An Autumn Afternoon (1962)
Not that I’m in any way jealous you understand, but the continual drip feed of Cannes announcements, invitations to glittering screenings and exclusive press conferences from certain mailgroups I was recruited to during last year’s Toronto expedition has inspired me to delve your more into arthouse waters back home in sun blushed blighty – doesn’t sound like I’m missing much anyway, right? Any film which is judged as being worse that last years Diana bio-pic which was intergalactically terrible in every possible manner, well, I suspect that a film even more catastrophic would actually suck all the spirited qualities of all the films screening around it on the croisette, like some ravenous celluloid neutron star. But I digress gentle reader, as wishing to milk the dying embers of my career break I naturally turned to the BFI schedule to see what was on offer, and was immediately struck by an opportunity to boost my pretentious credentials with a screening of the newly restored An Autumn Afternoon, serene sensai’s Yasujirō Ozu’s final movie. You may recall that we have broken bread with the great man before with the masterpiece Tokyo Story a few years back, as an enormous fan of Japanese cinema I have seen maybe a dozen of his films on the small screen, but like a stuck record I must always make the case that seeing these films on the big screen as intended is quite a different experience, minus the potential distractions of smartphones, political canvassing callers, or any of the other accruements of modern life.
So in terms of context Yasujirō Ozu is one of the most lauded and appreciated film directors of all time, working almost exclusively for the Shochiku studio between 1927 and 1963 alongside Kenji Mizoguchi and the more Western leaning Akira Kurosawa he is a central strut to any claim of Japan being one of the most accomplished cinema nations of all time. Where the latter was more enamoured with Westerns, with male camaraderie and a moral code operating in socially ambigious frameworks Ozu’s films are more micro level mediations on the individual, gentle fables on family, blood and the ties that bind. Shūhei Hirayama (Ozu favourite Chishu Ryu who appeared in a staggering 52 of his 54 films) is a gentle, soon to retire widower with three children; his 32-year-old married son, Kōichi (Keiji Sada), and his two younger siblings who still reside in the family home – 24-year-old daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) and a 21-year-old son Kazuo (Shin’ichirō Mikami). Kōichi has moved out to live with his spirited wife Akiko (Mariko Okada) and begun his career in the new economic evolution of post war Japan, leaving Hirayama and Kazuo to be looked after by Michiko, the traditional female role being to adopt the domestic duties at this period. Hirayama frequently meets with his school friends for quietly wistful sake soaked reunions where they collectively ruminate on their lives, the activities of their children and what fortunes and hurdles may lie ahead.
What a wonderful, gentle, moving mediation on time’s inexperable march, the bittersweet shift from one generations priorities to the next as the shadows lengthen, as the inevitable creeps up on us all. This is not a stark, existential, Nordic querying on the purpose of life in the severe strain of a Bela Tarr or Bergman however, An Autumn Afternoon as its title suggests is a fading consideration of aging as the seasons move their celestial cycle, brimming with affection and humour as the pathos wrinkles and warps in an auburn glow. It is quite amusing to see just how much booze was consumed in this movie, as legend has it Ozu was a presdigious drinker himself whom would wade through carafe’s of sake during the scripting stage with his screenwriters. I kid you not, if you applied the legendary Withnail & I drinking game to this picture you’d be in hospital before the credits rolled. Almost every scene has the salarymen throwing back the scotch, sake or beer whilst gently ribbing each other and ruminating on their changing lives and loves, I’d forgotten just how amusing Ozu can be when the mood takes him, as it invests his humour as a sharp antidote to any descent into melodrama . In terms of an historical document it’s also quite fascinbating to watch a film with an increasing ‘Westernised’ society following the American occupation still cleaving to its ancient patriarchal structures, with arranged marriage being the cultural norm regardless of class of creed. I’m aware that broadly speaking Japan is still something of a culture in which women are expected to commit to domestic servility at the expense of their career aspirations following marriage, so to see it presented without prejudice or social comment in favour or against back in 1962 marks this as an important social document. There are even some sly observations of the American occupation and the corporate arising of the salaryman culture and the idolisation of commodities, as Koichi’s unconsulted purchase of some expensive second hand golf clubs become a symbol of bourgeois achievement and advancement, another example of a shift in attitude and ideology as one generation eclipses the previous.
Of course we have to touch upon Ozu’s almost unique filming methods, the low centred camera which concentrates material in untraditional spatial schematics (compare and contrast with the usual American & European establishing shot / two shot / reverse shot methodology), the slowly creeping establishing march through exterior space to the intimate interiors of his characters homes and domiciles, the idiosyncratic pillow shot, and most unusually the total violaton of the eye line match (also known as crossing the line) even in this, his last picture after a half century career. This unusual technique, so striking and jarring for Westerners weaned on a diet of Hollywood classical narrative model places the viewer as a sponge in the centre of the scene as two characters converse with each other, instead of the eye line match convention which deflects the passive viewer into a spectator mode, an observer rather than a participant in the films emotional and thematic nucleus. Techniques such as this unconsciously broach identification with the characters and their quiet, still but slowly evolving lives, stimulating unmelodramatic queries on our own lives, through poised and realistic performances from Ryu, Sada, and the rest of Ozu’s perfect troupe. Having seen this before on DVD it was as always a revelation on the big screen, a quiet, gentle, tender comedy with a resigned but not dismally melancholic acceptance of times inexorable passing, Ozu’s final incontrovertible masterpiece;