Yasujiro Ozu died in 1963, on his 60th birthday. Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon) was his last film, made with his co-writer, Kogo Noda, and his star, Chishu Ryu, who had been his collaborators for decades, dating back to the silent era. Although Ozu was apparently unaware of his terminal cancer during production, the death of his mother, with whom he lived, no doubt shaded and made more somber the film’s central concept: that ultimately we are all alone. The film has laterally taken on an aura of summing up, a consolidation of his themes, values, and style. There is, of course, great continuity of all these ingredients from to film to film throughout Ozu’s career. Donald Richie, his champion and biographer, points to the similarity in the director’s titles (Early Spring, Late Spring, Early Summer, Late Autumn, An Autumn Afternoon) and suggests that this reflects Ozu’s fixation, from slightly different perspectives, on his singular subject, the Japanese family. Or, as Ozu himself put it, “I am strictly a tofu-dealer.”
Because of his obsession with the family, the director’s focus was on character, and he confessed to being bored with plot. Thus, in contrast with Kenji Mizoguchi’s visual spectacles and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, it was only with some trepidation that Ozu’s films were finally released to the West. Indeed, some audiences have found the films too mundane—perhaps even some of you in attendance on this autumn afternoon. Richie has described Ozu’s methodology as “heightened realism,” and although the director was there decades earlier, Ozu’s films perhaps anticipated Italian Neorealism and the British social realists. Although Japan (and Ozu himself) has long been drawn to American culture, Japanese audiences clearly did respond to his films in ways that American masses conditioned to cowboys, Hollywood glitz, and today’s blockbusters never would.
There is so much gentility in Yasujiro Ozu, as reflected in his movies, that I cannot quite wrap my mind around the fact that he was an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army in China and later in Singapore, for which he was imprisoned by the British. (Similarly, I have been struck by the depiction of the Japanese in most American war films, as contrasted with my visits to Japan and my many Japanese friends.) Nonetheless, Ozu makes light of that history in An Autumn Afternoon, having a drunken Ryu, a naval veteran, sing a tribute to his old “floating fortress,” and lamentably reminisce with fellow veterans in a bar about their disappointed plans to win the war and conquer New York. Indeed, humor is crucial to Ozu’s films. He lightens his serious scenes of characters discussing their problems—the camera tilting up from the tatami mats on which they are usually stoically seated (there are no camera movements)—with comic interludes ranging from scatology to farting, and with beautifully composed still-life codas on objects like bottles, smokestacks, and other detritus of modernity, accompanied by upbeat music. Still, ultimately, as critic David Bordwell has suggested, there is about Ozu’s best films, including An Autumn Afternoon, “a melancholy resignation…a recognition of a cycle of nature that society can never control.” The world is ever-changing, children leave their parents, and even good people die.
Ozu’s death, tragic as it was, seems almost appropriate. The Golden Age of Japanese cinema was coming to an end, concurrent with the death-knell of the Hollywood studio system. Mizoguchi had died in 1956, and although Kurosawa continued for decades, he increasingly struggled—and even attempted suicide. As one critic put it, An Autumn Afternoon “seems the perfect final film for Ozu.” The director’s diary entry after he returned from his mother’s funeral reads, “Like torn rags, the cherry blossoms display a forlorn expression—sake tastes bitter as gall.”