An Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, 1962) dir. Ozu Yasujirō
“Down in the valley it is already spring
Clouds of cherry blossoms;
But here, the sluggish eye, the taste of mackerel—
The blossoms are melancholy
And the flavor of sake becomes bitter”
These words wrote Ozu Yasujirō in 1962, during the making of what would be his last film, after the death of his mother Asae. Too much bitterness for the loss of the most important person in his life, with whom he had shared a special, unique and complicit relationship.
He did not yet know that he would reach her soon, just a year later, but watching An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji) it seems that the Japanese director had already guessed something.
No Country for Old Men
It’s no mystery, Ozu’s favorite subjects for his films have always been family ties and nostalgia for the past. His last film is no exception, in this all the limits and contradictions of that uncontrollable process of modernization that hit Japan since the post-war period are clearly felt.
While the elderly reflect on the meaning of life, young people have other concerns.
The modernization process changes urban and rural geographies.
The opening of the film sees as protagonists the industrial buildings of the metropolitan suburbs with their characteristic chimneys, more than once used by Ozu also in his previous films to underline the imposing pace of this industrial development and the consequent change in the family balance in the Modern Japan.
The city dictates its hectic times and imposes new lifestyles on the new generations in which the tension towards the satisfaction of their material needs prevails.
The father of the bride
In this ever-changing environment, the elder Shūhei lives with his teenage son Kazuo and his daughter Michiko, already of marriageable age for some time, but held under the paternal roof for the premature death of her mother.
Also urged by his colleagues and friends, Shūhei is convinced that he has to find a partner for his daughter. Initially reluctant to accept this idea, she will agree to marry the candidate proposed by her father, who, however, once things are done, experiences his own inner conflict between happiness for his daughter and bitterness for himself.
In his previous film Good Morning (Ohayō, 1959) two young brothers rebelled against their parents because they did not want to buy them a television. The father had a very precise idea of the effects that this means of communication could have on people. But the boys, determined to get their way, start a very special strike and refuse to speak.
In An Autumn Afternoon Shūhei’s eldest son, married to the insightful Akiko, somehow remembers the two brothers of Good Morning. Although he is already an adult, like a mischievous child, he stings his wife because he is determined to buy an expensive set of golf clubs. In the end he will convince the woman, with the promise of letting her buy something she desire too.
One of the hallmarks of Ozu’s cinema is irony, especially when it comes to dealing with delicate issues that affect politics and social order.
Ozu on the other hand said it clearly on his return from the war: “You cannot face war with a negative spirit. We must have courage. There must be hope for tomorrow ”.
Therefore, if for Ozu it is necessary to accept everything with a positive spirit, then the considerations that he let the characters pronounce in his films often become real mottos of the genre, concise statements that reflect his thoughts in a clear and direct way.
Always reluctant to change, Ozu struggled a little to accept the advent of sound and color films but once he discovered their potential, he was able to take full advantage of their power of expression. For his color films Ozu chose Agfacolor film, preferring it to other well-known brands such as Kodak because, in his words, “red turns out magnificently on Agfa film”.
And red is one of the colors that Ozu likes to include the most in his latest films.
Through the repeated insertion of objects and materials of this color, the director seems to want to emphasize the unpredictability of life.
Image, Time, Inserts
As in the famous sequence of the vase in Late Spring (Banshun, 1949), also in this case Ozu uses one of his so-called inserts to underline a moment of high emotional intensity.
The shot of an inanimate object between two scenes in which the characters become aware of the fact that they are facing a turning point, a change with which they will have to deal from then on, gives shape to the feeling, makes it tangible and at the same time it suggests the idea of the flow of things even in their immobility.
Time and Space
“Even though my films all seem to be the same, I always try to express something new” said Ozu.
Themes, situations, shots, recur continuously in Ozu’s cinema, even within the same film, as is evident in these images, but if we go deeper we will also notice their small variations.
Difference in uniformity as in everyday life, where small daily gestures seem to repeat themselves endlessly in a monotonous existence because we don’t have time to stop and reflect on what we are really doing, on what we are really feeling.
The Long Goodbye
Ryū Chishū’s last look with tears in his eyes, the last look at Ozu and at his cinema.
With this film, our tofu seller takes, humble, obstinate, prodigal, tireless in his search for what lies at the bottom of all things and in his desire to pass it on to the viewer, says goodbye; a director capable of formulating a perfect synthesis of the infinite visions that reality can offer, of filming, like no other, the harmonious beauty of a lotus flower in the mud.