An Autumn Afternoon (1962) by Yasujiro Ozu
Few filmmakers have captured raw family dynamics in motion as wonderfully as Yasujiro Ozu. Throughout his career, he established himself as a simplistic yet superb storyteller with an appealing aesthetic style while capturing the societal climate of Japan at the time. Over the last few years of its career, with the shift from black and white to color, Ozu mostly reinvented its previous features, some remade directly. The most obvious example is his gem “Floating Weeds”, a remake of his previous work “A Story of Floating Weeds”. Yet even with the reintegration of familiar elements into his later projects, he still added unique aspects to them while making these films stand out on their own merits. As a perfect example, familiarity and freshness are present in his beautiful swan song “An Autumn Afternoon”.
This would be Yasujiro Ozu’s last film to be released in late 1962. A year later, he died on December 12, 1963. Fittingly, his last project would be with Shochiku, the studio he frequently worked with and who distributed his footage. for most of the visionary’s career. “An Autumn Afternoon” upon its release was a critical and financial success. It is considered one of his best films and a masterpiece of Japanese cinema.
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Society in Japan is continually modernizing, with a major emphasis on industrialization and business materialism. An aging widower named Shuhei Hirayama works as a wage earner and stays close to his adult children. His eldest son, Koichi, is married and lives independently, but keeps in touch with his father. Shuhei’s daughter, Michiko, who still lives with Shuhei, is stubborn and takes care of him and her younger brother Kazuo. However, cultural traditions become important in their lives. With Michiko being 24 years old and single, the Hirayama family friends are under a lot of pressure for her to gain independence from the family home and get married.
Thanks to Yasujiro Ozu’s excellent direction and a stellar screenplay written by him and Kogo Noda, it all just clicks together. The film presents a rather human look at love, compassion and sacrifice, while examining daily life. The characters are compelling to follow as they reflect on their lives as society has modernized since the post-war years faster than they can imagine. Moreover, they don’t always get what they want and always end up making decisions that, perhaps for the best, come with a sense of loss. The bond between Shuhei and his daughter Michiko is strong, but he doesn’t want to burden her and realizes it’s time to let go. Her fears about her future are even on public display with the lead role’s former teacher, Sakuma, nicknamed the Gourd, whose reliance on her daughter has confined her to a sad, lonely life.
The drama is moving and brilliantly executed. The ending is sure to leave audiences with grief. Many issues are covered in the film, especially regarding the country at the time. Different generations interact with each other, showcasing the different mentalities of the time while showing the customs that remain intact in Japanese culture. There are mentions of World War II that are almost nostalgic, considering how much Japan has changed since then and even wondering what would have happened if they were victorious. Yet there is no nationalist glorification, but rather a reflection. It is fortunate that these difficult times are over and that the country does not repeat the mistakes of the past, even taking a swipe at the militarists.
The story is grounded in realism, focusing on people going about their daily lives to even out the conversations between them. Koichi’s wife, Akiko, tries to fix the dysfunctions in their marriage, such as her husband’s constant financial difficulties and reckless behavior. Machiko is presented as stubborn and independent, practically being the head of the family and open to the idea of marriage but caring about the future of her aging father and naïve younger brother. The idea of an arranged marriage is considered a gateway to happiness. Yet, it is still recognized that this may not be the case, as personal connection and compatibility make things work. Shuhei wants her to be happy and also accepts how much she will miss her daughter as her life is still beginning when her days may potentially be numbered. Ozu presents it all with a meditative look at human behavior.
The cast of “An Autumn Afternoon” delivers a stellar job here. Ozu regular Chishu Ryu plays the role of Shuhei Hirayama and does a great job. Audiences feel the bond of love Shuhei shares with his children and the emotional pain of finally letting his daughter go and, in turn, living the last years of his own life in solitude. Playing Shuhei’s eldest daughter, Michiko, is Shima Iwashita, who is fantastic and brings a charming sympathy to her character. On the one hand, it’s nice to see her finally maintain her independence, but there’s a sadness to see that it doesn’t go exactly as desired and to see her say goodbye to her father. Both leads are equally well-acted, with Keiji Sada as Koichi being a realistic reflection of independent struggles while Shinichiro Mikami as Kazuo perfectly captures a naïve youngster who has just entered adulthood but isn’t ready. to leave the nest. Mariko Okada is very entertaining as Akiko, with the scenes she shares with Shada being quite memorable. A few other notable roles come from Eijiro Tono, who is entertaining as Sakuma “The Gourd”, and his daughter, played wonderfully by Haruko Sugimura, who brings a sense of sadness to her relationship with her father. Everyone’s acting in the film is wonderful.
By this point, Ozu had established his exceptional use of color combined with his usual beautiful static camera work. “An Autumn Afternoon” is no exception as it is visually delightful with a rich aesthetic and superb shot composition from cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta. Moviegoers can also appreciate the visible posters of Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece “Harakiri” being featured in one shot, ironically another Shochiku project released in 1962 and one that featured Shima Iwashita in a leading role. Takanobu Saito composed a beautiful musical score for the feature film, which notably composed the soundtracks for some of the director’s most popular works, including “Tokyo Story” and “Floating Weeds.”
“An Autumn Afternoon” is a brilliant film and a touching farewell from legendary filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. It’s almost as if the film is like a personal goodbye from the director himself to his audience while delivering another gripping story. A fine career as a director is coming to an end. Bittersweet in a way, it feels like a classic chapter of Japanese cinema is coming to an end, giving way to a new era. That said, what a great release.