Scott Nye takes a look at the work of Yasujiro Ozu as the American Cinematheque rolls out a short series of Japanese classics August 24-26, 2017 at the Aero Theatre.
Yasujiro Ozu liked to begin his films with outdoor establishing shots: disassociated from the narrative, but a comfortable way to introduce the feeling of his film. Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon, two of his most acclaimed films, are no exception. Ozu and his stalwart cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta chose two very telling images to kick things off. The black-and-white, 1953 film Tokyo Story begins at the seaside town of Onomichi, some 50 miles away from the city of Hiroshima. Our first glimpse is of the Jodo-ji temple, built in the 14th century and seeming to have survived the ruinous bombings of World War II, a testament to endurance and tradition. An Autumn Afternoon, by contrast, is in booming color. It’s 1962, nearly a decade later, and the national mood in Japan is shifting. We begin not at a seaside temple, but at a modern office and factory, its modernist striped cylinders seemingly constructed and arranged for the purpose of this shot.
In 1953, Japan was only starting to really recover from the effects of the war, and many films produced during the eight years prior (and a couple more to come) reflect the loss and mourning the country experienced as its already-changing national identity was more forcefully altered by the occupying American army, which had finally left only the year before. The other films in the Aero’s series of “Japanese Arthouse Classics” reflect different attitudes of this tumultuous time - sadness, rage, and depression through two by Mizoguchi (The Life of Oharu and potentially his masterpiece, Ugetsu); displacement, deformation, and paranoid anxiety in two by Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another).
For Ozu, the postwar period was an opportunity to explore melancholy and impermanence. Nearly all of Ozu’s films made from 1947’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman (his first postwar film) to Tokyo Story deal implicitly or explicitly with the effects of an absent family member who died in the war. Tokyo Story is about an elderly couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) who travel with their youngest daughter to the capital to visit their eldest son and daughter, both of whom are much too busy with work (he a doctor, she a hairdresser) to spend much quality time with them. Their chief companion is their daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), whose husband - the old couple’s younger son - served in the army and was killed. Work, we deduce, is a vital component of Japanese life, but those who don’t still have ample room for pleasure. When the couple is sent away to a hot spring for their children’s lack of imagination in entertaining them, they’re kept awake by rowdy neighbors.
In contrast, An Autumn Afternoon finds Chishu Ryu (who played one role or another in all but two of Ozu’s fifty-four films) at work. He doesn’t seem to put much priority on his job, but keeps it casually in the way many affluent people his age could expect to in the early 1960s. He enjoys plenty of time for dinner and drinks with his friends and family. We continue to feel the presence of the war - his wife and mother to his three children has passed, but we never find out from what - but it no longer feels like the titanic tragedy it did in Tokyo Story, Late Spring (1949), or Tenement Gentleman. When it finally becomes the subject of conversation after Shuhei (Ryu) runs into a young man who served under him, he modestly insists that it’s a good thing Japan lost. The subject isn’t much further elaborated upon, but the subtext is clear - it’s time to move forward.
Tokyo Story is a film suffused with loss. Its most famous line finds the youngest daughter ask Noriko, “Isn’t life disappointing?” They’re discussing the comparatively modest prospect that children eventually become adults with their own set of priorities that don’t always include their parents to the extent they might have expected at a younger age. The loss of war or a culture isn’t the dominant topic, just that life moves on, and change is inevitable. “Yes, it is,” Noriko plainly replies.
But An Autumn Afternoon takes change not only as a given, but something to welcome. Besides his discussion of the war, Shuhei is facing the prospect of marrying off his 24-year-old daughter. A daughter in need of marrying is such a common subject for Ozu that it’s hardly worth listing the films in which that plot plays a factor. It sums up many of his chief concerns, from family dynamics to impermanence. In Late Spring it’s almost a tragedy. By the time of Equinox Flower (1958), it’s a sign of newfound agency for young women in a changing culture. An Autumn Afternoon doesn’t treat it so monumentally. It accepts it as inevitable, and makes the best of it. No time to mourn the past, and plenty of time to look ahead.
Ozu wouldn’t be able to do so much further, though. An Autumn Afternoon proved to be his final film, and he died late the following year, in the winter season that stood alone as the one he never named a film after. Though a popular director in Japan, his legacy abroad would only be cemented much later. He didn’t show up in the famous decennial Sight & Sound critics’ poll until 1992, when Tokyo Story was ranked number three. It held a place on that list again in 2002 and 2012, when it placed first in the directors’ list, voted there by such filmmakers as Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), Pablo Larraín (Jackie), Mike Leigh (Naked), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Paul Schrader (American Gigolo), and Bela Tarr (Satantango). Today we see Ozu’s influence strongest not only in Japan, through Hirokazu Kore-eda’s family dramas, but also here in America, through Ira Sachs’ contemporary portraits of changing cities and odd family structures (Love is Strange and Little Men, most recently). But if only the real deal will suffice, you can explore Ozu's world for yourself next week at the Aero.
Scott Nye is the editor-at-large at Battleship Pretension and a contributor to CriterionCast. He can regularly be found at Los Angeles's many repertory theaters, or on Twitter @railoftomorrow.