his wife is crying out for a new fridge.
When the old school friends gather for a reunion, they are reacquainted with an old schoolteacher of theirs known as the Gourd (Eijirô Tono). A man they once respected, the elderly gentleman now works in a noodle shop, drinks heavily and is largely dependent on his unmarried daughter who lives with him. The situation strikes Hirayama with fear for his own daughter being placed in a similar position – he is seen throughout the film increasingly turning to drink himself - and he is determined to see that Michiko should be married as soon as possible.
A simple description of the domestic situations of the film doesn’t really seem to distinguish An Autumn Afternoon from other Ozu films, but evidently a mere recounting of the plot doesn’t do the film justice. There are many more threads, characters, themes and ideas running through the film, all of them fully developed - even if they seem merely incidental and inconsequential – expanding on ideas touched on elsewhere in Ozu’s work. The growing dependence on Western values and domestic appliances – so memorably evoked in Good Morning - can be seen here to be taking on a greater importance in the lives of the Japanese married couples. Taking this further however, the relationship between Koichi and Akiko for example shows a subtle reversal of traditional roles, the wife being the clear-headed, practical minded one, better equipped to deal with the challenges of this new life, her husband even shown at home washing dishes. I don’t believe there is anything like that in any other Ozu film.
While the younger generation embrace change and progress, the older generation are seen to be struggling to understand their place in this new world. There are some greatly affecting scenes of old men getting very drunk – and very funny ones too it must be said – reminiscing in bars about the war years where everything changed, uncertain whether it was for the good of everyone or not. For Hirayama, the realisation comes that, in the end, one is alone in life. It’s a sobering realisation – quite literally – and all the more forceful for it coming in Ozu’s final film. The knowledge that Ozu was a heavy drinker himself (he and co-writer Kogo Noda would consume 100 bottles of sake between them during the month long writing of each of their scripts), a man who never married or really experienced the family life he depicted so insightfully in his films, only makes the inevitable way forward for Hirayama in An Autumn Afternoon almost unbearably sad, yet heart-warmingly humane. And, well, isn’t that just Yasujiro Ozu?
Ozu Volume 4 is released in the UK by Tartan. The two films in this set are each presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and are encoded for Region 2.
The picture quality on Late Autumn, aided as it is by the wonderful compositions and the glorious Agfacolour tones, is simply stunning. Undoubtedly carefully restored, there is not a mark or scratch on the print. The colour reproduction is excellent, with a characteristic slightly greenish tint. There is some minor fluctuation in the colour tones, but this would be expected with this colour process. Unlike some of the earlier Ozu Collection sets, it appears to be properly mastered as a native PAL transfer and not standards converted. Consequently there is wonderful clarity and detail evident throughout this beautifully toned and coloured film.
The quality on An Autumn Afternoon is not as good as on the earlier film, the colours not quite as vivid, the tones a little bit duller, the clarity not as striking and tending towards a softer image. It’s still very faithful to the colour schemes however and again shows very few signs of print damage, although there are one or two problems in early scenes of the film where there is a slight deterioration in the print quality. This is minor however when considered against how well the remainder of the film looks. Unfortunately, An Autumn Afternoon doesn’t appear to have been as well transferred to a PAL master, with the image noticeably jerking and soft juddering throughout. There is however not a great deal of movement in Ozu’s typically static compositions, so this doesn’t present the kind of problems it otherwise might.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio track on Late Autumn is relatively good. Dialogue is clearly audible throughout and there is little problem with background noises, though some strain and a mild underlying tinny echo can be heard.
An Autumn Afternoon is also presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and is impressively clear throughout, with no background noise and no signs of distortion anywhere on the track. The music score in particular benefits from the warm tones of the remastered soundtrack.
English subtitles are available for both films in a white, appropriately-sized font and are optional.
The only extra feature on Late Autumn is the original Japanese Trailer (2:09). The original Trailer (1:59) on An Autumn Afternoon is however notable for a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of Ozu directing on the set of his final film.
Two of the great Japanese master’s final films, the themes and situations of family life depicted in Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon are quite similar to other Ozu films, but they have their own subtle differences and unique character. Ozu’s insightful glimpses into family life and human interactions are particularly brilliant here - the stunningly composed, meticulously structured and vividly coloured images reflecting all the little dramas and intricacies of life itself. I cannot think of any other film director who has made so many unqualified masterpieces as Yasujiro Ozu, and two of them are included here in The Ozu Collection Volume 4. Tartan’s presentation of these films has improved greatly from the earliest volumes in the collection, and while some minor issues remain, it’s particularly gratifying to see these exceptionally beautiful final colour films transferred so handsomely to DVD.