I have a confession to make: I’ve never quite gotten along with Yasujirō Ozu. I’ve tried many of his classics. I have seen Tokyo Story three-and-a-half times (I gave up halfway through my most recent attempt) and Late Spring twice to name a couple of examples. How ironic it is, then, that it is Ozu’s final film before he died, An Autumn Afternoon, that would ignite in me an appreciation for one of cinema’s most revered directors. Specifically his series of colour films starting in the late ‘50s.
Shuhei Hirayama (Chishû Ryû) is a widower with a 24-year-old daughter who he lives with. Since his wife’s passing he has come to rely on her for everything, but most importantly for company. After an evening drinking with friends and an old teacher who has lived a life dangerously similar in trajectory to Hirayama, his former teacher laments that his daughter, now too old to marry, will be left alone once he has died. He entreats Hirayama to find a husband for his own child before it is too late.
Ozu films are simply told affairs. The Japanese director often explored and revisited the same themes (in An Autumn Afternoon’s case: modernity vs tradition; loneliness, family) and it is a credit to the Japanese director that his later colour films – essentially remakes of his older black-and-white creations – feel so distinct. Remarkable, actually, considering the modesty of Ozu’s direction.
As with almost all of his sound films, the camera never moves during An Autumn Afternoon. The camera sits close to the ground (tatami shot) observing the characters that occupy the frame. This distant style makes the characters feel like real people who have lived long before Ozu’s camera ever pointed in their direction – frequently operating outside of Ozu’s meticulous framing as shots tend to linger for several seconds with no one on screen.
Needless to say, if a camera is going to remain perfectly still for each scene, the picture staring back at you better be something special. It is. They are. Ozu may be the greatest exponent of colour cinematography I have ever witnessed. The inescapable thought that runs through my mind when I look at the images in Ozu’s later films is that they could only have been conceived by a genius.
Ozu utlises Agfacolor to create rich visual paintings. He especially makes use of red, planting it throughout scenes – in the form of clothes, walls, bottles, tables, his trademark red kettle, anything – to lead the eye deftly from foreground to background. The result gives every scene a tremendous amount of depth and texture. It’s a method of filmmaking so simple and yet so distinctly Ozu; you could genuinely identify a film of his from just a single frame.
This reserved shooting style also means that Ozu’s films are never melodramatic. This is encapsulated by Chishû Ryû’s performance as the disillusioned widower. His sadness about giving his daughter away isn’t employed for emotional manipulation. Hirayama never shouts or gesticulates in an overly dramatic monologue – everything is handled with dignity and grace. In fact, the actual wedding is missed out in the film entirely. Ozu has no interest in trying to pluck anyone’s heart strings but he still does. An Autumn Afternoon’s final image – Ozu’s final ever image to the medium – devastated me. Eventually, we all find ourselves alone.
Everything I’ve written has been laced with a tinge of bashfulness. With his films tackling similar issues, and An Autumn Afternoon being a remake of an earlier one I didn’t really enjoy (Late Spring), it seems that one of the major clinchers is the injection of colour. Perhaps I am more shallow than I realised. An Autumn Afternoon has certainly encouraged me to go back and give Tokyo Story another attempt some day.
But it doesn’t matter how you get there as long you do in the end, I suppose. An Autumn Afternoon is a gentle, humanistic masterpiece achieved with an economy that is almost overwhelming in its beauty. Ozu’s films are the kind you watch after a long, difficult, loud day surrounded by large volumes of people. An Autumn Afternoon is something to be watched in solitude – a cinematic haiku for the soul.
When I let Yasujirō Ozu’s style and vision wash over me, in those brief moments, it is hard to imagine how cinema could be done any other way. (9)