The loveliest, most humane comedy of the 1960s, Late Autumn (Akibiyori) is one of Yasujiro Ozu’s late masterpieces. A meditation on family matters, human existence and human acceptance, it’s a gentle film that yet manages to be nearly as funny as Jacques Tati at his best (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, 1952; Playtime, 1967). Like Floating Weeds (Ukigusa, 1959), it’s in color, but that shouldn’t keep any but the most dire purists away, for the warm colors that Ozu and his cinematographer, Yuuharu Atsuta, have devised help deepen the film’s humor to something bittersweet, poignant, indelible.* The beautiful script, based on a novel by Ton Satomi, is by Ozu and longtime screenwriting partner and drinking buddy Kôgo Noda.
The film most resembles Late Spring (Banshun, 1949), but with a twist. In Late Autumn it isn’t a widowed father who courts greater loneliness by seeing a daughter through to her wedding; it’s a widowed mother. While in Late Spring the widowed professor feigns his own upcoming marriage in order to release his daughter from a sense of obligation to him so that she may freely fulfill her own happiness, in Late Autumn two former friends of the widow’s spouse concoct a rumor of this teacher’s upcoming marriage to smooth the daughter’s path to her own wedding. In both cases, the widower or widow chooses his or her solitariness, rejecting suitors, as a means of keeping faith with the past and embracing the natural course of life. “That’s the way life is”—a summation of the Ozu spirit—is a recurrent line of dialogue in Late Autumn and, in different wordings, in numerous Ozu films.
But Late Spring is a tragicomedy—in the viewing, an almost intolerably moving thing. On the other hand, Late Autumn is closer to being a full-fledged comedy. A trio of characters, businessmen, constitutes its principal source of humor (in addition to the often hilarious repartee back-and-forth among them). The two gentlemen noted earlier, both married, are actually part of a socializing threesome, the other member of which, a widower, becomes the rumored future spouse for Akika Miwa, the film’s protagonist. There are a number of problems to this situation. The widower, sincere in his romantic interest, believes that the other two are actually approaching Akika with his suit, which they are not doing. Nor does Akika herself have any interest in the suit once she learns about it from her enraged daughter, Ayako, who, informed about it and believing it, turns against her mother, thus threatening the friendship between them that has deepened their bond since the death seven years ago of their husband and father. All misunderstandings, though, are dismissed once the three meddlers are brought to account by Ayako’s friend at work, Yukiko. All’s well that ends well, and, like a Shakespearean comedy, this one ends in marriage—between Ayako and the meddlers’ hand-picked groom, Goto, who is as handsome as she is Audrey Hepburnishly beautiful. But the film ends on an exquisite, sad note: Akika, now alone, in the evening, in the apartment that she had shared with her 24-year-old daughter.
That’s not the only sadness dealt us; for, also as in a Shakespearean comedy, the marital match doesn’t resolve itself into an image of bliss. The couple’s dour posing for a wedding photograph implies a mother’s loving sacrifice for what will prove her daughter’s unhappy union. Indeed, marriage doesn’t fare well in this film in any quarters that we see. Soichi Mamiya and Shuzo Taguchi, the two married meddlers, are entrenched in seemingly passionless unions that make their frequent get-togethers, along with their widowed companion, the high point of their day, in addition to their conspiratorial machinations. It is more than hinted, in fact, that they all loved Akika in their youth and recall the departed Miwa as having “snatched” her away from them. One of them has a young married daughter who, intent on teaching her spouse a lesson, routinely returns home alone, suitcase in hand, for a week or so. To be sure, by all accounts, including her own, Akika was happily married; but, of course, a spousal death can cast a backward glow on a marriage the experience of which fell considerably short of its subsequent idealization. People are perpetually pressuring others to marry in Ozu films, but Ozu himself never even had a wife to whom, had he died before she, he might have left his second-best bed.
Ozu is most of all concerned with the comedy of life. “Life is simple,” one of the characters at one point notes; “It’s people that make it complicated.”** And so we do, at times out of loneliness or a sense of aimlessness, and, of course, because of the cloud of mortal awareness driftily shadowing us. Ozu’s cinema is a cinema of transience—of stable life fluctuating, sometimes seemingly evaporating, in mortal breezes. Throughout Late Autumn, as throughout other Ozu films, there are momentary intervals (inserted between scenes) of people walking—for instance, as glimpsed on the street by the camera through alleyways. In no earlier Ozu film, though, has Ozu and his cutter so flawlessly, hauntingly extended the evanescent quality of these moments by match-editing consecutive ambulatory movements of different characters, either from indoors to out (or vice versa) or from one indoor spot to another. Thus, a silent formal device frees thematic import that is wedded to a store of heartache as we, the viewer, brush along the side of our sense of life’s transient nature, our own mortality.
Another technique that Ozu employs throughout this film has the same thematic purpose and carries the same profound emotion. Intimate conversations between two characters are presented as each in turn, back and forth, looks directly into the camera. This makes the character who is being addressed briefly evaporate from view, and the cumulative effect is to conjure the most delicate and aching sense of transience imaginable. (Here, again, the contribution of Ozu’s cutter, Yoshiyasu Hamamura, is extraordinary.) Indeed, Ozu’s typically low-hung camera, in addition to being visually pitched to Japanese seating arrangements, provides a persistent mortal chord from the vantage of the hinted earth below and (though some may find this farfetched) may even in some sense suggest the two departed spouses. Life goes on in an Ozu film, but life there is also constantly going away. If Shelley is the English poet of evanescence, and Dickinson the American one, Ozu is cinema’s poet of evanescence.***
In Late Spring, the daughter was played by Setsuko Hara, who, at forty, plays Akika, the mother, in Late Autumn. This brilliant actress contributes her most mature, complex, and subtly inflected acting here, and only Monica Vitti’s performance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura keeps me from naming her 1960’s best film actress. Let me say, too, Hara looks good enough to justify all the remarks in the film about how beautiful Akika still is. All the acting in the film is fine, although Shin Saburi warrants especial praise for his very funny role as Mamiya. Chishu Ryu, who gave one of cinema’s greatest performances as the father in Late Spring, appears briefly as Akika’s brother-in-law and Ayako’s uncle in Late Autumn.
Akika, Soichi, and so forth: these are middle-aged characters, not old ones; why late autumn in the title then? (Wouldn’t early autumn, or just autumn, be more apt?) Everything human in Ozu’s world is being gently pressed toward life’s end. In Late Spring the bride was, I believe, still in her twenties.
I always feel a tad older myself, and sadder and wiser, when I see a great Ozu film like Late Autumn. That’s the way, after all, life is.
* Atsula was the black-and-white cinematographer of some of Ozu’s greatest works: Late Spring, Early Summer (Bakushû, 1951), The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (Ochazuke no aji, 1952) and Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953).
** Is it possible that Ozu had seen Hollywood’s Easter Parade (1948) and recalled the bartender’s remark on the subject of education? Charles Walters’ film, a huge hit, coincided with the postwar U.S. occupation of Japan.
*** We U.S. Americans have our own cinematic poet of evanescence: Jon Jost. See my piece on Oui non elsewhere on this site. Better still: See Oui non (2002).
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